Death of a storyteller
John Sweeney remembers Ukrainian novelist turned war crimes investigator Victoria Amelina, who has died in a Russian rocket attack on a watering hole favoured by journalists
05 Jul 23

Photo montage: Osabadash/Natalia Royanova

They shot the children’s poet in the head. Two bullets from a Makharov, the Russian army handgun, his grave identified, his voice stilled. Until, that is, Victoria Amelina turned up at the Izium home of the murdered poet, Volodymyr Vakulenko. Gentle, calm, dogged, Victoria had stopped work as a novelist to become a war crimes investigator, her mission to listen to Ukraine’s bereaved: “That it is not like ‘this happened’ and nobody asks them about it.”

She found Vakulenko’s father, crushed by grief, and over the course of a long conversation, his memory unlocked and he said that his son had told him that he had buried his diary near the cherry tree in the family’s garden. They dug and dug.


And then Victoria, on impulse, opened up the earth a little distance from the tree and they found the dead poet’s diary, wrapped in water-proof plastic, breaking the silence. The diary told of Russian occupation, of a tank squatting outside in the street, the creeping sense of dread, his arrest, release – and then they came for him one last time. But not before he had buried his words by the cherry tree.

Victoria understood that the best stories are the ones that power and money do not want told. That was last year.

In late June Victoria was sitting outside on the terrace at the Ria pizza restaurant in Kramatorsk, about thirty miles from Bakhmut. The Ria is an institution, a sweet hiding hole where journalists, aid workers, soldiers and local families unwind from the horrors of the frontline. Driven by my fixer in Ukraine, Dima Kovalchuk, Victoria was escorting Colombian journalists, Héctor Abad, Sergio Jaramillo and Catalina Gómez around the war zone. Victoria was doing her best to shine a light on the Kremlin’s dark nonsense. Too many people in the global south have bought into the Russian lie but not these South Americans.

Dima told me: “the awning above is see-through and I saw a shadow overhead, it was the missile, then this intense explosion.”

Jaramillo explained to the Financial Times: “I was sitting right next to Victoria. We had just finished a day in the field, talking to people about the Russian invasion. As the food was brought to us, I bent down to pick up a napkin and, at that moment, the missile struck. Victoria, who had been sitting upright, was badly hit at the back of the neck… the whole room fell to pieces and time stopped.”

Dima said that Victoria never recovered from her head injury. The rest of the team were lightly injured. Thirteen people died, including two fourteen-year-old twins; fifty people were injured. Firing a cruise missile at a pizza restaurant packed with civilians was yet another Russian war crime.

Victoria was born in Lviv, moved to Canada when she was a teenager, worked in IT, got bored with that and became a full-time writer. Her first novel, Fall Syndrome, was about the Maidan revolution, her second, Dom’s Dream Kingdom, established her international reputation. She won the Joseph Conrad Literary Award and was short-listed for the European Union Prize for Literature. Before the big war she set up a literary festival in New York, a village not far from Bakhmut, and a second in Kramatorsk. Her poetry was spare and bleak:


Air-raid sirens across the country

It feels like everyone is brought out

For execution

But only one person gets targeted

Usually the one at the edge

This time not you; all clear

I met Victoria once, at a café in Kyiv, this spring. She recognised my silly orange hat and we talked about working together, one day, on a war crimes investigation but our schedules didn’t work out and that never happened. There was a still beauty about her spirit that is haunting, an echo from a friend, calling out the big lie.

I cannot believe they have silenced her.

I cannot believe that she is dead.

By John Sweeney

John Sweeney is a writer and journalist who has investigated Russian interference in the US elections and Scientology