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An 11-year-old girl was among the casualties in Russia's strikes across Ukraine


We commonly tell the story of the war in Ukraine in enormous terms - the largest countries in Europe, millions of refugees, nightmarish effects on the whole world economy. This morning, we tell the story of the war through the life of one small girl. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It was a Saturday afternoon. There was a buzz of excitement across much of the Kharkiv region. Ukrainian troops had just staged a major counteroffensive, and the relentless Russian shelling around the city of Kharkiv had finally eased. Eleven-year-old Nasta Grycenko and her parents, Andriy and Iryna, had decided to spend the weekend at what they call their country house in the nearby city of Chuhuiv. Nasta's parents went out to deliver some humanitarian food packets to elderly residents when three large explosions rocked the city. A neighbor, Mychailo Kantemyriv, shows where he found Nasta after the missile struck.

MYCHAILO KANTEMYRIV: (Through interpreter) This is the fragment of the missile.

BEAUBIEN: He says she was still alive, still conscious, lying next to the crater where the house had once stood.

KANTEMYRIV: (Through interpreter) And she asked, why this happen to me? I didn't anything bad to them.

BEAUBIEN: Her parents heard the explosions. They could see the smoke. Iryna Grycenko's first thought was Nasta, and she raced towards their cottage.

Every day, local officials in Ukraine announce grim statistics about the war - this number of people were injured, that number of people died. According to the U.N., roughly 6,000 civilians have been killed in Ukraine over the last seven months of war. Nasta's father, Andriy Grycenko, is adamant that his 11-year-old daughter shouldn't be a statistic. A statistic isn't something you pick up from the loading dock of the morgue, as Andriy and Iryna were forced to one cold, wet September morning.

IRYNA GRYCENKO: (Crying, speaking Russian).

BEAUBIEN: Nasta's body is carried down from the loading dock in a pink satin-lined coffin and slid into the back of a white cargo van. As my translator, Polina Lytvynova, and I are getting into our own car, she tells me that I'm lucky I couldn't understand Iryna crying in Russian.

POLINA LYTVYNOVA: I could hear her saying, forgive me.

BEAUBIEN: As hard as the scene at the morgue was to watch, she says listening to a mother sobbing over her daughter's body was even harder.

LYTVYNOVA: She said, like, I don't want to live without you. Who will meet me when I come home from work? And so on and so on. She cried and said, forgive me, forgive me, please.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Crying, non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: Outside a Soviet-era apartment block, there's a viewing of Nasta's open casket.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Crying, non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: Neighbors place bouquets of flowers on her coffin. A girl who appears to be about Nasta's age, 10 or 11 years old, cries inconsolably.


BEAUBIEN: Valentina Ovcharenko, who lives in a flat two floors below Nasta's family, is passing out small bags of sweets. She says people in the neighborhood have been crying for days over Nasta's death. But she says it's been the worst for Nasta's mother.

VALENTINA OVCHARENKO: (Through interpreter) Her mother wanted to jump from the balcony. And, like, she was rescued from this.

BEAUBIEN: Nasta's parents both work for a clothing manufacturing company. Their apartment isn't fancy. Their cottage in Chuhuiv, with its apple trees and a vegetable garden, was also a simple, unassuming house before it was obliterated. It wasn't on a prime piece of land. It backed up against an oil storage depot. The same barrage of Russian missiles that killed Nasta blew up several large fuel tanks.

Like most kids in Ukraine, Nasta had been attending online classes. Sitting on benches in the playground outside their apartment block, Nasta's parents tell me, Nasta had always wanted a dog. This year, her 23-year-old brother found a white Labrador for her, which she was enchanted by. Nasta liked to sing and to watch patriotic videos on YouTube of Ukrainian soldiers.

GRYCENKO: (Through interpreter) Every time I came back home from work, she showed me videos. And she said, Mom, look at them. They're have so much fun. She really believed that they would protect her.

BEAUBIEN: Iryna stares into the distance as she talks about her daughter. Kharkiv is just three miles from the Russian border. It's a predominantly Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, and it had close ties to Russia before the war. Iryna and Andriy go back and forth between speaking Russian and Ukrainian as they talk about their daughter being killed by a Russian missile launched from Russian territory.

GRYCENKO: (Through interpreter) You know, I believe that not all people in Russia are so cruel and horrible, like Russian soldiers. But I just want to - the war to stop.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: Nasta's funeral takes place under a cold, drizzling rain in a sprawling graveyard named Cemetery 18 in Kharkiv.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: Just a few hundred yards from her grave, a funeral is also taking place for a soldier in a quadrant of the cemetery adorned with yellow and blue Ukrainian flags.


BEAUBIEN: After the nails are pounded into Nasta's coffin and she's buried in the ground, Andriy comes over to me and Polina. Tell the world what the Russians did to my daughter, he says. Iryna can barely walk. Her sister eases her into a car as they leave.

A few days after the funeral, Iryna says she's still trying to come to grips with the fact that there's a person in Russia who pushed the button that launched the missile that killed her daughter.

GRYCENKO: (Through interpreter) I don't wish them death because I never wish anyone dead, but I wish them to suffer like we suffer and to feel all our pain like we feel this pain.

BEAUBIEN: Losing a child, she says, is the worst pain in the world.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kharkiv, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIGRAN HAMASYAN'S "LILAC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.