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Ukrainian woman looks back on the Russian missile attack that changed her life

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Russia has launched nearly 400 missiles into Ukraine in just the last month. Their impact is at once terrible and random. Now, this is the story of one such attack and how it changed the life of one young woman. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Seeing the outside of the Kharkiv Palace, a five-star hotel in downtown Kharkiv, is pretty shocking. There's a three-story hole in the side of the building. But inside it's even more dramatic. On the 10th floor, where the Russian missile hit on December 30, the exterior walls are gone. The wind whips across the piles of broken glass and rubble.

ANTON SHEVCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Anton Shevchenko, the hotel's head of security, leads us through the hotel.

SHEVCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: The lobby is an atrium, and from the 10th floor where we are, you can lean over the railing.

SHEVCHENKO: The atrium, the lobby.

NADWORNY: It's covered in large chunks of concrete, the chandelier crashed and mangled atop the white grand piano in the center. Unlike most missile attacks, Russia claimed responsibility for hitting this hotel. No one died here, remarkably, but there were injuries.

SVITLANA DOLBYSHEVA: It's hard to have a memory. I have just, like, two images.

NADWORNY: Svitlana Dolbysheva was among them. She's Ukrainian, studying art in London, and she was home for the holiday break, working for a foreign TV crew doing a story in Kharkiv. She'd worked along the front lines in far more dangerous places than this luxury hotel.

DOLBYSHEVA: We were supposed to meet for supper altogether downstairs in the lobby.

NADWORNY: She was hungry, so she went down to the lobby early.

DOLBYSHEVA: I just sat in a chair near the white piano.

NADWORNY: She was scrolling through TikTok, reading poems by Ukrainian authors from the 1960s.

DOLBYSHEVA: All of them were filled with this love and courage. You might die early, but at least you lived fully, something like that.

NADWORNY: And then a missile hit the hotel, tearing through the 10th, ninth and eighth floors.

DOLBYSHEVA: I just remember one glimpse, like a glimpse image of me looking up and observing how the atrium collapses and the everything's falling.

NADWORNY: The next image she remembers, she's down on the floor, crawling.

DOLBYSHEVA: Maybe I thought that that's it, that it's hit and I'm crawling and it's fine. But I wasn't expecting that there's going to be a second strike.

NADWORNY: Just four seconds later, a second missile hit a nearby building, and all that loosened concrete from the first missile - the impact of the second sent it raining down 11 floors.

DOLBYSHEVA: Being in the atrium at this point of view wasn't the best place to be.

NADWORNY: A 2-foot chunk of concrete landed on Svitlana's back.

DOLBYSHEVA: The moment that the rock hit my back, I got scared.

NADWORNY: Her head was bleeding, her hands and body too. But she doesn't remember pain then. She got out from under the concrete.

DOLBYSHEVA: I stood up and started to run.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY BREATHING)

NADWORNY: As she ran, she turned on her phone camera to film.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY BREATHING)

NADWORNY: The footage she shot is shaky. There's dust and debris everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY BREATHING AND DEBRIS FALLING)

NADWORNY: Her breathing gets more and more labored as she searches for the shelter underneath the hotel. She finally finds the entrance, but it's blocked. The door won't open.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL ECHOING)

NADWORNY: In the video, you can see Svitlana's body lean against the wall and slump to the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY BREATHING)

NADWORNY: And then the video cuts out. Eventually, employees from the hotel, also heading down to the shelter, found Svitlana. She couldn't walk. Her injuries - broken ribs and vertebrae, a collapsed lung, head trauma and a concussion - had caught up to her, so they carried her. Rescue workers got her to an ambulance and finally to the hospital, first in Kharkiv and later to Kyiv.

Your stitches came out today.

DOLBYSHEVA: Yeah. Do you want to see?

NADWORNY: Yeah. Let me see.

DOLBYSHEVA: It looks - with stitches, it looked prettier. There was, you know, a pattern. Now it's just, like, this dried skin.

NADWORNY: I visited her in the hospital 10 days after the attack. She'd just recently begun to walk ever so slowly.

DOLBYSHEVA: I have strength for three, five minutes, and then I'm like, oh, my God.

NADWORNY: From her hospital bed, she's been processing the attack by Googling the details of the missile that hit her.

DOLBYSHEVA: That particular missile - quite expensive.

NADWORNY: Roughly $1 million. Svitlana also calculated that it weighed about seven times more than her.

DOLBYSHEVA: Like, it's a useless and absolutely irrational way to, like, measure my life versus the missile.

NADWORNY: All this while she's worried about spring semester. She wrote her professors an email explaining she'd been injured in a Russian missile attack and she'd have to miss some class. And she's been grappling with how to convey what happened to her foreign friends, her classmates back in London, who will ask, how was your holiday? How to tell them, she wonders, and more importantly, how to make them care?

DOLBYSHEVA: I was taking a shower, and I saw that how I flooded the whole area, and it's like, oh, this is my life. I will show them that.

NADWORNY: She took a picture and drafted an Instagram post.

DOLBYSHEVA: I just wrote that showering is difficult and messy, with the hashtag Russia is a terrorist state. So there was just - I can show you.

NADWORNY: There are several images in the post. She says each photo has a point - a medical chair to show something isn't right, followed by one where she's posing in a towel.

DOLBYSHEVA: Sexy picture just to melt the ice, then my wounds just to scare people.

NADWORNY: She swipes to the last photo, a picture of her smiling, holding a stuffed animal.

What's that one for?

DOLBYSHEVA: I want to give them also hope.

NADWORNY: So give them a cute stuffed animal at the end.

DOLBYSHEVA: At the end, yeah, that I'm fine, that they will not be too terrified.

NADWORNY: Yeah.

After nearly two weeks, Svitlana was released from the hospital. She's doing physical therapy and tells me her bones are finally beginning to heal. She plans to return to university next month.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.