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You Don’t Know What War Is

Authored by Yeva Skalietska (translated by Cindy Joseph-Pearson)
Illustrated by Olga Shtonda (maps)
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

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Taken from Yeva’s diary, these entries track the first weeks of the Russian invasion and the destruction of Kharkiv. Yeva lives with her grandmother Iryna in Kharkiv. She writes in her diary every day and describes what experiences she and her granny have. By starting with her birthday on February 14, her birthday party on February 19, her mother’s return to Turkey on February 20 and then the first wave of the attack on February 24, the full horror of the change from life before to war was starkly made.

The diary charts Yeva and Iryna’s movements from the first day of bombing until they are ‘settled’ in Dublin nearly a month later. Each day is recorded in a ‘fact-based’ way. It’s important to remember that this is the perspective of one young girl, just turned twelve, with no real understanding of geopolitics other than what she might overhear from adults around her. So, her wishes and dreams and prayers may appear simplistic because that is what they are – a child’s simple desire for peace and to go back to school in her beloved hometown with all of her friends.

She acknowledges that she is one of the lucky ones; she gets out relatively simply with support from the Channel 4 crew who stumbled across her, her granny and her diary in a shelter. She worries about her school friends, the stuffed toy left on her bed, and her family.
The bureaucracy does not appear to hinder their flight. Granny Iryna doesn’t have a passport as she left it behind in their apartment in Kharkiv. Yeva’s mother had not left the permission to travel form that was required to take Yeva out of Ukraine. From Yeva’s perspective all of these problems just seem to melt away and I’m sure the stress for Iryna was monumental but to the twelve-year-old Yeva it all worked out. Her faith in God and prayer seem to provide the answers for everything.

I thought it was particularly poignant that she would be describing her adventures in Dublin and then would recall all that she’d lost and start to weep – reminding us even further that this is the story of a young girl running away from war. It’s also a story of the way that people across Europe stepped up and opened their doors to women and children displaced by fighting. The couple who sponsored their arrival in Dublin, the Channel Four crew who helped them, the landlord of their own little “cozy” house and the girls who welcomed her into their school – all are mentioned and remembered as without them Yeva may still be in a basement in Eastern Ukraine.

With copies of text message chains from their class ‘WhatsApp’ group we hear also what’s happened to her circle of friends. Some have stayed behind; some are in Poland but all want to go home and just be normal again. The anonymous stories at the end of Yeva’s Diary are an important addition as they highlight that Yeva’s story is not everyone’s story.

You Don’t Know What War Is is a very interesting book, worth reading for what it is – one twelve-year-old girl’s perspective of being displaced and her fear and the ‘shame’ that she feels being a refugee. It’s hard to read her pleas to return to school and home nearly two years after she’s written it, knowing that the fighting still rages and it looks less and less like it will stop soon.

Shortlisted for the Week Junior Book Awards 2023, Older Non-Fiction Category