"The death of my friends was a painful experience." Teenagers tell their stories about life under Russian occupation

With the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Donetsk began to be cleared of locals. Instead, many Russian officers and their families arrived. They had money; they spent money like water. Prices rose sharply, the locals began to live noticeably worse. There was a feeling that you were simply not needed in your native land. Illustration by Inga Levi

16-year-old Vitalii, who survived the occupation in Kherson region, notes that he is not making any plans and has no special dreams. Because tomorrow may not come. He realized this in the pit with pig entrails, in which the Russians threw him. 18-year-old Anna lived in the occupation for 10 years and learned not to tell anything and not to ask too many questions. 16-year-old Inna lives in Norway and says that, just like in the occupation, she lives in the "survival mode". After 10 years of living among the Russian propaganda and fakes, Evelin chose to live in Ukraine. She is learning to get used to the thought that she may never visit her hometown again.

They are Ukrainian teenagers who survived the Russian occupation. Some went to the Ukraine-controlled territories or abroad, some lived under the occupation until liberation. That is why they can tell about their experience. Those who remain under occupation cannot tell their stories yet because it is literally a matter of survival and safety.

According to the NGO Centre of Civil Education "Almenda", there are currently more than 615,000 school-age children in the temporarily occupied territories. They live in difficult and dangerous conditions. The occupying authorities draft Ukrainian boys to the Russian army, send teenagers to "military-patriotic camps" for "re-education", and send children for adoption to Russian families.

Human rights activists report that teenagers and children are captured, intimidated, tortured, and killed in the occupied territories.

We have collected the stories of four teenagers about life under occupation and after it — stories about fears, losses, hope, and the desire to just have a normal life.

"It took time to get used to freedom and to the fact that I was already in safety"

Evelin Biankpin Akassi, 18 years old, Donetsk – Kyiv

Evelin is 18 years old. She was born and grew up in Donetsk. She was eight when the city was occupied. A year ago, Evelin left Donetsk. She now studies at the Tavriiskyi National University named after Vernadsky, which moved from the occupied Crimea to Kyiv in 2015. "As an internally relocated person, I was looking for an internally relocated university,” the girl smiles. She agreed to tell her story because she believes that it will help other teenagers in the occupation to dare to go to the Ukraine-controlled territories. “When I was leaving Donetsk, I did not know anything: how to get a Ukrainian passport, how to enter the university, where I will live, what awaits me in general. Now I can tell others: everything will be fine here."

Evelin speaks good Ukrainian, although her native languages ​​are Russian and French (the girl’s father is from the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire). She says she has already adapted in Kyiv and explains that the most difficult thing was to get used to freedom, to the fact that you can write, say, and read what you want. She adds that now she is where she should be.

Evelin’s story:

— In 2014, when it all started, I was a child. I understood little then and remember little about that time. I remember how my favorite "Bee" jelly candies disappeared from sale, and cartoons in Ukrainian disappeared from TV. It upset me. My father did not live with us then, and my mother tried to protect me from the war, so she did not tell me anything. She only said that it would not last long. However, the understanding quickly came that life would no longer be the same as it had been.

Our family always paid attention to education. We had a big library at home. During the occupation, I wanted to learn more about the history of Ukraine and learn the Ukrainian language. However, in 2016, I could no longer find the needed books in Donetsk. Mostly, it is about classic literature books. They could not be borrowed in libraries and were not sold in bookstores. I was looking for [such books] among the acquaintances. That was how I found "Kobzar" by Shevchenko, books by Ivan Franko, Lesya Ukrainka.

When it all started, I was in the third grade. Many children left then. I have not seen many of my classmates since then, I think something happened to them — our area was under heavy fire at that time. Some of those who had left later returned. People did not understand what to do. We, children, did not understand even more. There was a lot of aggression at school. A boy from the Kyiv district of Donetsk was transferred to our class because it was safer there. My classmates beat him, and he ended up in the intensive care unit. Why? Because the children heard from Russian propagandists that there was the Maidan in Kyiv, that there were Nazis, that Kyiv was something bad. Although the boy came from a neighboring district [of Donetsk], it was called the Kyiv district! This was absurd! However, it was so.

