- Washington Post
She’s 16. The War in Ukraine Wrecked Her City – and Her Childhood.
13:08 JST, January 8, 2024
IZYUM, Ukraine – Newly 16, she likes to walk alone, hands shoved in pockets, music loud in her ears, for mile after mile.
If Kate Kobets walks far enough, she can escape into her own world. It is a place where her childhood hasn’t been destroyed – her home loud with war, her soldier stepfather locked away as a Russian prisoner of war, she and her mom confined to a bomb shelter for much of the year after she turned 14.
She is part of a generation of Ukrainian teenagers living through a conflict entering its third year with no end in sight. Raised during a pandemic – then through gunfire and bloodshed – Kate, like many of her peers, is unsure what it means for her future. She knows she is luckier than some of her friends – who have lost their homes or even their lives. Still, it is difficult to make sense of it all.
Kate feels frozen, she said in interviews during three days of visits to her home, her life suspended when Russia invaded her country in February 2022, then overtook her city a month later – a brutal occupation that lasted half a year. Kate’s mom didn’t want to split their family up. By the time they decided to evacuate, it was too late.
Kate was there as 80 percent of Izyum was razed, as more than 1,000 of her neighbors were killed. She was there when the city – an important transportation hub in eastern Ukraine with a preinvasion population of about 45,000 – was liberated in September 2022.
Her classes are still online. Her friends are displaced. Her crush is in a different country. Her beloved woods contain mines and at least one mass grave. Still, she thought that 16 would be different – more freedom, more maturity. But her birthday came and went on Dec. 4, and now, it is just more of the same.
“I thought, ‘Wow, cool. I will be so grown up,'” Kate said. “And I feel like a 10-year-old child.”
Nearly every day, she walks – remembering what her life was, escaping what it has become – until her legs ache and her mind goes blank.
Strolling Izyum’s downtown, Kate walked through her memories.
The city changed, but the streets stayed the same, and she finds comfort in them. It was late December, and she walked with slow, sure steps – as if she could go unseen – in a donated women’s parka she has yet to grow into. Red hair poked from beneath her beanie, her cheeks a sandstorm of light freckles.
She stopped at each crosswalk – looking back and forth, back and forth – as military vehicles roared by, exhaling black smoke.
She walked by her old school, the red and white brick crumpled, the roof open to the sky. In the winter, Kate remembered, students used to pour an ice rink out front. Once, a girl slipped and broke her arm – back then, big news.
“It seems as if I will wake up in the morning . . . and everything will be as before,” Kate said.
Past the schoolyard, she cut through the city’s main park – shorn of trees, the fountain at its center dark. This was where her parents met and fell in love at 19. They were just three years older than she is now, but Kate could not yet imagine a love like that. Her parents divorced when she was 7 – what she thought then would be her hardest year.
Kate used to spend a lot of time at the park. Picnicking on the grass with Kira and Nastya in the summer – cold lemonade, mushroom sandwiches. Borrowing Olya’s skates to zip around the main square, rolling so fast it felt like she was flying.
Now, only Kira is left. “Promise always that we will be together,” she wrote in Kate’s birthday card that month, stamping her hand in red paint on the front.
With the card, she gifted Kate a friendship bracelet with beads of pastel shells.
Kate walked down a long street to the Donets River. The girls once celebrated the end of summer here, diving into the cool water, their clothes dripping wet. At Nastya’s house, they used a hair dryer on Kate’s outfit to hide the evidence. Her mother – who had forbidden Kate to swim – never found out.
That was before Nastya moved to Russia with her family.
Kate walked to the next road, then stopped abruptly, her face like another collapsed building.
Olya – killed in a shelling at 14 – once lived down there.
Eventually, the walks always end. Kate must face reality and return home.
The light was draining from the late December sky, and after more than five miles on foot, it was time to retrace her steps. Kate doesn’t like to be out after dark.
She and her mom are living temporarily with Kate’s grandparents. Their real home – on the fourth floor of a building damaged by shelling – is a short walk away. No heat, no running water. But it was patrimony. Her mother grew up in the same apartment. Their girlhoods – two decades apart – were intertwined. They climbed on the same playgrounds, knew the same neighbors. They even look like echoes of each other.
When they first returned to their apartment after Izyum’s liberation, Kate screamed and scaled the ladder to her bunk bed, wrapping herself into a cocoon of purple blankets and stuffed animals. She didn’t care that the windows were blown out, the front door warped.
“I’m home,” Kate sighed.
They stayed in their apartment in the warmer months – windows opened to the breeze, water carted upstairs in buckets. It was cozy – the clock ticking in the kitchen, the smell of coffee in the morning. Her mother slept on a couch on the other side of a curtain, which split the only bedroom into two.
Under the bunk bed her godfather built for her, school portraits dappled the wall. Kate could see all the girls she had been – in a polka-dot dress and high heels that gapped, wearing red earmuffs and a wide smile that now only appears in flashes.
“She’s become more silent,” her mother, Annya Kobets, 39, said, “more secluded.”
They are close. In the wintertime – at Kate’s grandparents – there is one bed for the two of them, their black cat folded at their feet. A fridge and a microwave are shoved in one corner of the room, a desk with a boxy computer for Kate’s schoolwork in the other. Kate keeps her belongings – books, makeup, tarot cards, anime – in a small bundle. She only has a few changes of clothes, not wanting to make the situation here more permanent than it needs to be.
“I don’t go anywhere now,” Kate said. “So I don’t need a lot of things.”
Anything was better than the bunker beneath the kindergarten, where Annya works as a program facilitator.
For nearly six months, they sheltered with 200 others, shoved in the bunker’s only room. It had a door with a mirror, which Kate pasted with Barbie stickers. Their lives became chilly and airless – with brief moments of respite outdoors – but it was safer than anywhere aboveground.
If Russian soldiers made their way down the steep stairs and past the three sets of locked doors, Kate knew where to hide. She looked older than her age, and saw that her mother feared she would fall prey to the men.
They told everyone that Kate was much younger than she was.
“It was horrifying,” Annya said. “We always hid her.”
Now, Kate still often felt stuck – she didn’t want to be seen by anyone.
She stepped through the front door of her grandparents’ home. Her mom was out visiting her stepfather’s family. The apartment – just like Kate preferred it – was empty and quiet.
An uncertain future
The next morning, Kate woke up to cheese pancakes and violence.
It was two days before New Year’s Eve, and hours earlier, Russia had fired the largest number of missiles over the border since the beginning of the war, striking cities across Ukraine.
Kate was 16, and it was no easier to accept any of this now than it had been at 14. Growing up has only gotten more confusing.
She sat in her floral pajamas, sipping instant coffee doctored with sugar, watching her mom get ready for work. She wasn’t sure what she would do that day. Maybe she’d message Kira – sick again with a fever – or read manga, or practice guitar. She only played when no one was home to hear.
Maybe she would walk, each step leading her further into a deeply uncertain future. After the war, she longs to attend college in nearby Kharkiv, where she’d become a photographer or a barista. She wants to earn enough to replace her mom’s car – stolen by Russian soldiers – and take her on a trip to the Maldives, which she once saw on a television program.
If the war ever ends.
Kate rubbed her eyes and went back to bed.
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