In April, Reuters published photographs from Bucha, abandoned by the Russian troops. One of them was of a dead woman’s hand with red nail polish and a heart painted on one of the nails. This is how her family recognized Irina Filkina. Holod is telling the story of simple woman who just starter to live for herself and who many people knew as Mama Ira.
In the morning of February 24th whilst Russian troops were invading her country, the 52-year-old Irina Filkina went to Kyiv, to the Epicenter mall located about 25 kilometers from her home in Mikhaylovka-Rubezhovka village. Irina worked at the mall as a boiler room operator.
Because of the war, Irina had to stay in the mall for a week. While her daughters left for Poland to help Ukrainian refugees, Irina waited out shellings in the Epicenter basement, at Berkovetskaya street in a Kyiv suburb, doing her best to help Kyivan civilians and Ukrainian soldiers. Her younger daughter, 26-year-old Olga Shchiruk, told Holod that her mother had been cooking for them.
According to Olga, Irina stayed there until March 5th because she thought Epicenter was safe. But when other staff began evacuating, Irina decided to go home, too. Her elder daughter explained to the TSN TV channel that there was a cellar in her mother’s house one could hide in.
Olga says she could not understand why her mother was the only one who stayed behind in Epicenter. She kept asking her mother why her colleagues did not take her with them. “Well, it just happened they didn’t have any free space,” Irina said.
Olga and her sister tried to find a volunteer who would bring their mother home. “We almost found one, there was a guy we knew who was helping people to get from one place to another, mostly from Kyiv to Lviv, in the western part of the country. But he could only come in two days, and shelling became much more intense at that point. Staying at Epicenter was unsafe. And she decided to go on her own,” Olga says. She adds that Irina was a very independent and stubborn kind of person in general, and it was hard to challenge her decisions.
Irina Filkina reached the nearest village where someone gave her a bicycle, which she decided to ride home. Her route went through Bucha and Irpin. “She wasn’t going to Bucha itself, she was passing Bucha on her way home. She didn’t know the occupiers were already there and had no idea what they were doing to people,” Olga says.
When Irina reached the central part of Irpin, which was a 15-minute ride from home, she called her daughter. “I told her: ‘Mom, everyone is evacuating from Irpin right now. Leave your bike, run to the river, they will take you with them. Don’t go home,’” Olga recalls. She says she was reading Telegram channels since early morning on that day and knew about fighting zones and evacuations. “OK, sweetie, mommy loves you, bye. I have to cycle, it’s hard, I’ll call you back,” Irina responded. But she never did.
Olga Shchiruk was working her volunteer shift in Poland that day. She tried, unsuccessfully, reaching her mom. Then she tried calling her neighbors but there was no coverage in the village. “I thought she might have lost her phone cycling, or maybe the military took it, they were confiscating phones or asking people to remove SIM cards. I called her neighbors but no one had coverage. When I did find out that she was not at home I realized that we had to start looking for her. Maybe someone took her, or she’s in a basement somewhere, or a shelling started and she managed to hide,” Olga says.
She began posting on social media. On the next day, a man from Irpin messaged her on Facebook. He described a woman he saw: blonde, middle-aged, blue jacket with the Epicenter logo. According to the man, she passed the Ukrainsky gated community outside Bucha on her bicycle, made a turn and was shot at by the Russian military.
Much later, NYT is going to publish a drone video of a cyclist moving along a street in Bucha, then dismounting the bike and turning into a street occupied by the Russian military. As soon as the cyclist turns the corner, a Russian armored vehicle makes several shots along the road. A second vehicle makes two shots in the cyclist’s direction. Then smoke rises above the place where the cyclist turned the corner. Filkina’s daughters believe that the cyclist was their mother.
“He mentioned the type of weapon she was shot from. I’m no expert in weapons, never had been, you know. I didn’t realize it could have such consequences, thought she was just injured,” Olga recalls.
