The day Russian troops invaded Ukraine, 18-year-old Oleksandr Ivanov was shot in the forehead and 10 times in the chest while in the passenger seat of his grandmother’s car. They had been driving to Hostomel, outside Kyiv, to pick up his grandfather and bring him to the capital.
Oleksandr, known as Sasha, did not have the life of an ordinary 18-year-old. His mother, Sveta, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy when Sasha was three. Sasha had spent his life taking care of her, helping her dress, wash and go to the toilet.
Sasha had a natural love of learning, according to his family. From when he started to talk, he loved reciting poetry. At the age of seven he asked if he could learn to play the piano. Despite finishing music school with honors, he decided to study medicine. He attained full marks in Ukraine’s national high school exams for chemistry and biology and was given a scholarship to Ukraine’s best medical school, in Kyiv. Another top university, Taras Shevchenko University, also in Kyiv, rang his mother to complain when they heard he would not be coming to them.
Sasha planned to become a neurosurgeon to help cure his mother’s disease, his family said. The bookshelves in Sasha’s bedroom in Kyiv are filled with thick textbooks and encyclopedias. For his birthday last year he asked for two books, Robert Brooker’s Genetics: Analysis and Principles and the British Medical Association’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary. His mother ordered them from abroad.
“He didn’t drink, smoke or go out at night. He was a total homebody, a peaceful boy,” said Sveta, sitting in her wheelchair in Sasha’s bedroom. “He knew that I needed help and he would always run home after school to help me. When I was down or depressed because of my illness and he would pick me up and even give me massages.
“There are children who like football or wrestling. My child loved books, chess and playing the piano, but no one ever forced him to study. But please don’t think he was stuck up. He’d plant potatoes with Granny, fix the roof with his grandad and change his cousin’s nappies. He was a simple, simple boy.”
Sasha’s favorite films were the Hobbit trilogy and Bridget Jones, said his mother.
When they celebrated Christmas at Sasha’s grandparents’ house in Hostomel last year, the Ivanov family could not have imagined what 2022 would bring. In a video his mother recorded from her wheelchair on 23 December, Sasha helped his earnest four-year-old cousin put decorations on the tree at his grandparents house.
Less than a month later, in January, Valery, Sasha’s grandfather, had a stroke and was taken to hospital. The left side of his body was paralyzed.
When Russia invaded on 24 February, the hospital asked Valery’s wife, Lilia, Sasha’s grandmother, to collect him. Despite her children’s advice to bring him to Kyiv, she asked the ambulance to take him to their house in Hostomel, also home to a cargo airport that has been the site of several major assaults by Russian forces. “I thought he’d be safer there,” said Lilia. “How was I to know?”
As the fighting raged on invasion day, Lilia decided that they should move to Sveta’s flat in Kyiv. But she needed help: her husband weighs 18 stone. Lilia, 60, could not lift him into the car alone.
She drove to Kyiv early on the second day of the invasion to pick up Sasha. As they drove together back through Hostomel, Russian snipers fired at their car from a children’s park. Lilia and other people the Guardian has interviewed who were in Hostomel say Ukrainian troops were not in the town at the time, and they had seen a Russian column.
“It was like there was an explosion inside the car. I saw Sasha’s head had fallen, like this, to one side. Then I blacked out. When I came to and I saw him, I just screamed out, I didn’t know what to do,” Lilia said.
“I tried to prop up his head but my arm was floppy. I pressed on the pedal and we drove away. They were still shooting at us over and over and I felt I was losing consciousness again.”
Lilia managed to drive another two miles before passing out at the wheel from shrapnel wounds. A boy came out on to the street and called an ambulance to take her to the nearest hospital, in Bucha – the city near Hostomel now notorious for Russia’s civilian massacres. There was nothing that could be done for Sasha.
At the hospital, Lilia regained consciousness and rank Sveta. She told her Sasha was dead and her body was lying in the car in Hostomel.
But the ordeal for Sasha’s family did not end there. His grandmother was now wounded in a hospital in Bucha and his paralyzed grandfather was alone in the grandparents’ house in Hostomel. Both places were under Russian occupation.
“I had to make a choice,” said Sveta, in tears. “Collect my parents or collect my son’s body.” She thing her son.
“We were told they were blowing up the bridges and we had to do it now,” she said. Sveta and Sasha’s father drove to Hostomel surrounded by the thunder of shells. They found their son’s body in the car’s passenger seat.
Eduard Lysovyk, who was later also shot by a Russian sniper, came over to help. The three of them hoisted Sasha’s body into the family car. They drove to the police station to report the death, but the police would not come outside because the shelling was too heavy. They had to try two morgues because the first would not accept the body without a police report.
The next day they buried Sasha in Bucha’s cemetery. There were no graveyard workers. Sasha’s father, Lysovyk and the head of the graveyard dug the hole themselves. Sveta, who can stand and walk for short periods, broke her leg while mourning over his open coffin.
“I put his Tom Ford glasses in the coffin, along with his scrubs,” Sveta said.
For 20 days, Lilia remained in Bucha’s three-storey hospital with terrified patients and doctors. When the shelling was bad, they moved into the corridors where they lay on the floor. There was no running water, heating or electricity. “We just ate frozen dumplings which were cooked on a fire outside,” Lilia said. “We had to get water from a well outside.”
Eventually a generator was found. Despite having several shrapnel wounds and a paralyzed arm, Lilia was one of the healthier patients and so she volunteered to help carry the generator up the stairs.
“The Russians came in once and asked if any of us were Russian citizens or if any of us were Ukrainian soldiers. We all said no,” said Lilia.
At one point she wanted to leave on foot to go to her husband who was still in their family home, but the doctors said she wouldn’t make it as she was too weak.
After three weeks, an evacuation bus arrived. “Our bus and 60 others drove into Kyiv but the Russians stopped us on Zhytomyrska highway and started shooting us. We were stuck on the buses for two and half hours and there were jets flying over our heads. Then they let us go,” said Lilia.
Valery, Sasha’s grandfather, was evacuated from his house in Hostomel to the family flat in Kyiv on 9 April. He had spent 44 days on his own, half paralyzed, in the basement. A neighbor had braved the shelling to visit him once a day to feed him and help him to the toilet.
“I just wanted it to stop,” said Valery, who sat up from the sofa in the Kyiv flat clasping his hands to his ears and sobbing. Lilia tried to soothe him. “You’re not there any more Valya, it’s OK.”
Sveta said: “There are some families who the war hasn’t touched. But the war touched our family like nothing else. My mother is disabled, my father is disabled, I’m disabled, and I buried my son.”