Ukrainian woman killed in Vinnytsia missile attack shows Russia’s war toll

Elizaveta Dmytrieva.  (Courtesy of Iryna Dmytrieva)
Elizaveta Dmytrieva. (Courtesy of Iryna Dmytrieva)

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Four-year-old Elizaveta Dmytrieva smiled as she pushed her stroller down the street in Vinnytsia, Ukraine. It was almost five months into the war, but the city where her family had fled Kyiv seemed safe enough. Her mother took an Instagram video as ‘Liza’, who was born with Down syndrome, led the way in a moment of elated independence.

Barely an hour later, the little girl was dead, her mother seriously injured. And the image of her black and pink stroller, tossed on its side and splattered with blood, would become a symbol of the horrific toll the Russian invasion inflicted on even the youngest Ukrainians.

What Iryna Dmytrieva remembers, reliving the horror of that July morning during her first interview since being released from hospital, is a deafening noise above her head that she thought was a plane. She looked up to see a “massive” missile and immediately crouched down to try and protect her child.

“There was no time to do anything,” Iryna told The Washington Post. “It was over in a flash.”

As her wounds slowly heal, she continues to replay those final moments with Liza. The two were going from date to date, and Iryna is grateful that she strapped her daughter securely in the stroller at the time because they were rushing. Otherwise, she said, “Who knows where she would have ended up?”

Her decision meant the family had an intact body they could mourn and bury – unlike the many other bodies destroyed that day.

“She was my life,” Iryna said of Liza. “What Russia took from me cannot be forgiven. All my plans are destroyed.

Iryna was 14 weeks pregnant when doctors told her and her husband, Artem, there were complications. Their child would be born with a heart defect and other problems; terminating the pregnancy would be preferable, doctors advised. The couple said no.

Two months after Liza was born, a genetic test revealed that she had Down syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that often causes physical and intellectual disabilities. Five months later, she suffered heart surgery which lasted more than five hours. Her mother shared photos on social media throughout Liza’s hospitalization, and these images showed how many others have come to know the little girl.

Throughout Liza’s short life, Iryna has used Instagram to shine a light on the struggles, hopes and fears of parenting a child with Down syndrome. The account became an online diary, which also documented her separation from Artem. The couple separated when Liza was 2 years old.

“It was the only kind of motherhood I knew,” Iryna said, describing the many medical appointments that have become a part of life. Every night, before Liza fell asleep, she reminded him, “You are my smartest, most beautiful, most ideal child.”

The photos tell a love story through all the seasons. There is Lisa disguised as a witch for Halloween. Liza wearing a sun hat to the beach. Liza lying down a bed of fresh white snow.

In one video, she walks through a lavender field and spins in a lilac dress. It was the family’s beloved dog, a chubby pug named Ben, who showed him how to go around in circles.

“Is it possible to fall in love over and over again?” her mother wrote under a photo just weeks before Liza was killed.

The July 14 strike on Vinnytsia killed at least 23 people, including two other young children. The Russian missiles that hit the central Ukrainian city, far from the front lines, also damaged a nine-story office building, restaurants and residential buildings.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called it an “open act of terrorism”.

Amid the thick black smoke, Iryna knew almost immediately that Liza was gone. She saw her still tied stroller. Her daughter’s feet, clad in mint green and white sneakers, were splayed out at an unnatural angle. Next to the stroller was a severed human foot – someone else’s.

Iryna remembers screaming for help. Nobody answered.

The video shows Liza Dmytrieva on the morning of July 14, shortly before she was killed in a Russian missile strike in Vinnytsia, Ukraine. (Video: Iryna Dmytrieva)

The mother was taken in critical condition to the Vinnytsia City Clinical Hospital, where she was to spend a month. Doctors removed shrapnel from his stomach, including a piece lodged near a vital artery. His left leg was broken. Surgery on his left arm removed a fragment of the projectile. She still hasn’t regained the sensitivity of some of her fingers.

From her hospital bed, Iryna told her mother that she wanted Liza to be buried in a white dress – “like a princess”, she said. And three days after the attack, photos show the little girl lying with a wreath on her head and some of her favorite toys piled up at her feet in the open coffin. Among them was a precious mouse that accompanied him everywhere.

These images of the funeral, which Iryna was unable to attend due to the severity of her injuries, are the ones she tries not to watch because she feels her daughter is still with her.

“Mental pain is worse than physical pain,” she said.

She is 34 years old and, like other parents in Ukraine, she is grappling with a heartbreaking and incalculable loss. Nearly 1,000 children have been killed or injured since the start of the war, according to UNICEFalthough the agency believes the actual number to be much higher.

On social media, Iryna has been inundated with thousands of messages of love, prayers and support from around the world. Some people shared paintings and poems with her.

The outpouring brought comfort, though Iryna says she has nothing left.

In a dream she had the day after the attack, she saw Liza in her white dress, surrounded by bright yellow smoke. She kissed her daughter, who then walked away. She tried to reach for Liza’s hand, but she couldn’t quite grab it.

“I’m asking Liza to take me with her,” Iryna said.

“It’s not your time,” Liza told her mother. “We must live.”

Annabelle Chapman contributed to this report.

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