For many Ukrainians, life is split in two: Before and after the war. This is one family's story | World News - Hindustan Times
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For many Ukrainians, life is split in two: Before and after the war. This is one family's story

AP |
Feb 21, 2024 10:44 AM IST

For many Ukrainians, life is split in two: Before and after the war. This is one family's story

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Kateryna Dmytryk had been waiting for this moment for almost two years — nearly all of her young son’s life.

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Side by side, they ran, 2-year-old Timur leading the way as snow crunched beneath their feet. A slender, pale man made his way to the pair from the military hospital. Artem Dmytryk hadn’t seen his family for about 24 months, almost all of which he spent in Russian captivity.

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He picked up his son. Kateryna pinched her husband and clasped his hand, anything to reassure herself this wasn’t a dream. All three embraced, kissed, laughed.

Kateryna had buried her mother, fled her hometown and passed through countless Russian checkpoints with her son, all while imagining the worst about her husband’s captivity. She knew the wounds would take years to heal, but in that moment, she let herself break into a smile.

As Russia launched its war in Ukraine, the lives of millions of Ukrainians were irreversibly changed. Like the Dmytryks, they mark their lives in two periods: before and after Feb. 24, 2022. Tens of thousands have laid their loved ones to rest, millions have been forced to flee their homes, and the entire country has been thrust into a long and exhausting war, with 26% of the territory under Russian occupation.

Even if peace is achieved, the war has shattered reality for generations to come.

For Kateryna, her husband’s liberation brought a glimmer of light back to her family’s life. But she knows their experiences over the past two years will stay with them forever.

“We’ve had two years of our lives stolen,” she said. “And those two years were like living in a constant hell.”

The Dmytryks were just beginning life as a family of three when the war started.

Kateryna and Artem had met quite young, in their seaside hometown of Berdiansk in southeastern Ukraine. Ages 16 and 18, they immediately liked each other and started dating. Later, he joined the army and began serving in the State Border Guard Service, stationed in Berdiansk.

In May 2021, they got married and soon welcomed Timur.

“It was a peaceful, simply normal family life,” Kateryna said.

It was Valentine’s Day 2022 when Artem received a call to combat alert. He'd be on continuous duty, no longer coming home in the evenings. Kateryna didn’t think much of it, even with escalating tensions amid Russia’s military buildup on the border.

The last time Artem was home was Feb. 23. He asked Kateryna’s friend to come over and stay with her. It was unusual — he didn’t want her to be alone. But, Kateryna said, “I never imagined that a war on such a scale would unfold.”

In the early hours of Feb. 24, Kateryna was startled by Timur’s sudden cries, swiftly followed by a powerful blast, she said, “like almost every Ukrainian who woke up then to the sound of explosions.”

Nervous and in a state of shock, she managed to dial Atem. Already on duty at sea, he instructed her to gather her belongings and head to her parents’ village nearby. He was worried about the power of the Russian ships, she said, and feared there'd be fighting in Berdiansk.

She did as Artem said, and that evening they spoke again.

He’d received orders to go defend Mariupol.

Within several days, Russian forces had occupied Berdiansk and the surrounding area. Artem could rarely be in touch — only through the news did Kateryna learn what was happening in Mariupol. The city was surrounded, thousands of residents were trapped, and one of the war’s bloodiest battles was playing out.

In the brief conversations they did manage, Artem told her: “Everything will be fine. Ukraine will prevail.”

Some calls lasted only a minute. Once, Artem asked her to take a photo of Timur every day, so one day he could see how his son was growing.

“I will return, I will definitely return,” he reassured her.

But Kateryna couldn’t sleep as the situation in Mariupol grew more dire. She spent her days crying and praying for Artem’s safety.

Artem grew to fear he wouldn’t make it. He called to say goodbye.

“He said that if he didn’t make it, he would become a guardian angel for our son,” Kateryna said.

Kateryna remained in her parents’ village, which was under occupation. Artem urged her to flee to territory controlled by Ukraine.

But her mother had stage 4 cancer. Kateryna wanted to care for her.

“He knew I wouldn’t leave,” she said, “because I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to my mom.”

On April 14, 2022, Kateryna’s mom died. Kateryna mourned for over two weeks. Only then did she dare to leave.

There was no safe way to leave the occupied territory — no humanitarian corridors, no international organizations that could guarantee safety. Kateryna and Timur ended up driving with a couple who offered to help, even though her status as the wife of a soldier carried additional risks.

Over two days, they traveled to Zaporizhzhia — a trip that would have taken about three hours before the war. At Russian checkpoints, they told the soldiers Kateryna was their daughter-in-law, traveling to their son, who was in territory under Ukrainian control.

Timur was 9 months old, and Kateryna stayed strong, holding him close. “How could I allow myself to weaken when my husband faced such tough battles?” she told herself.

Once safely in Zaporizhzhia, she made her way to Kyiv, where her sister-in-law lived. A new stage of struggle began — almost 21 months awaiting Artem’s return from captivity.

Artem was among more than 2,500 soldiers taken into Russian captivity when the massive Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol fell, after 86 days of relentless fighting.

Kateryna lost track of days, months, years. She awoke every night in anxiety. Where was Artem? What was happening to him? She didn’t care what clothes she wore or what food she ate.

The only one who could pull her out of the darkness was Timur. He grew into a healthy child, looking and acting more like his father every day, she said.

She showed Timur the photo of Artem on her phone’s wallpaper and told him Daddy would call and one day come home.

“Hello, Daddy?” Timur would say into the phone.

Other times, he’d approach his uncle and call him dad. Kateryna gently corrected him, pointing again to the photo on her phone. “Here’s your daddy, and he’ll be back soon.”

As Timur grew, Kateryna started attending rallies, with relatives of prisoners of war gathered. She was largely in the dark about Artem’s situation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross had confirmed he was captured after surrendering at Azovstal. Nearly nine months passed before the next update, when Artem’s comrades were released during an exchange. They told her he was in the occupied Luhansk region. One told Kateryna that Artem sent her hugs and expressed his deep love. She clung to that feeling and to hope. “It felt like he truly embraced me,” she said.

Occasionally, she opened Google Maps to calculate the distance between them. Somehow, that made it easier to cope.

She devised other tricks to feel connected. She assembled a bag for the hospital where prisoners were typically taken after exchanges, stocking it with clothes from his favorite Ukrainian brand and small items he cherished. As the seasons shifted, she updated the bag.

She also arranged duplicate keys for their Kyiv apartment and ordered a keychain with the message, “I love you very much. We’re waiting for you at home.”

On Feb. 8, Kateryna received a text from the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of POWs.

Artem Dmytryk was part of a prisoner swap. She couldn’t believe her eyes.

A few hours later, he called. “Hello, I’m in Ukraine,” he said.

They talked on the phone all night. Then Artem and other former POWs were brought by bus to Kyiv. That morning, Katernya finally got to bring the bag she’d long prepared to the military hospital where he’d undergo rehabilitation.

They hardly talk about the captivity. Artem, now 25, isn’t keen to share what he went through. Instead, they focus on catching up on things they missed.

“We’re rediscovering each other, falling in love all over again,” Kateryna, now 23, said. “After going through something like that, you feel it differently, like it’s definitely for a lifetime.”

Each of them has changed. They’re stronger than they were before Feb. 24, 2022. That brings new challenges, as they learn to live with each other again.

“Even now, you can’t just return to a peaceful life,” Kateryna said. She thinks often of the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers still in Russian captivity, even as her family enjoys the happy ending to this chapter.

The first night Artem spent at their home in Kyiv, Kateryna slept soundly.

___

Vasilisa Stepanenko in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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