For three days afterwards, she continues, she could neither sleep nor eat, “was just numb”, and then she thought: “Come on, she must have been wounded, she may be sitting in a basement somewhere, or someone might have taken her somewhere.” “My sister and I chose to believe she was alive. We were calling all hospitals, morgues, hotlines, filling in thousands of Google forms for missing persons, at all kinds of websites, searching for her for a month. There’s this website where Ukrainians look for their families, Searching for the Missing, I know every single person there by now, I think,” Olga says.
When Russian troops left Bucha and the Ukrainian army moved in, someone sent Olga a picture of a woman shot dead, lying with her bicycle in Yablonskaya Street. You couldn’t see the woman’s face but the daughters recognized the pants their mother was wearing when she left for work. “So I’m looking at it and I realize it’s my mom. And I want to say to all these people who are saying that this is all fake, that the [victims] are all actors: ‘Then bring my mom back to me! Take away these pictures and bring my mom!’ I am the one who wishes it was all fake more than anyone else,” Olga says, sobbing.
The Shchiruk sisters began calling all possible municipal agencies and asking when they could come for the body. But a dispatcher said it was not possible as the area was mined. Then Olga Shchiruk had to face further bureaucratic delays which are still preventing her from retrieving the body. That’s how she retells her dialogue with a Bucha hotline for identifying the victims:
“I know where my mom is, can I leave a notice so that you know I will come and take her as soon as the area is cleared?”
“You are registered in Irpin, aren’t you? Why don’t you call Irpin?”
“You must have misunderstood. She is in your territory, just let me take her.”
“I can’t help you. If that helps, you can fill in the form at our website, they will call you.”
“We’re losing time, they will take her away, God knows where.”
“There are a lot of bodies, more than 100, more than 150, more than 300 even, hundreds of them! They will take them all away, and who will help me find my mom? She’s lying there, still just lying there. Eventually, after many excruciating conversations, they told me to call back on Monday,” Olga says.
On Monday, April 4th, the hotline was not reachable, and when Olga finally got through on Tuesday she was told that her mother’s body had been already taken somewhere. “They gave me six places the bodies were taken to! I mobilized everyone, found the service that provided information on all morgues, we started calling all these six places. But no one knew anything,” Olga continues.
“Wait, they need time to do a forensic exam.”
“Fuck! I’m sorry but I know this is my mom! She’s been just lying on the ground for a fucking month! I was waiting for permission to take her and bury her. And now you can’t tell me how much longer I’m supposed to wait for that forensic exam? To do what, to prove that she was murdered? Can I see her body?”
“Well, Europe wants to know, Europe needs time to know whether she was murdered or not.”
“I don’t give a fuck about Europe, don’t you understand?” Shchiruk fumes in her conversation with Holod. “They always need time, but my time has stopped.”
Olga says that she buried her mother for the first time, in her thoughts, on March 6th when she had learned about the shooting, and for the second time on April 1st when it had been confirmed Irina was dead. “And now I can’t bury her in a proper way because Europe needs time for some paperwork. Do you understand? So I have to wait again to go through this again, for the third time. Everyone is talking about her now but tomorrow they will just write down her name as another person who died there, they will write it down and leave. And then where I am supposed to look for her body? They’ll say: ‘You see, the body has been there for a month, we need to do something with it.’ And they will! And I won’t be able to find it. I don’t know, it’s not just a little doggy or a kitty that got killed. People cry when a kitty gets killed, too. But this is my mom, a human. Some people have their children among those bodies. They will just do everything formally now. Who can guarantee that they don’t just bury everyone in a mass grave? And who will allow me to dig her out? I was lucky with that photo that the whole world saw. But even that isn’t helping me to find her body. You see?”
Shchiruk says she was reluctant to talk to journalists at first, but then she thought: if she, a 20-year-old woman, was so devastated by the loss of her mom, then what little kids who had lost their parents or become victims of violence must be feeling? That’s how she came up with the idea to set up a foundation named “Mama Ira”, after her mother.