The school immediately switched to the Russian language, although until 2020 we still had a Ukrainian language lesson once a fortnight; the teacher conducted it in Russian. The children treated her [the teacher] very badly. I remember in the 9th grade, it was the year 2020, a classmate said that he would not need Ukrainian in his life, started turning over desks, shouting, others joined him. The teacher had a nervous breakdown. Before 2014, it was a Ukrainian-language school and everything was fine. Maybe it was the propaganda that had such an effect on us.

When I was preparing for exams in the history of Russia, I realized that some facts there contradicted each other. I looked for more information on the Internet and found something completely different from what we were told at school. It gradually became clear that the reality was different from what we were told.

"During the occupation, I wanted to learn more about the history of Ukraine and learn the Ukrainian language. However, in 2016, I could no longer find the needed books in Donetsk". Illustration by Inga Levi

I did not want to stay in Donetsk; I thought I might go to Canada. However, when the full-scale invasion began, I realized that I wanted to live and study in Ukraine. It was not an easy choice. I graduated from school with honors, and I was promised a free-of-charge place at the Moscow State University. I knew that it would be easier for me. However, I refused because I did not really want it.

I came to my mother and said that I had pro-Ukrainian views and wanted to leave. My mother replied that she supported me. She said that if I could collect money for living and studying in Kyiv, she would let me go. I got a job in a beauty salon.

With the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Donetsk began to be cleared of locals, for example, there were programs to exchange an apartment in Donetsk for an apartment somewhere in Russia. Instead, many Russian officers and their families arrived. They had money; they spent money like water. Prices rose sharply, the locals began to live noticeably worse. There was a feeling that you were simply not needed in your native land.

I left via Russia, Belarus, Poland. All by myself. It was exhausting. I was afraid of the road. I was afraid that I would not succeed, that I would not realize my dream, that I would not find my place. That the goal I set for myself would be so unattainable that the risks I took would turn out to be unjustified.

When I came to Kyiv, I consciously switched to Ukrainian. It took time to get used to freedom and to the fact that I was already in safety. On the second day, I bought "Tale of Bygone Years" by Nestor the Chronicler. It was the first book in my library here.

I miss my mother and Donetsk. The thought that I may never return there hurts. Sometimes people from the occupation write to me and ask how I entered the Ukrainian university. Maybe someone will read about my experience and will go to Ukraine instead of Russia. It is very important for me to surround myself with conscious people who are not afraid to work for change.

According to human rights activists, starting from 2014, in the universities in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the Russian special services practiced summoning students to the rector for a “conversation” and checking social networks. Armed people were present in the office and there were threats. Illustration by Inga Levi

"I am not making any special plans right now"

Vitalii, 16 years old, village of Kyselivka, Kherson region

The village of Kyselyvka, not far from Kherson, was occupied by the Russians at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Locals recall that they [Russians] often arranged shootouts among themselves because they disagreed regarding the loot. Vitalii, his parents, and two younger brothers spent eight months under the occupation. On November 10, 2022, the Ukrainian military liberated the village. Shortly before that, in September, the boy had spent 10 days in captivity. He tells about his experience laconically and with some distrust.

Vitalii’s story:

— On September 10, 2022, my uncle and I went for a walk. Outside the village, there were burnt military vehicles. The uncle stopped to text a message or to call someone. At that time, a Russian military vehicle was passing by. Four people dressed in the military uniform came out. They stopped us, started checking our phones, asking for whom we wanted to film the military equipment, to whom we planned to hand over information regarding the positions. Finally, they took us to the "pit".

It was a real pit, near a gas station. There were entrails in it; I think they were pig intestines. We were kept there for two hours. They said they would shoot us, would throw a grenade into the pit. It was scary. Then they tied our hands with plastic ties, blindfolded us, put bags over our heads, and took us to some basement, to a cell. We had stayed there for an hour and were separated then.

I do not know where they took my uncle, but I was taken to a cell where there were already 15 people. It seemed to be some kind of a shower room — everything was tiled and the drain was in the corner. There was something like a bed made of boards, a few chairs. I was the youngest there. The oldest person was 60 years old, a veteran of the anti-terrorist operation. At that time, I was thinking only about being released.

They did not beat me, but they took me for interrogations. My uncle was beaten. Other prisoners were beaten too. I was not fed for the first four days; other prisoners were giving me some food. We were not taken out for walks. In six days, I was transferred to another room; there I was with a man who was arrested because he had a hunting rifle at home. I stayed there for another four days.

