Living for Liza: A Ukrainian mother's journey of love and defiance

Scripps News’ Jason Bellini talks with the mother of a girl killed by a Russian missile in Ukraine, in her first in-person interview since the summer.
Posted at 9:00 PM, Mar 02, 2023

It was an attack that horrified the world. A Russian missile struck a town in central Ukraine, far from the front lines, killing 23 people. 

Iryna Dmytrieva was injured in the attack and her 4-year-old, Liza, was killed. 

Dmytrieva has been receiving medical care in Vienna, Austria, but she plans to go back to Ukraine, for the first time since the attack, to mark her daughter's birthday. 

The world knew Liza as a girl pushing a pink stroller, before a Russian missile took her life. Liza became a symbol of the savagery of war and undeniable evidence of Russian President Vladimir Putin's crimes against humanity. 

But to her mother, the four-year-old with Down syndrome is much more than a victim and a symbol. 

"Liza gave us so much love," Dmytrieva said through a translator. "I have never felt like this in my life."

"When she was alive, I dreamed that her example would instill faith in parents who have special children — that anything is possible," Dmytrieva added.

Dmytrieva survived the attack with life-threatening injuries. She's able to walk again, but shrapnel still bulges from her wrist. 

On the day of the attack, Dmytrieva said she remembers seeing a rocket flying above their heads. 

"I thought that this was probably [the] end," she said. "I bent over the baby carriage to shield her. And there was an explosion."

Dmytrieva recalls asking for a man to help unstrap Liza from the carriage. But unlike Dmytrieva, the stranger saw that Liza did not survive. 

"I wanted to get her out myself, but my hand was injured. He says, 'I'm sorry, but I can't help anymore,'" Dmytrieva recalled.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke about Liza after learning about her death.

"Among the dead today in Vinnytsia, there is a girl, she was four years old, her name is Liza," Zelenskyy said. "The child is four years old. Her mother is in critical condition." 

Dmytrieva missed her daughter's funeral as she recovered from the attack. Dmytrieva was despondent, but she said Liza began to visit her in her dreams. 

"It was a very, very long dialogue," she said. "We talked. She came and told me a lot."

"The dreams are very realistic," Dmytrieva added. "When she hugs and kisses me, It feels like we are holding hands, and I am so happy."

Even with Liza in her dreams, encouraging her, Dmytrieva resisted efforts to help her get better. 

"I did not want to be treated at all. The doctors told me that 'you must,'" Dmytrieva said. "And for the first few months, they constantly scolded me."

"I had no desire for rehabilitation at all because I did not understand why I was living at all," she added. 

Dmytrieva said her desire to get better eventually changed.

"I came to realize that I should live for the sake of her memory, to help other people," she said. 

Dmytrieva now spends her time writing and walking through historic central Vienna, contemplating, and often sharing her innermost thoughts, many set to music, like the song "Memories," by Turkish artist Serhat Durmas.

"Alas, I was your mother for so little time. So little," Dmytrieva wrote. “Motherhood is a gift. It was short for me. But filled with love, tenderness and bright colors.” 

Still, she shares the replay in her mind of that day. 

“The terrible picture is spinning before my eyes again and again," she writes. "I remember everything down to the smallest detail.” 

And then there are the dreams of her conversations with Liza. 

“You seem to be alive, but you are dead,” she writes. “And there is no light, no way out because the pain is so strong that it obscures the light. Only one thing saves me: 'This is not your time, mom, we will definitely meet together, but later... Your Liza.'” 

Had Liza not spoken to her, Dmytrieva wrote in November, “I wouldn’t have been able to live. I wouldn’t have survived.”

Her writing, over time, grew defiant, until the week before Christmas. 

“I am showing this video with scars,” she said. “Not for pity, but for the world to see how the neighboring country of the murderer mutilates the Ukrainian people.” 

“Scars on the body don’t scare me,” Dmytrieva said. 

“But the scars on the heart will never disappear,” she added. “Like a crown of thorns, clamping from all sides.” 

“Unfortunately, there are thousands of people like me," Dmytrieva said.

Dmytrieva said she shares her stories on Instagram so people know what is going on in Ukraine.

“Everyone should see what these bastards are doing,” she said. “I am just one example out of thousands of people, who are suffering from this war.”

Dmytrieva also wants to use her voice to reach a growing audience of parents who have children with special needs.

“I really want every child, following Liza's example, to receive love, faith, and support from their parents every day, because this is very important,” she said. “I want people to see that everything is possible, that great love works wonders.” 

Dmytrieva often receives love from strangers online. A boy with autism painted a portrait of Liza surrounded by flowers, butterflies and angels. 

Dmytrieva is also painting and trying to appreciate the “beautiful” world.

On Instagram, Dmytrieva wrote a message for her daughter: “I promised you that I would show you the world. It’s as beautiful and bright as you.”


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