“Mom has always been my support in life, and this foundation may become support for others. There are so many kids and moms, and bodies lying there just like my mom’s. Only my mom is popular now and they aren’t. Nobody is talking about them now. Many Ukrainians are now spending a lot of energy on hating Ruscists (a wordplay that became common in Ukraine after the Russian invasion began, referring to the Russian military or Russians in general; in the Ukrainian or Russian languages it sounds like “Fascists'' and “Russians” blended together.—ed. Holod). If I can convert this energy of aggression into love, into help, I have to do it. I can’t bring mom back to life, but what if I can help these kids who have seen pure hell, bringing them to life?”
The daughters describe Irina as someone who has been working hard all her life. “It’s not just about her job at Epicenter,” Olga says. “It’s about her goals in life: build the house, till the land, raise the kids, earn a kopeck or two. Run, run, run, a lot of work but nothing for herself.”
It was only for the last few years that Irina began, according to her daughters, doing what she wanted to: went to the seaside two years ago for the first time in her life, started buying clothes—before that she would buy clothes for her daughters and wear one pair of jeans and one blouse, saying she didn’t need anything. She began saving money to buy a car and signed up for a makeup course, just for herself. On St. Valentine’s, Irina painted her nails in red polish, with a little heart image on her ring finger. According to the makeup artist Anastasia Subacheva, who was teaching Irina makeup, that was a sign of Irina’s love of herself.
Subacheva says that Irina did not even own a makeup bag—sometimes she would use her daughters’ makeup but more often did not use it at all, because she was always busy with her work, children, husband and her daily life. “She would say she was not young, that she was getting old, but she was bursting with life. Every time she’d show up for a lesson, the whole studio shone with the light she was radiating. When our lessons started I was shocked with how positive she was. It was even scary at first. Because you don’t meet such positive and simple people these days. I didn’t expect this. I didn’t expect she would take a piece of paper and carefully write down my every word, just to learn how to use makeup. Because she wants to look great. For herself. Every time we met she would repeat how happy she was to finally start living for herself, to love living, and that it was never too late for that,” Subacheva says.
Irina started an Instagram account and began creating videos with music. She was planning to “hype up her blog” and also go to the Ukrainian singer Olga Polyakova’s gig, Subacheva recalls. On February 23rd, Irina attended her last individual “Makeup for Yourself” lesson.
“She would give me some very sincere advice, as if she was my own mother. When we last met, she hugged me, holding a bag with the makeup we had bought for her. Her own makeup. She said that every time she had a night shift, she tried to draw everything we talked about, or to record videos. Half of the people now don’t have the lust for life she had. Half of the people don’t have her power, her energy, her smile. And I want everyone to remember Irina not as a photo of her hand with nail polish but as a photo of a wonderful woman who changed many people’s lives. Who changed her own life—I understand better now that you never know what’s going to happen to you tomorrow, you don’t know when your life may be turned upside down. Today, you are buying your first makeup and planning to start living for yourself, using makeup, meeting your friends, and tomorrow you are shot dead when you’re just trying to run away from the war. I want you to remember Irina like this, with bright red nails and a little heart. Because that’s what she is, this heart,” Subacheva says.
There were people who knew Filkina on each of the Epicenter mall’s floors, that’s how social she was, according to her daughters. She “kept workplaces warm and cozy” and took care of office plants in her spare time, says a post about her on the mall’s Facebook page. “We spent a holiday with her, and then went to the same hotel next time, and you know what the staff told us? ‘Hey, Mama Ira came back!’” Olga Shchiruk says. “Some of my friends call her Mama Ira, too, and when they write to me they don’t say ‘sorry about your mom’, they say ‘we’re missing Mama Ira so much.’”
Olga says that Irina has always told her daughters: “There are no unsolvable problems.” The only problem she found unsolvable was death.