Ukrainian teenager reaches war age and finds her ‘mission’

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Anna Melnyk, 16, attends the information desk at the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine almost daily, helping passengers find their trains.
Anna Melnyk, 16, attends the information desk at the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine almost daily, helping passengers find their trains. (Kasia Strek for The Washington Post/FTWP)

LVIV, Ukraine — Adults who approach teenager Anna Melnyk sometimes cry, sometimes scream.

They see “information” about his green vest at the station in the western city of Lviv and ask questions: How to get to Poland? Where is the bomb shelter? What to do next? Anna’s calm demeanor seems to reassure these newcomers, displaced by war from besieged cities. They turn to her for a sign that everything is going to be fine.

“Some of them ask me my age and when I say ’16’ they are shocked,” Anna said. “But I don’t feel any difference. I have a mission: to help.

How a Ukrainian teenager balances school and the fight to save her country (Video: Erin Patrick O’Connor, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

She looks impossibly small, not just in the cavernous train depot where she volunteers most of the time, but in all of it – the giant Russian war machine that swallowed up a generation of young Ukrainians and turned them into adults overnight.

Anna, herself displaced from kyiv, undergoes a radical transformation alongside other Ukrainian teenagers, who trade their high school concerns for a job that will shape the kind of nation they will inherit once the fighting is over.

The country’s young people have already paid a terrible price in this war. Some have been assaulted and killed. Many more were uprooted from their homes or even crossed the border as captives. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, father of a teenage daughter and a younger son, said he does not protect his children from ugliness because he wants them to understand what is at stake.

Just a few months ago, Anna was a typical 10th grader, still two years away from the legal driving age in Ukraine, obsessed with her best friends and the changing lights in her bedroom. She begged her mother and stepfather to let her go out late. She didn’t always do her chores. If she got a bad grade, she said, she would sulk and think, “Life sucks.

She laughs now at these frivolous attentions. His iPhone film traces the abruptness of the before and the after. Photos show her posing and singing with classmates, followed by footage of Russian helicopters she recorded from her window. Since a harrowing escape from the capital in March, she has been living with her mother, grandmother, dog and cat in a tiny two-room apartment in Lviv.

She spends her mornings in class via Zoom, then hops on a bus to cross town for an afternoon shift at the train station. She said she felt empowered as she put on the green vest to help distraught families.

“Something has changed in the way I see my problems, my daily life,” Anna said. “Now every day I wake up and think, ‘Okay, I can do something.’ ”

An only child who didn’t grow up with her biological father, she learned to navigate the world from the hard-working, church-going women who sacrificed to give her a middle-class life in Kyiv. . His mother, Olga Kuzmenko, 36, is a linguist who interprets for Italian companies in Ukraine. Her grandmother, Olena Shevchun, 60, is an ophthalmologist who taught her poetry during walks in their favorite parks.

“We tried to do our best to give him everything we had, our way of seeing life, our values,” Shevchun said. “Life is full not when you’re rich or have everything you want, but when you do what you’re supposed to do. It goes its own way and we don’t stop it.

Learn more about the war in Ukraine

Anna’s mother took her on trips through Europe and the Middle East, always reminding her how lucky she was to have such opportunities. She also instilled a love of Ukraine in her daughter, visiting cultural museums and spending time in the Carpathian Mountains. Anna said the stunning vistas were “like freedom”.

“You can see a lot of stars and when they fall you can make wishes,” she said.

At the time, Anna’s dearest wish was to win a place in an exchange program that would send her to the United States. She applied twice and was not accepted. It stung, says Anna, but she thinks to herself it would happen when the time was right.

Like many teenagers, Anna’s family said she became more rebellious and stubborn around the age of 13. She revels in new freedoms like going to McDonald’s alone with her friends. She created her own look — baggy Billie Eilish-inspired clothes, black combat boots, no makeup, and tousled short hair. She argued with her parents about walking the dog or helping with the dishes.

On February 23, the day before the invasion of Russia, she and her classmates pitched in to buy a chocolate birthday cake for a favorite teacher. At the time, the rumblings of war were background noise to people and places she didn’t know much about: “Russia, Putin, Donetsk, Luhansk.”

At sunrise the next morning, the sound of explosions jolted the family awake. Kuzmenko slipped into her daughter’s room.

