Russian war in Ukraine
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Victoria Amelina: Refuge in heaven

Writer Hector Abad Faciolince says goodbye to his Ukrainian colleague, who was killed at the age of 37 in the Russian bombing of a restaurant in Kramatorsk

Funeral VIctoria Amellina en Kiev
Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina’s relatives and friends at her funeral on Tuesday in Kyiv, Ukraine.ALINA SMUTKO (REUTERS)

Until a couple of days ago, I had no idea what an Iskander ballistic missile was. Actually, I know nothing about weapons, I was declared a draft dodger, and I have never fired a gun in my life. One could say that I am the ultimate pacifist: a coward. But since it was a Russian Iskander missile that killed writer Victoria Amelina right in front of me, I felt obliged to find out what kind of weapon it is. For starters, this Russian toy, costs about $3 million, weighs four and a half tons, can be launched from about 500 kilometers away, travels at supersonic speeds (over two thousand meters per second), and is so accurate that its margin of error on a target does not exceed five meters around. And yes, this extremely accurate weapon exploded about ten meters away from us.

Why such a cruel, expensive and precise attack on a simple restaurant? The Russian intelligence services—read: services for spreading disinformation and lies–first declared that it was the Ukrainian army that did it, not them; then they said that the Ria pizzeria had been attacked by mistake; then they corrected themselves to claim that the target was legitimate because the second floor of the restaurant “was a temporary deployment post for commanders of the 56th Motorized Infantry Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.” It should be noted that the restaurant did not have a second floor and no brigade was operating there. Any foreign correspondent who has been to the city of Kramatorsk has eaten there and knows that the place is (I mean, was) anything but a military post. Yes, soldiers went there on their days off to meet their families there. But above all, it was a regular meeting place for the inhabitants of Kramatorsk, a city that had 200,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the Russian invasion and today only has about 80,000. As Victoria told us on another occasion, Russia intended to set an example and punish a population that does not want to be Russian and did not welcome the Russians with open arms.

Victoria Amelina funeral
Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina’s relatives and friends at her funeral on Tuesday in Kyiv, Ukraine.Luis de Vega

What were we doing in Kramatorsk, 40 kilometers from the front, at that restaurant? The story must be told from the beginning, so I am going to steal two paragraphs’ worth of your time. Actually, Sergio Jaramillo (High Commissioner for Peace and Colombia’s former Vice Minister of Defense) and I had gone to Kiev at the Book Fair’s invitation: I was going to sign copies of my novel, which had been published in Ukrainian; Sergio went to present the “Hold on Ukraine!” campaign. Since I’ve also been part of this campaign from the very beginning and I have tried to get my colleagues from Latin America to join this initiative as well, I joined the presentation of our pro-Ukraine movement. Also attending the presentation were Ukrainian Nobel Prize winner Oleksandra Matviichuk; the president of the Ukrainian Pen Club, Volodymir Yermolenko; Colombian journalist Catalina Gomez (who was the moderator at the event); and poor Victoria Amelina. I was next to her.

Our presentation included a video that ended with Paquito D’Rivera playing the Ukrainian anthem on clarinet; it moved the book fair’s large audience to tears. That was on Saturday. The plan was to return to Poland on Monday, but Sergio and Catalina wanted to take our campaign further and more closely document the horrors and crimes committed by the Russians. Coward that I am, I made up various excuses not to go, but my friends settled all my objections. At a dinner with Victoria on Sunday, she was so enthusiastic about our South American solidarity that she said she wanted to accompany us to Donetsk herself. She would make one last trip before going to France on a one-year fellowship, where she planned to finish her book denouncing Russian war crimes. The next day, Monday—I didn’t want to go, Victoria did—we got up early to make the 9-hour, 550 kilometer-trip from Kyiv to Kramatorsk.

Amelina’s company was instrumental to learning about the horrors of war and the atrocities committed by the Russian army, both in the first weeks of the invasion and in the year that followed. She took us to see the house from which the Russians removed poet Volodymyr Vakulenko, then tortured him, shot him twice and buried him in a mass grave, as was done to Jews in the 1940s. Obsessed with the Holocaust, I did my part. I had us stop in the outskirts of Kharkiv to see a monument honoring over 15,000 Jewish victims who were murdered and buried in mass graves. In his campaign to “denazify” Ukraine, Putin—the most Hitler-like president we’ve seen since 1945—destroyed the menorah marking the Nazi crime site.

We saw and interviewed Ukrainian army officers and soldiers. I can assure you that they are not Nazis at all. If they are guilty of anything, it is that they remain an overly Soviet army, that is, paranoid (which is understandable during a war) and pachyderm-like and inefficient (which is very harmful in a war). We met a charming young soldier, a friend of Amelina’s, who had a constant angelic smile; he explained that although he had always been a committed pacifist, he was also certain that Putin and the invaders only use and understand one language: force. Dialogue and diplomacy have failed. Whether we like it or not, opposing evil with weapons is the only alternative we have today.

A woman hugs Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina’s coffin at her funeral on Tuesday in Kyiv, Ukraine
A woman hugs Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina’s coffin at her funeral on Tuesday in Kyiv, UkraineLuis De Vega Hernández

In the last year, Victoria had moved away from fiction and devoted herself to researching and closely documenting the war crimes committed by the aggressors. There is one war crime that she will not be able to document personally: the one committed against her. I am going to dedicate the next few months to writing about this heinous crime, to recounting it thoroughly and in detail, beyond Russian propaganda and lies. I owe as much to justice, both in the abstract and specifically to the justice that must one day be done for this heinous crime against a great and very brave colleague, a writer my daughter’s age who, in turn, leaves behind a ten-year-old orphan. I owe it to that child, at least, so that in another ten years she can know exactly how her brave, brilliant and lovely mother was killed.

For now, I will only tell you about the last moment in which Victoria Amelina was conscious. I was in front of her on the terrace of the restaurant. Since there was a dry law, Victoria had ordered a non-alcoholic beer. Sergio Jaramillo had filled my glass with ice and something like apple juice. Victoria looked at my glass: “It looks like whiskey,” she said, and smiled. At that moment, the Iskander—hell—fell from the sky. Now Victoria resides in heaven. Not heaven in the Christian or Muslim sense, but rather in that immaterial, mental and very human heaven that we call memory.

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