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- author Jackie French

Monday 9 January 2023

Review: You Don’t Know What War Is

Twelve-year-old Yeva tells one story in an ocean of narratives from the heartbreaking invasion of Ukraine. We are very fortunate that hers is an engaging and compelling voice - and that she is willing to share her experience. 

In a perfect world, we’d say: ‘You’re right, Yeva! We don’t know what war is and neither do you, so go enjoy your bowling birthday party with friends and then a happy, safe time with your family.’  

In our imperfect world, we have a twelve-year-old girl and her Grandmother fleeing their ravaged, war-torn home-town of Kharkiv to live as refugees for months, before ultimately finding shelter in Dublin. 

Until you’ve been there, you don’t know what war is. 

Yeva is right. We don’t know. 

Hearing a story is nothing like living through the fierce and confronting detail of sleeping in cold and crowded underground bunkers, your house being blown up, people you love and care for going missing, starvation, fear, uncertainty and displacement. 

Nothing compares to enduring such hardships and visceral realities in daily life. Words on a page can only go so far in transporting us to understanding. 

Yet, reading through Yeva’s diary, I had the profound sense that I was bearing witness to something remarkable. With this extraordinary young girl as guide and narrator, it is possible to catch just a glimpse of what life becomes for those who are displaced by war. 

Of course we haven’t lived it. But we can come to understand it a tiny bit better through Yeva’s sharing.

We follow Yeva and her Grandmother intensively for 18 days, and then over the course of two months while they flee from one ‘safe’ place to another seeking refuge, telling their stories, checking in with loved ones; every aspect of their lives ripped out from under them and uncertainty around each corner. 

With photos from her mobile phone, text messages and daily news headlines peppered through the book, this is indeed a narrative for our times. It’s intense and confronting as well as conversational, as you might expect from a twelve-year old in such a complex and traumatic situation. 

At times searingly raw and intimate, Yeva’s fears and anxieties are laid bare. And then, there are text message threads between her school friends. Funny, simple, heartbreaking and tender, these compel the reader over and over again, to remember that this is a twelve-year-old girl whose story and words we are reading. 

Published in association with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and with a foreword by Michael Morpurgo, Yeva’s story is ultimately one of hope. 

Essential reading for all ages. 

Title: You Don’t Know What War Is – The Diary Of A Young Girl From Ukraine
Author: Yeva Skaliestska
Publisher: Bloomsbury, $19.99
Publication Date: November 2022
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781526659934
For ages: 11+
Type: Non-Fiction