On September 21, 2022, they came and said to get out. My uncle, the man with whom I was in the cell, and I were taken out and left near the station in Kherson. Then I found out that we had been kept in the building of the Kherson Court of Appeal. My uncle was beaten, but he did not tell me what happened to him there.

I returned to the village and no longer went for walks or even to the store. I started going out when our [military] liberated the village. Now we have peace; we are not shelled. What am I dreaming about? About nothing. I am not making any special plans. God only knows.

"Four people dressed in the military uniform took us to the “pit”. They said they would shoot us, would throw a grenade into the pit. It was scary. Then they tied our hands with plastic ties, blindfolded us, put bags over our heads, and took us to some basement, to a cell". Illustration by Inga Levi

"My friend was buried in a mass grave"

Anna, 18 years old, Donetsk – Lviv

Anna (the name has been changed) is 18 years old; she was born and spent her whole life in Donetsk. Not so long ago, she left for the Ukraine-controlled territory. The girl asked for anonymity because her relatives, including her brother, remain in the occupied Donetsk. "I really want him to leave too, I am afraid he will be conscripted to the Russian army,” she says. She adds, “None of my relatives know about some of the things I am telling here, and I hope they never will."

Anna says that as a child, and then as a teenager, she did not fully understand what was happening in the city. However, she quickly realized she had to be careful, in particular with words and posts on social networks. In general, she says, she was just living her life, like her peers in other cities and countries. The only difference was that she was living her life in the occupation.

Anna’s story:

— 2014 and 2015 were the most terrible years for me. We were constantly staying in basements because of shelling. One of the memories of that time: once after the shelling, my friend ran to us, he was six years old at the time. He kept repeating, "Mom, mom, mom..." We could not understand what he wanted, we thought his mom could be sick or had left and did not come back for a long time. We went to his house. There, instead of the house, there were ruins. Among the bricks and boards, there were parts of the body... I realized then that something terrible was happening. And it was happening not somewhere else, but here, with us. I was eight years old.

I remember we had a neighbor who was 35-40 years old. He was drafted to the Russian army; he took part in the war and returned. This was a miracle, because few Ukrainians returned — they were often listed as missing. This man returned — without a leg, with wounded eyes. He constantly said, "We are being lied to, everything is not really like that". I asked him how he lost his leg, and he only repeated this phrase. Then he disappeared. His wife said that one day they [Russians] came for him and took him away. That was how I realized that people were taken for their words.

I grew up playing in the yard. We were a group of friends — some a little older, some younger. We spent time together. Then the boys began to be drafted to the Russian army, they died there. It was painful. Did they support Russia? I do not know, I do not think so. No one wanted to die for it [Russia], that is for sure. We were still children. I remember how one of my friends was taken away. Armed men took him and his father out of the house; they were beaten and covered in blood. We all ran out into the yard. Then this friend of mine looked at me like he knew he would not come back. I could see in his eyes that he did not want it, did not support it. He did not support it; if he did, he would not have been beaten so hard.

"The boys began to be drafted to the Russian army, they died there. It was painful". Illustration by Inga Levi

Neither he nor his father survived. There were even no bodies [to bury]. Only one of my friends was brought home to be buried. He was one of the first to be conscripted — on February 16, 2022. He got missing almost immediately. His relatives were told that according to the documents, he did not even take part in the war. Then he was brought back. The remnants of him. The family had no money, so they buried him in a mass grave. I was crying. Of course, he was not a hero for me, but he was my friend. The death of my friends was a painful experience for me. They were forcibly taken to the Russian army, forced to fight against their own country, they died. What for? It would be easier for me [to understand this] if they supported Russia. Then I could hate them. But…

In general, I had an ordinary life of a teenager, as much as it was possible in those conditions. There are several cinemas in Donetsk; however, they show pirate copies of movies and Russian propaganda films there. There is a chic cinema named after Taras Shevchenko. There is a large statue of the poet there, which cannot be removed without destruction of the building. It was simply covered with something black and now there is a large black mass in the middle of the hall. It is kind of dumb because we all know who it is. I did not watch television, Russian channels and crude propaganda immediately appeared on it. I learned everything I was interested in from Telegram channels and watched various interesting videos on YouTube.

