Saturday, 2 Mar 2024

Mum's pain at loss of gymnast daughter, 10, killed in Russian bombardment

A gifted young athlete tipped for the Olympics, Kateryna Diachenko’s promising start in life was cut short as Russian forces reduced most of Mariupol to ruins.

The 10-year-old rhythmic gymnast and her father, Alexander, were lost under the rubble of their bombed home, victims of the brutal onslaught on the Ukrainian city.

Her mum, Marina, and older brother, Artem, survived the apparent artillery strike around two months before the port was fully captured by the Kremlin’s troops.

Marina, 41, struggles to speak about the day when her young family was forever split in half.

But she wants the world to remember her daughter, who had been preparing to compete in Ukraine’s traditional rhythmic gymnastics event, the Deriugina Cup.

‘Kateryna was a cheerful and kind girl who loved life,’ Marina says.

‘She was my sunshine, my everything. She had many friends, she was very popular with everyone and always helped others.

‘She loved rhythmic gymnastics and could hardly wait to go to the competitions with her coach Anastasia Meschanenkova and her friends.

‘When she won a medal, she always beamed and was so proud. Her dream was to participate in the Deriugina Cup in Kyiv one day in the future.’

Kateryna and her father, Alexander, died on March 12, 2022 when a shell hit their home, according to Ukrainian social media channels.

At the time, up to 130,000 residents were reported to have been trapped under the heavy Russian bombardment of the besieged city on Ukraine’s south-eastern coast.



Neighbours pulled severely injured Artem and their mother out of the rubble of their home but could not reach Kateryna or her father, according to anecdotal accounts. The mother and son were among Mariupol refugees who fled into Russia, with some managing to transit on to other countries in Europe and even back to Ukraine.

Artem, now 10, was evacuated from Mariupol to a hospital in the Donetsk enclave and then to Moscow.

Doctors in the Russian capital fought successfully to save one of his legs and he also suffered multiple fractures, including to his hip and pelvic spine.

He is currently receiving treatment and rehabilitation under constant medical supervision in the city.

‘There are no words to express what happened that day, it was hell on earth,’ she says. ‘On that day my dearest ones, my Kateryna and my husband Alexander, were taken from me.

‘With them, a part of me also died. I have no tears left — the excruciating pain and sorrow remain inside me along with a heart that writhes and screams and roars silently.’

The grief of child loss is being experienced by many parents in a similar position to Marina across Ukraine, where children have been in the crosshairs of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion.

More than 1,500 innocents have been killed or injured in Ukraine since the war began on February 24, 2022, according to United Nations figures released in June 2023.

Marina, a psychologist and restaurant technologist, spoke to Metro.co.uk from Moscow, where she has relocated while Artem receives medical care.

She believes that ‘only God knows’ why her beloved were taken from her.

‘My hope is that no mother has to experience a tragedy like the one I experienced,’ Marina says.

‘When you lose your loved ones, it’s the worst thing that can happen to you.

‘The world stands still. Nothing is the same as before.

‘The question “why” does not arise for me, only God knows why Kateryna and Alexander were taken from life so early. All I can do is to be strong for my wonderful son Artem and give him all my love.

‘I want to see him always happy.’

Marina, who also knew her son and husband as Katyusha and Sasha, still has memories of happy times that included her daughter winning an array of trophies and medals at competitions across Ukraine.

The fun-loving gymnast thrived at coach Anastasia Meschanenkova’s Club Formula Pobedy in Mariupol and had been looking forward to competing at the Deriugina Cup in Kyiv. In tribute, Ukrainian gymnastics official Lidia Vynogradna has said that Kateryna was Olympics material.

‘I wish that my Katyusha will live on forever in people’s hearts,’ Marina says.

‘It is important to create awareness among everyone that children always suffer the most in such a conflict.

‘Every child should be able to grow up carefree and deserves our protection and support. It breaks my heart to see how much Katyusha’s friends and her coach are suffering over her loss. Even several days before competitions, the girls were so happy to present their exercises in front of spectators and their eyes lit up when they won a medal.

‘We were one big inseparable family.’

Thousands of people were killed in Mariupol as around 90% of the city was reduced to ruins before it was captured by Russian forces after a two-month siege. Marina is nevertheless intent on returning to her home city, now said to be undergoing a process of ‘Russification’, after a visit in July.

The mum and some of her daughter’s best friends and fellow athletes are being supported by online portal Swiss Rhythmic Gymnastics.

‘The time I spent in Mariupol showed me how much I long to return home and to my hometown.’ Marina says.

‘I want to be near my beloved Katyusha and Sasha.

‘It is a matter of my heart.’

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