“Don’t panic, Anyuta,” the mother said, using her daughter’s nickname. “Just take your things, whatever you’ll need for a few weeks.” Kuzmenko remembers Anna insisting on bringing the cake.

Anna, her mother and her stepfather quickly packed important clothes and documents, as well as the cake. They drove to her grandmother’s house in the northern suburbs, where that night Anna sat bitterly in front of the television, eating a birthday cake while watching the news of an unfolding war suddenly right outside his window..

Anna filmed helicopters that began to buzz around their area. At first the family rejoiced, thinking it was Ukrainian planes arriving to protect them.

“Then they started shooting,” Kuzmenko said.

Anna’s parents realized they had made a big mistake driving north. Shevchun, the grandmother, lives just 10 miles from Bucha, where Russian ground forces would leave a trail of death and destruction. They could hear the bombardment, and they lay awake night after night wondering how they would react, what they would say, if Russian troops appeared at their doorstep.

Then the first photos of atrocities in Bucha appeared, “and we understood: there would be no discussion,” Shevchun said.

The stress and pressure on the family has increased. One day, Anna locked herself in a closet for hours, crying and refusing to eat. The family prayed together and decided to run to western Ukraine. The plan was that Anna’s stepfather would accompany the women and then return to kyiv. They had no idea of ​​the districts occupied by Russian forces, but their Protestant pastor told them of an escape route through secondary roads.

“Drive, drive, drive, 15 hours without stopping,” Kuzmenko said, recalling the freezing trip in the dead of winter.

Luckily, friends found them the two-room apartment in Lviv, near the Ukrainian Catholic University, the school Anna dreamed of one day attending.

They had shelter, but they were far from settled. Kuzmenko said she developed an uncontrollable tremor. There were squabbles given the cramped space. The dog began to growl at the air raid sirens. Kuzmenko said it was her daughter who adapted best.

“There were times when I stayed here and just cried without even seeing the future, the next day how to move forward,” Kuzmenko said. “And then she comes and says, ‘Mom, do you want me to hug you?’ ”

A few days after arriving in Lviv, Anna set out to join a local volunteer force and was sent to weave camouflage nets and help travelers to the deposit. Sometimes his work outfit includes Spider-Man socks in honor of his favorite superhero. She likes how he fights great battles for the universe, but also devotes himself to, for example, stopping a bicycle thief.

“He’s also a teenager,” Anna said. “And he can make changes around him.”

A crowded train to Kyiv, carrying worried and hopeful returnees

During her shifts at the station, Anna has developed close bonds with other volunteers. Masha Riabuha, 16, a reserved girl with long blond hair, is displaced from the battered city of Kharkiv. Solomiya Oliskevych, 16, with dark curls and a wry sense of humor, lives in Lviv and knew Anna before the war. “The team,” Oliskevych said with a smile.

Watching the girls’ enthusiasm gives Anna’s mother and grandmother hope that Ukraine’s next generations won’t grow up feeling tied down to a Soviet heritage.

“She doesn’t have these fears, that she has no dignity, that she has no right to exist, to have her opinions,” Kuzmenko said of her daughter. “She’s a whole person. She’s free.

Still, she and Shevchun urge Anna to wait out the war overseas, perhaps with church friends who have offered to put her up in Maryland. They have arranged an appointment for his US visa next week in Poland. The irony is that the girl who once wanted a star to go to the United States is now reluctant to leave Ukraine.

Maybe she could go just for the summer, Anna said, but her home is here. She contemplates the exact moment when she returns to kyiv and reunites with friends.

“I just imagine how we’re going to run towards each other,” she said. “I hope it will happen soon. Ukraine will win, I hope with all my heart and I feel it.

One evening after volunteering, Anna and two other girls took a walk through downtown Lviv. As always, war was never far away. They stopped to play a sidewalk shooting game where they fired pellets at a paper cutout of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s face.

The trio wanted to eat at McDonald’s, but the chain went out of business because of the dispute. Instead, they went to KFC, where they dipped fries in ice cream and browsed memes on their phones. Whenever the conversation revolved around their fears, the mood turned dark until one of them broke the tension by saying, “Instant Ukraine! and they started laughing again.

The girls wanted to stay out longer, but the weather got wet. As they walked to a bus stop, they hugged each other, threw their heads back and danced in the rain.

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