RICHARD PENDLEBURY reports on young people caught up in horror of war

I’m too young to die, said Maxym, 6. Hours later he lay on the floor of the hospital, seven bullet wounds in his lifeless body… RICHARD PENDLEBURY reports on the young people caught up in horror of war in Kyiv

  • Kyiv is in the middle of its second 35-hour lockdown in a week as the war rages
  • Explosions shook the city. Smoke rose from both the north west and north east 
  • A Russian missile stuck out the surface of a shallow park lake in Obolon district

As his family prepared to flee their home Maxym Franko, aged six, told his mother he was frightened.

‘Mama, I don’t want to die,’ he said. ‘I’m too young.’

‘What are you talking about?’ she asked, trying to reassure him. ‘Nothing will happen to you.’

Within hours Maxym was dead. He was killed on February 26 while perched on his mother’s knee, clutching his pet white hamster, Bodia.

He departed his short life an innocent, and more frightened than he had ever been; more than any six-year-old child should ever be, anywhere.

The picture shows 6-year-old Maxym, killed while his family fled the Vynohradar neighbourhood, close to Irpin, a satellite town that became a front line in the war

For some time his body lay unattended on the floor of an overwhelmed Kyiv hospital, covered only by a sheet of cardboard [see picture bottom right]. He was buried without any members of his immediate family being present.

Today, using these pictures from the Franko family’s photo album, we can tell the story of this ‘everychild’ victim of Putin’s horrific war.

On Saturday we described how Maxym’s 13-year-old cousin Vovo survived the same attack, despite being hit by five bullets, including one in the face.

Maxym’s mother, Anna Chechelnytska is still recovering from a serious head wound that she suffered in the incident. But it is the psychological damage to Anna that will never be repaired. She is almost deranged with grief.

Alina, 13, is being treated in hospital (pictured). Her brother Maxym was one of the first casualties of the war, in Kyiv. Their mother Anna, 31 was also injured. They were all shot as they fled the city.

The body of 6 year old Maxym, covered by a cardboard sheet on a hospital floor

Yet on Monday she agreed to give a harrowing interview to the Mail. She wants the world to know that her son existed and how happy they had been together, despite the hardships of their life.

She wants us to know exactly what happened to him when the Russians invaded Ukraine.

Anna, 31, has a daughter Alina, now 13, from a marriage which ended in divorce. Maxym was the product of another relationship that also came to an end.

She and her two children lived in a flat in Kyiv’s Sviatoshynskyi district. Money was tight. She held down two cleaning jobs – at an IT company and a private apartment complex – to make ends meet.

Growing up in this hardscrabble environment Maxym was mature beyond his years.

‘He was just six, but he behaved like an adult,’ she says. ‘He always tried to help me whenever possible; he washed the dishes, cleaned the room, did his homework without me having to help or even encourage him. He was only in the first year of his schooling.’

Anna’s father died last month, on her birthday. Then came the Russian invasion.

‘When it began we were invited by my cousin Oleksandr to come and stay at his family’s apartment in the Vynohradar neighbourhood, close to Irpin [a satellite town that became a frontline],’ she says. ‘But the shelling there quickly grew intense.

‘Maxym, Alina and Vovo got very scared. So both our families decided to leave the city together and go to relatives in Revne in the west of Ukraine.’

Six of them were packed into Olexandr’s blue Lada saloon. Maxym took his hamster Bodia and their white cat Sniezhka – meaning ‘Snowy’. All the children were in the backseat of the car, Maxym on Anna’s lap.

‘We successfully passed through two Ukrainian military checkpoints,’ says Anna. ‘But when we were on a slip road just in front of the Ministry of Infrastructure the car came under heavy fire.’

The fusillade – it is still not clear from which side – was heavy and at point blank range.

Shells set the town of Irpin alight as the death toll in Ukraine rises with the smoke

Oleksandr, driving, was killed instantly. Vova’s mother Natalya was hit by at least ten bullets, but all passed through her body without hitting any vital organs.

‘I was shot in the head, near my ear,’ Anna recalls. ‘Alina was struck by bullets in her right hand and her left knee. But Maxym was already dead when we took him out of the car.

‘I got out of the car carrying my son and I was walking round with him screaming until at some point I lost consciousness. 

When I came to I could hear other people screaming and they were walking round me as I lay there. Someone called the ambulance and it arrived in 25 minutes, according to Alina who stayed calm throughout, even though she too was wounded.

‘I don’t understand why we were shot,’ Anna continues. ‘The windows of the car were transparent. Whoever it was surely could see it was carrying women and children. Oleksandr wasn’t even going fast.’

The remains of the Retroville shopping Mall in Kyiv, bombed overnight

The victims – aside from Oleksandr whose body was inexplicably left in the car for a number of days – were taken to the nearby Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital. Sniezhka the cat and Bodia the hamster ran away when the car doors were opened and are missing still.

‘For the first days at hospital I could not communicate with anyone, not even Alina,’ says Anna. ‘I pushed her away, my own injured daughter. I would not let her comfort me. I was screaming: ‘‘Where is my son?’’

‘I wasn’t permitted to see Maxym for several days, until I was invited to the morgue to identify his body. I could see that his front was unharmed. He was shot in the side or the back; he had been hit by seven bullets.’

Anna was then transferred to a hospital in distant Lviv where, ten days after the attack, she underwent surgery to remove the bullet in her head. Now she is in Revne with Alina, at her brother’s flat.

A view from a heavily damaged building after Russian attacks

Maxym was buried while Anna was being treated for her injuries.

‘My son was buried next to my father by my ex-husband,’ she says. ‘He wasn’t even father of [Maxym], but he did it for me.’

Maxym’s biological father had failed to respond to Anna’s heartbroken messages. Anna starts crying, hysterically.

Over and over she tells us: ‘I should have saved Maxym. It was my duty as his mother to protect him and I failed,’ and then: ‘What is there left for me to live for?’

You still have your daughter, I remind her. ‘Poor Alina remembers the most [about the attack],’ she says. ‘Much more than me.

‘But she doesn’t want to speak. She needs counselling.’ So does Anna. ‘I can still sense Maxym’s smell from when sometimes we slept together in same bed,’ she sobs. ‘I can hear his voice. I have dreamed about him since he died.’

A police officer stands guard at the wreckage of a damaged shopping mall in Podilskyi district of Kyiv by the Russian air strikes

The war goes on and the population of Kyiv is in the middle of its second 35-hour lockdown in a week.

Curfew will end at 7am local time today. A series of explosions shook the city this afternoon. Smoke rose from the directions of both the north west and north east.

A photo posted on social media showed the stump of a Russian missile sticking out of the surface of a shallow park lake in Obolon district. It had been shot down by Ukrainian air defence units.

But as an illustration of the real horror of this war, nothing can compete with an image taken by a member of staff of little Maxym Franko lying beneath his cardboard shroud on the floor at the children’s hospital.

It should be seen far and wide. It is wrong to sanitise what is happening here. That only assists the Putins and other warmongers of this world.

Maxym’s mother wants you to see what war really means.

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