Ukraine war: They sang of victory – then a Russian rocket struck

Svitlana Siemieikina and Kristina Spitsyna
Image caption,Svitlana Siemieikina and Kristina Spitsyna shared a love of music and their country

By Orla Guerin

BBC News

Death came suddenly from a clear blue sky, as it often does now in Ukraine. In August, a Russian rocket slammed to earth killing two young women as they sat on a bench in a playground, in the shadow of a church.

Their names were Kristina Spitsyna and Svitlana Siemieikina, and they are among the more than 10,000 civilians who have lost their lives since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

The UN believes the actual number of men, women and children who have been killed is “considerably higher”.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is now a constant. The horror has become familiar. Many deaths are not reported in detail, but we wanted to tell the story of the lives, and last moments, of just two of those killed.

Short presentational grey line

When the breeze whispers in the trees, Halyna Spitsyna feels it is the presence of her daughter, Kristina. “The wind blows, and you think this is the soul of your child, hugging you,” she says.

Then she bends to put yellow chrysanthemums in a vase on Kristina’s grave.

Her daughter – a promising young singer – took her last breath in August, together with her best friend Svitlana. They are buried side by side at the edge of an overgrown cemetery.

The twin graves are a blaze of colour, stacked with wreaths, and topped with blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags. The graves stand out – as if calling attention to the youth and talent that have been taken.

Kristina and Svitlana came together in wartime, bonding over a love of music and a love of Ukraine. They formed a duo called Similar Girls. They sang at weddings, and live-streamed street concerts to their Telegram channel, raising money for soldiers and civilians alike.

On 9 August they were singing outside a supermarket on a busy street in their hometown of Zaporizhzhia – Svitlana, 18, on guitar, and Kristina, 21, on vocals.

Their performance was recorded on a phone. It is haunting to watch.

The footage shows Kristina, with long blond hair, wearing shorts, and Svitlana, guitar in hand, in jeans. They are brimming with life.

“Our last song will be for all people and the defenders of Kherson,” says Kristina. She chooses a well-known Ukrainian song called Winning The War. Her voice soars across the evening air.

Under the blue sky in the rays of truth

With the yellow sun on my shoulder

We write books for the future

How we will win the war

How we win the war

That song became their requiem. Twenty minutes later both girls were killed in the playground around the corner where they had gone to take a rest. It was a 300m walk from the main street.

Halyna is tormented by profound loss and agonising questions – what if the girls had not gone to the playground? What if they had stayed on the street?

And how can she carry on living now?

“You don’t know what plans to make for tomorrow,” she says, her face wet with tears. “Sometimes you can smile, but then you remember that she can’t smile any more. It is as if you are dead, but you can speak.”

Halyna, Kristina's mother
Image caption,Halyna Spitsyna suggested to her daughter and Svitlana that they leave Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion

Then, the youthful looking 43-year-old sales manager apologises for being overcome.

The rocket attack that killed the girls echoed through the city. Svitlana’s father, Yurii Siemieikin, heard it at his home on the outskirts, and jumped straight into his car.

“I knew they were somewhere in that district. The police let me through, and I saw what I saw. Svitlana was lying in front of me,” he says, gesturing to the ground with his hands, as his words fall away.

He sits in the shade of a chestnut tree, his wife Anna and their 12-year-old daughter, Sasha, by his side. The family’s secluded garden is a universe of grief.

“How is it possible in the 21st Century, to do something like this, completely unprovoked?” asks Yurii, 41, who works on the railways.

Svitlana Siemieikina and Kristina Spitsyna
Image caption,Both Svitlana and Kristina were musical from an early age, their families say

The Russians, he says, will never be forgiven. “This will last for generations to come. Our great-grandchildren will remember all they have done here and are continuing to do,” he says. Yurii speaks slowly, in a low voice, as if holding in his grief is taking every ounce of energy.

Svitlana was musical from childhood, he says, and wrote her own songs. She loved K-pop and studied foreign languages. Inside the family’s modest house her bedroom is just as she left it – with her posters of Nirvana and AC/DC on the wall. Her guitar is still on the bed, as if she might one day return. Now it is Sasha’s turn to play it.

Svitlana's room
Image caption,Svitlana’s bedroom, preserved as it was by her family

“She taught me how,” Sasha says. “At first it was hard, and I didn’t like it. Now I want to keep playing. She wanted everyone to be happy and without war. She wanted to do what she could with her music.”

Sasha speaks calmly of missiles and air raids now staples of a Ukrainian childhood. The killing of her sister has changed her calculation of risk, in an unexpected way.

“I started paying less attention to the danger,” she says matter-of-factly. “I live in my own world. I feel safer now because I feel that Sveta [Svitlana] is always with me.”

Sasha Siemieikina
Image caption,Sasha Siemieikina wants to keep playing guitar in honour of her sister

A framed photo of Svitlana is attached to the cross on her grave, Kristina’s photo is alongside, on her grave. In the photos they are looking towards each other, both forever young.

Ukraine is losing some of its brightest and its best, on and off the battlefield. The dead include actors and artists, ballet dancers and sports stars, and voices of the future like Kristina and Svitlana.

When the war broke out, Halyna suggested that the girls should leave. They refused. She says they wanted to keep singing, to lift people’s spirits. Halyna grieves not just for her loss, but for what her country is losing every day.

“Young people are dying who are very talented and very ambitious. If we don’t have children, what future does the country have. It doesn’t just impact us,” she says. “It can destroy Ukraine.”

Kristina's and Svitlana's graves alongside each other
Image caption,Kristina’s and Svitlana’s graves are alongside each other

Halyna says that when Kristina started performing – at the age of five – “she came on to the scene as a star. She had no fear of the stage. For her, it was vital to sing.”

She imagined her daughter would be famous for her voice, not for her death.

Instead, she and Svitlana – and many more – are filling early graves.

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