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'My mother is without her head' – A little girl's life in a war that will not end

The little girl screamed: “My mother is without her head.”

Sasha Dyka was only four in May 2017 when a shell exploded next to a house she had been visiting with her mother in the frontline town where they lived in eastern Ukraine.

Sasha pictured on the day her mum was killed

Read more: ‘They haven’t give up but they’re on their knees’ – Inside the cut-off town on the Ukrainian frontline

Masha, 33, had been outside at the time with four other adults.

Masha was just 33 when she died
Masha was just 33 when she died

All five were killed – casualties of a grinding conflict between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists.

Sasha had been inside with a friend, who also survived.

Her grandmother, now her guardian, first learned of the horror when she saw a post on Facebook showing a photograph of the two girls, saying they were both orphans.

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“When Sasha went out from the house, she was running around screaming: ‘My mother is without her head’,” Zinaida Mezentseva, 65, said, recalling the horror of 13 May 2017.

Zinaida Mezentseva when she was younger
Zinaida Mezentseva when she was younger

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At the mortuary, she said she had only been able to recognise the remains of her daughter – her only child – by the clothes she had been wearing.

The grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter had lived together in a small apartment in Avdiivska, an industrial town in the frontline Donetsk region.

The trio dubbed themselves “Babski Vzvod” – the Girls’ Platoon.

Masha Dyka was a single mother and Sasha was her only child.

Mrs Mezentseva, a cleaner at a local school, lost her husband in 2016 to natural causes after the family had endured electricity outages and no heat because of the fighting, which began in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists in the east.

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Ukraine: Living on the frontline

In 2017, they initially had a lucky escape when a shell hit the apartment – on the second floor of an apartment block.

It destroyed a balcony and sent the three generations of females diving to the floor.

“When the shell hit the balcony, everybody was sleeping,” the grandmother said.

“My daughter managed to push my granddaughter from the bed and cover her with her body. There was a big hole right above them.”

Avdiivka had been at the scene of fierce fighting that year as separatists tried and failed to take control.

A number of civilians were caught in the crossfire, including eventually Sasha’s mother.

Sasha was Masha's only child
Sasha was Masha’s only child
Masha was killed along with four other adults
Masha was killed along with four other adults

Read more: ‘This is a warning’ – Commander of Ukraine ground troops says they will ‘fight until the very last breath’

The loss had a profound effect on the little girl, now nine years old, who hugged her grandmother when Sky News visited the apartment to speak with them.

They also have an old dog and a pregnant cat – welcome company and comfort.

“Often she becomes hysterical, she is agitated,” said the grandmother, holding Sasha close.

“But she keeps active. She does dance classes and has competed in competitions. She is a good student – though that could be because I keep the pressure on her,” she said, smiling.

Sasha said she missed her mother – rushing to grab a framed portrait of her to show.

“She remembers her often,” said the grandmother.

Masha was killed in 2017
Masha was killed in 2017

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Asked who she blamed for what happened, Mrs Mezentseva said: “I blame nobody – war is war.”

She said she had not moved away from the town – where she was born – as her relatives all live in separatist-controlled Donetsk.

“I just want the war to stop,” she said, though admitted that she feared a further escalation.

For Sasha, who has known nothing but conflict since she was barely one year old, she said life in Avdiivka is like any other town.

As to whether she is scared to live so close to a frontline that – while quieter than five years ago – is still active, the little girl said: “When they shell, yes. When they don’t, no.”


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