A Ukrainian wartime love story


Photo by VO ‘Svoboda': War in Donbass, June 12, 2014, on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

Translated from Ukrainian by Svitlana Bregman

This story is part of a series of essays and articles written by Ukrainian artists who decided to stay in Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. This series is produced in collaboration with the Folkowisko Association/Rozstaje.art, thanks to co-funding by the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia through a grant from the International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe. 

It was the first anniversary of my involuntary separation from my husband. Over a year has passed since the beginning of Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine, and in the first days of March 2022, my husband Serhiy, like thousands of other men, went off to the front lines.

I am trying to remember at least something from my life before that February. Like when we were slow dancing in the kitchen to long, melancholic songs. On the morning of February 24, we were not planning to go to war but to a traditional dance class. We were learning to dance the polka.

But the memories get lost; they fall away into the abyss. I can picture that first infamous night. We lay on the floor and stayed awake. A few hours later, the morning of February 24 came.

My husband, like tens of thousands of others, is not a professional soldier. He had never served in the army or held a gun. He played the guitar. He wrote songs. He organized concerts on warm August nights on the banks of the Desna River near Chernihiv. On weekdays, he worked as an IT developer. He earned quite a lot, although he never needed much except for new guitar strings.

We had enough money to leave for the EU before the invasion, but we didn't even consider it. The only thing we asked for was to have a long night before the last dawn.

In the third month of the war, at the end of May, I could not stand the separation any longer. He was staying in the Luhansk region, where there were endless battles raging. More and more often, my husband was out of reach. Sometimes he got a chance to call once a week or send a short “I'm fine. How are you?” text.

One morning, I woke up and realized that I had to go to him without further delay. I had to get my husband back, at least for a minute.

I took an overnight train and arrived in the city of Dnipro, which is the closest railway station to the frontline. A car was already waiting for me at the station. And a sleepy Olia got out of it. She was short and sturdy, with kind eyes. She had planned my journey for me. If I had to go to see my husband in hell, she would certainly find the way out, or rather, the way in. Olia helped me because she helps everyone who needs it. Like all of us this year.

So, Olia managed to work her magic and find a car for me. She arranged for me to have a driver, K. He is my age. He’s been in the East since he was 17. And his stories are about war adventures. My favorite one is about how his smart car stopped to remind him it needed maintenance in the middle of an industrial zone in Avdiivka while an enemy tank was pointing its barrel at them. That's where his crazy driving skills come from.

At the entrance to the Donetsk region, I changed cars and joined a military driver. In my head, I call my new driver “Father.” We smoked and talked the whole journey.

I told him that at the beginning of a full-scale war, we had enough money to settle somewhere in the Carpathians. I would not let my husband outside to save him from being presented with a draft notice, the “hot ticket” to the front.

“I have four kids, and I’m allowed to leave. I could also sit somewhere on the seashore now, and drink Italian beer and worry about my country. My brothers-in-arms would call me, ask me to get stuff, and I would put my legs into salty water saying: ‘Hold on, guys, I am very busy now, but I will do my best to help.'”

We laughed loudly.

“Why didn't you do that?” I ⁠asked him. “Why aren't you at the seaside? Do you feel the duty call?”

“What do you mean! I have four kids. I’m on vacation here!”

And we laugh again.

I was scared. I was afraid of the three months of separation. Since we'd been together, we had never parted for longer than a week. He is my best friend, my reader, my editor, my teacher, and the best bedtime storyteller.

“I feel anxious. Tell me a story,” I asked my husband.

“Once upon a time, there lived a large sadness. It settled in people’s homes after the Great War.”

“Do you mean ‘great’ or ‘big'?”

“Are you listening to the story or not?”

We arrive and I can finally see him. He’s tanned, skinny, almost see-through, unshaven, and dirty. I’m finally squeezing him, like a pillow. I have no words. I wail. I feel him trembling. I can see he is exhausted and confused.

For the first time in three months, I slept without crying out in my sleep. We wished for a minute, but we got the whole day and night. The next day, my husband went back to the front.

Serhiy was real. We lie on the reclined seats in the green Soviet-era “Zaporozhets” car that his division allocated to us for the night. We have military sacks and a backpack under our heads. My husband’s submachine gun and machine gun are in the trunk. The eastern sky is black and perforated. We can hear the distant explosions, automatic gunfire, and thunder rolls. I am so happy. I wish a rocket would hit the car, and that could be the end of our story.

The morning was incredibly bright, even blinding. I have a bun tied with a ribbon for breakfast and a plastic cup filled with coffee next to me. It was melting from the boiling water. It was the most delicious coffee and bun of my life. We just sat there and talked about everything. About the steppe, about writers, about Saturn, about pain, about his fatigue, about anger and hatred. Serhiy told me that he could not stand it any longer. I told him I loved him and that I would always be on his side.

It was the happiest day of my life, and it went by like a minute. He had to return. I hugged my husband, and I couldn't imagine removing my arms. I wailed inside.

On my way back, I took my favorite road: it twists up and down the hills. The slag heaps, the low grass, the dry air, and the blue clouds of a thunderstorm are behind me. Lonely cafes line the roadsides. The visitors are all military personnel. The waitress, with an Amy Winehouse hairstyle and the same eyeliner, knows everyone there. When I finished my mashed potatoes and goulash, I asked her how much I had to pay. She replied that the boys had paid for me. “They're so good,” she says.

One month later, I took another risk and visited. I was happy to have at least three minutes. My husband’s unit has since been moved to the frontline for reinforcement. I ⁠am not sure I can manage to get there. But we’ll try.

I did not even bother Olia anymore. Right from the station in Dnipro, I jumped into a minibus for a thousand hryvnias  (about USD 27) and headed toward the front. The locals were discussing which plants were damaged in their gardens. The road was covered in dust, like in the desert. We passed a string of checkpoints. For some reason, the driver did not close the window, and I had to wipe sand from my eyes. Everyone coughed.

And finally, I see my husband. He’s standing across the street, and I run to him. We talk — we always talk. And now, we have so much to tell each other. Even the books to retell. Serhiy managed to re-read Joseph Heller's novel “Catch-22,” and now he fully understands Yossarian, the main character who served in the US army during World War II.

In the late afternoon, Serhiy has to leave for a new location. I can’t go with him, but I can follow. That evening, we managed to meet in the village where the unit stayed overnight. We lay together until sunrise in the tall grass and smoked.

When we saw each other, we talked about outer space and about what we would do when we got out of this war. We talked about Saturn and its rings. One month later, in October, my husband was hit by an armored personnel carrier (APC). “Not an APC, but an IFV M113. It’s the light one,” my husband corrects me.

Whatever. He had to spend the entire month at home for treatment, and we looked at the incredible rings of Saturn from his telescope. As we stood, frozen, on a speck of dust hanging in the sun rays. I seriously considered pushing him down the stairs so that Serhiy could stay with me as long as possible. Maybe, the world can be saved without us.

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