Finally, I left. My parents supported me. However, my grandmother called me a traitor. I do not take offense at her, she is already an elderly person, and she cannot change. In general, I think that in Donetsk, about 20% of people are pro-Russian, another 20% are pro-Ukrainian, and the rest are apolitical, indifferent.

I was coming through European countries. When I crossed the border between Poland and Ukraine, the first thing I felt was hunger. It meant that I already felt safe. I am glad I left [the occupation].

"In Donetsk, there is a chic cinema named after Taras Shevchenko. There is a large statue of the poet there, which cannot be removed without destruction of the building. It was simply covered with something black and now there is a large black mass in the middle of the hall. It is kind of dumb because we all know who it is". Illustration by Inga Levi

"I want to shout to them, “Hello. I am also here!"

Inna, 16 years old, Enerhodar, — Norway

Inna (the name has been changed) lived for a year in the occupied Enerhodar, near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. She lived without her friends, because they had left, without school, because it had been closed, without special plans and dreams. Inna speaks quietly and ponders each word. She tells how difficult it is for teenagers to understand the realities of the war and occupation. And how difficult it is to live in a foreign country, even if it is safe. There is a feeling you are a stranger everywhere. It is difficult to look for your place and not find it. It is difficult to lose your home and not to find a new one. "I put all these existential questions aside," says Inna. "Now I just live day by day."

Inna’s story:

— I remember how I woke up on February 24 and read on social media that the war had begun. However, I did not pay much attention to it. I went to school, and there my classmate was crying, "My grandmother is being bombed near Kharkiv". We were allowed to go home. I go in for swimming, so I started to get things ready for the training, but we were told that there would be no training. I was upset — my problems were so funny then. In a few days, I realized that there were much worse problems, for example, where to get food. My mother and I used to stand in the queue at the shops at five in the morning. We were standing in queues for hours to get bread or flour and my feet were freezing. It was the coldest winter in my life.

On March 3, 2022, the Russians entered Enerhodar. The whole city went to stop them then; my parents also went. Tens of thousands of Enerhodar residents were standing as a wall in front of hundred Russian military vehicles. It lasted for five hours, and then the Russians dispersed the people. My dad worked at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant; he said that the plant was the goal of the Russians. They went there immediately.

We lived near the waterfront and the Russian artillery was stationed right next to the house. The city of Nikopol is opposite Enerhodar [across the river]. Every night I heard the cannonade; I heard how the Russians were killing people.

"When the Russians entered Enerhodar, the whole city went to stop them then; my parents also went. Tens of thousands of Enerhodar residents were standing as a wall in front of hundred Russian military vehicles". Illustration by Inga Levi

All my friends left. I became asocial, was living like in a chamber. What was not the norm became the norm, the psyche adapted. I used to wake up at five in the morning, did my homework if there was electricity supply, went to the training, and then put on my headphones and went for a walk. I do not know why I did not feel fear then. Armed people were walking around. I saw people being taken to the "pit" just from the street. I knew that I had to be careful what to say and to whom. Because walls have ears. I am now in Norway, thousands of kilometers away from my hometown, and I am still afraid to talk about it.

My parents decided to leave in July 2023, when the searches of the apartments began. And when they [Russians] began to dismiss Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant employees who did not want to sign a contract with "Rosatom". We stuffed our whole lives into a small sedan and drove eight thousand kilometers through Russia, Georgia, Turkey. We did not know where we were going until my parents decided that it would be Norway.

At the same time, the fog in my head began to clear. As if I had been protecting myself from all this information, and then I saw everything and understood: food, water, electricity — this is not enough for a safe life, not enough for a normal life. I started to have hysterical attacks and nervous breakdowns.

I am still adapting. Because the first months in a new country are romantic. Then the real life began, in which I realized that I was treated as a migrant. I ask myself difficult questions: who am I? What is my value? My self-esteem has dropped to the bottom.

I continue swimming classes in Norway. When I came to the club, the coach did not even introduce me to others. There is no such a habit there, but I got sad. Other teenagers communicate with each other, but not with me. I want to shout to them, "Hello. I am also here!"

When I am asked what I will be in 10 years, I answer that I do not know what will happen to me tonight. There has been no war in Norway for 200 years. No matter how much we tell them about the war and the occupation, they will not understand it. However, I do not want them to understand it. I just want to be noticed.

"My dad worked at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant; he said that the plant was the goal of the Russians. They went there immediately". Illustration by Inga Levi