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Remembering Ukrainian novelist Victoria Amelina, killed by a Russian missile

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Not all warriors defend their country with guns and tanks. One young novelist in Ukraine did so armed with her pen and notebook. She had spent more than a year documenting alleged Russian atrocities until she was killed in one herself. NPR's Joanna Kakissis has her story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Earlier this week, mourners lined the streets of the western city of Lviv, kneeling as a funeral procession slowly drove by. It's a sign of respect usually reserved for the military. Many local soldiers have died on the frontline. But this time, the coffin held one of Ukraine's most promising writers, 37-year-old Victoria Amelina.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: We had just seen each other a few weeks before at a seafood restaurant in Kyiv.

VICTORIA AMELINA: Yes, this is just about 300 meters from my apartment building in Kyiv.

KAKISSIS: Amelina had just returned from eastern Ukraine, her favorite place. She had co-founded a literary festival in a small village there. It is now close to the frontline and has been repeatedly bombed by the Russians.

AMELINA: We still have plans to resume the festival after the victory. And we will do it, I mean, despite the fact that the main location was ruined and the library there was ruined before in March 2022. So, well, we'll just do it open-air, I guess.

KAKISSIS: And though she said she was tired from the long trip, she had her laptop with her. She always did. She used to be a computer programmer, and her friends liked to joke that she was way too efficient for a novelist. She had written acclaimed novels, children's stories, poems. Now, she said, she was working on a new kind of book.

AMELINA: It's more like a diary, but it's not only my diary but a diary of about a dozen women, including myself, pursuing justice.

KAKISSIS: She had just finished months of work as a war crimes researcher, interviewing the victims of atrocities in areas recently liberated from the Russians.

AMELINA: You know, like, for novelists, there's a rule. Show, don't tell. That's what they teach at the creative writing courses. And in war crimes research, you also have to understand what the person saw, what the person heard, what the person felt like.

KAKISSIS: But she found that understanding their experience was hard because their stories were out of order, like pages reshuffled in a book, from the trauma.

AMELINA: And so in this case, I can ask questions about the weather or what they were wearing at the time of the event. And this helps them to remember.

KAKISSIS: The cases that most consumed her involved a fellow writer, the children's author Volodymyr Vakulenko. He lived in the northeastern village of Kapytolivka. Russian forces occupied it for months. They abducted and killed him. Before he disappeared, he told his father that he'd written a diary of the first month of the occupation and buried it in his backyard.

AMELINA: Well, I couldn't believe what just happened because, you know, writers having to bury their diaries in their gardens and being abducted and killed - this all should be in novels and movies now. It shouldn't be reality. But it is our reality, and this is devastating.

KAKISSIS: Amelina says they dug and dug for hours.

AMELINA: The moment when I thought that we wouldn't be able to find this diary perhaps still is the scariest moment for me.

KAKISSIS: They eventually found the diary under a cherry tree wrapped in plastic bags. And thanks to Amelina, the diary is set to be published soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAVEL CRUNCHING)

KAKISSIS: In late May, we traveled together to Kapytolivka. Vakulenko had posthumously received a prestigious literary award. Amelina accepted it on his behalf and wanted to personally deliver it to his parents.

OLENA IHNATENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Vakulenko's mother, Olena Ihnatenko, said she'd wished her son was here to see this.

AMELINA: Every time, of course, when they talk about their son, they are crying again. No words can substitute.

KAKISSIS: Amelina returned to Kapytolivka for the last time late last month with Colombian writer Hector Abad and journalist Catalina Gomez. The next day, they stopped for pizza in the eastern city of Kramatorsk. Fifteen minutes later, a Russian missile smashed into the restaurant. Gomez recalled that when the dust cleared, Amelina was still in her chair.

CATALINA GOMEZ: We saw her, but she was not moving. I shout her name many times in order to see if she react.

KAKISSIS: She never woke up. Victoria Amelina died on July 1. That missile claimed 12 other lives.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: At her gravesite on Wednesday, her friends sang verses from her favorite poet about trying to find light in a graveyard of souls. Victoria Amelina carried the light for a dead Ukrainian writer's legacy. Her grieving friends and family are now tasked with doing the same for her. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Lviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
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