In a Flash of Fire and Shrapnel, a Smiling 4-Year-Old’s Life Is Snuffed Out
VINNYTSIA, Ukraine — They called her Sunny Flower. She had just learned her first words. She liked to clean the corridor at the speech therapy center she attended, and organize the toys. She always seemed happy.
And after her final visit to the center on Thursday, Liza Dmytriyeva, a 4-year-old with Down syndrome, did what young children like to do — proudly push her own baby carriage through the park on a walk with her mother.
It was, in other words, a typical, happy morning for Liza. But it ended in a flash of fire and metallic shrapnel from a Russian cruise missile strike on Vinnytsia, a central Ukrainian town far from the front lines, where some sense of normalcy had still been possible five months into the war.
The explosion killed Liza and gravely wounded her mother, Iryna Dmytriyeva, who lost a leg and who remains unconscious, ending a touching, loving effort by a mother to care for a child with a disorder, in peacetime and then during war. She had kept a blog about her daughter’s development.
“She was happy running to her lessons and never wanted to leave,” said Alyona Korol, the director of LogoClub, the speech therapy center Liza attended. It was not until Ms. Korol saw a photograph of Liza’s tiny legs and small shoes beside a blood-splattered baby carriage that she realized her beloved student, Sunny Flower, had died amid the smoke and chaos of the strike.
The scene punched through the too-familiar stream of daily violence directed against civilians by the Russian military in its plodding invasion of the country.
Three Kalibr cruise missiles fired from a submarine in the Black Sea, about 200 miles away, struck the center of Vinnytsia, hitting a wedding hall, a shopping mall and a neurological clinic.
“When I saw those shoes, I recognized them. It’s our Liza,” said Ms. Korol, of the little girl’s white-and-green sneakers. The family was too busy caring for the girl’s mother to discuss the tragedy, Ms. Korol said. “But I want to talk. I want to shout out to the whole world about this girl!”
A video of Liza pushing the baby carriage on her way to her last speech therapy appointment, which her mother posted on Instagram, and photos shared online by Ukraine’s State Emergency Service and verified by The New York Times showing her body slumped beside the bloodied, overturned carriage and her mother’s severed foot in a yellow sock, have swirled around the world on social media. They have come to encapsulate the horror of the stepped-up Russian campaign of missile and artillery strikes on Ukrainian towns in recent weeks.
Whether through callousness in targeting or simply by malevolent design, terror has rained down from the skies on shopping malls, apartment buildings, schools and medical facilities, killing dozens of civilians.
Some military analysts have said that Russia, running low on precision weaponry, is firing haphazardly at targets in densely populated areas, heedless of collateral death and destruction. Others, like President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and other Ukrainian officials, say the strikes are part of a “terrorist” campaign to break the country’s will to resist. The missile strike on Vinnytsia killed 23 people, including Liza and two other children, and wounded 140 others.
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
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“Russia continues its policy of intimidation and terrorism,” Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, wrote in an online post after speaking with Samantha Power, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, about the strike in Vinnytsia, and missile and artillery bombardments of Mykolaiv in the south, and Chasiv Yar in the east. “That is why it should be recognized as a terrorist state at the international level.”
In a statement on Friday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it had aimed its strike in Vinnytsia at the military officer’s club, where members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces were meeting with “representatives of foreign armament suppliers.” The ministry’s account, which could not be verified, concluded by noting that the attack resulted in the “elimination of the conference participants.”
Whatever the case, the volley of missiles blew in windows, collapsed walls and ignited fires across hundreds of yards of a downtown neighborhood.
Amid the apocalyptic mess of charred, smoking ruins was the neurological clinic, serving children with disorders, Ukraine’s indisputably innocent, and those who cared for them. The speech therapy center was nearby. As of late June, at least 322 children had died in the conflict, the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office reported.
One of the three missiles that struck the town center hit the steps at the entryway to the neurological clinic, Neuromed, across a parking lot from the officers’ club. It exploded with such force that it blew a car from the parking lot into the clinic.
The explosion killed two receptionists and gravely wounded a still undetermined number of young patients and two doctors, the clinic’s manager, Tetiana Podolian, said. Those closer to the windows died, she said.
That morning, Yulia Kovalchuk, 32, drove to work with her husband, Pavlo Kovalchuk, one of Vinnytsia’s top child neurologists. He treated children with autism, speech problems and other disorders.
“He dropped me off, I kissed him goodbye and said, ‘Take care of yourself,’” said Ms. Kovalchuk, who next saw her husband in a hospital bed, with burns over 40 percent of his body and wrapped in gauze.
“It’s hard to recognize him now,” she said. “I see only his blue eyes.”
A video of the aftermath of the strike on Neuromed, verified by Ms. Kovalchuk, showed doctors staggering into a parking lot disoriented and in shock. One man carries a badly burned child in his arms.
Mr. Kovalchuk walks toward the camera in blackened pants and without a shirt. His hands look to have no skin left, and bits of burned clothing or skin hang from his arms. “That’s Pavlo,” Ms. Kovalchuk said.
Though gravely wounded, Mr. Kovalchuk, after escaping the clinic, asked about an infant he had seen before the blast; the baby, cradled under a table after an air raid siren went off before the strikes, had survived unhurt.
Of the 13 employees of the Neuromed clinic at work on Thursday morning, two were killed and all 11 others wounded. Another neurologist, Natalia Falshtynska, lost both legs.
“We are fighting for their lives but unfortunately not all depends on us,” said Oleksandr Kapitan, 42, a co-owner of the clinic. “I want you to shout about this,” he said. “It’s a pure crime against humanity, just to scare us.”
The clinic’s receptionists were so badly burned they could be identified only by their jewelry, Mr. Kapitan said.
The bodies of two children from the strike zone remain unidentified; it is unclear whether they were patients at the neurological clinic or the speech therapy center.
The video showing the sneakers and stroller of Liza Dmytriyeva after the missile strike — which started circulating on social media in the hours after the attack — catapulted to national attention, as Ukraine’s leaders held it up as an example of Russia’s disregard for civilian lives. On Friday, people placed flowers and a teddy bear at the site where Liza was killed.
Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, said in a Twitter post on Friday that she recognized Liza from a Christmas video she had shot with children in 2021.
“The little girl managed to paint with dye not only herself, her dress, but also all the other children, me, the cameramen and the director just in half an hour,” she wrote, sharing the video. “Look at her, alive, please.”
The mother and daughter had an appointment with a speech therapist who had taught Liza how to pronounce her first words. In the video Ms. Dmytriyeva posted on Instagram of the walk to the therapy session, Ms. Dmytriyeva asks her daughter, “Where are we going little bunny?”
Liza responds with an unclear word, but her mother understands her well enough, and continues speaking encouragingly with her daughter.
As Ms. Dmytriyeva recovered in the hospital, her story and the bond with her daughter, painstakingly chronicled on her Instagram account, served as searing reminders of the toll that indiscriminate Russian attacks are exacting on Ukrainian civilians.
Ms. Dmytriyeva’s Instagram feed was a running testament to her love for Liza, traced through posts depicting milestones, struggles and words of encouragement for other parents.
There are scenes of Liza sitting on a bench with a sippy cup, playing with plastic blocks, smiling, eating cherries and looking up at her mother while walking in a park in the fall, over a carpet of red and orange leaves.
“You must educate yourself. The more resources parents have, the more the child receives,” Ms. Dmytriyeva wrote in a post the day before the attack. “Make your own dreams come true!”
Cora Engelbrecht and Malachy Browne contributed reporting.