She’s angry when she sees a man in her neighborhood teaching his son to ride a bike, knowing Mikhail is risking his life in a combat zone.
“Mostly I’m angry at the war — that it’s happening again,” she tells me.
In war, there is always a focus on the warriors, and for good reason. But for every person on the front line there are so many more at home supporting them, worrying that they won’t come back, picking up the pieces if they don’t — or if they’re injured, physically or mentally — and their experiences are also fraught.
Liuba and the Ukrainian interpreter and “fixer” I am working with, Sofia Harbuziak, have a mutual friend, which is how we find ourselves talking on a couch at her sister’s apartment on the outskirts of Lviv. We’re using just the family’s first names to help protect them.
She lent their apartment to a woman who had fled Kyiv with her child. Everyone is looking for someplace safer and, right now in Ukraine, safety is relative.
He served in a reconnaissance unit for 14 months while Liuba took care of their toddler, Semen. After Mikhail came home they had another baby — Yustyna — “the after war baby,” Liuba calls her, though it occurs to me that is no longer true. Yustyna is now the between wars baby, or maybe just a baby of war, since Russia’s recent invasion is seen here as a continuation of the last conflict.
Semen is now 9, Yustyna is 5, and Liuba and Mikhail have another on the way. She’s pregnant with their third, due in late August. All of her babies were or will be born around Ukrainian Independence Day, Liuba tells me with a hint of pride.
“He promised me then he would never go to war again, but this was started and he had to leave again,” Liuba says. Because he’s a veteran, she explains, he’s on the short list of reserve forces that deployed in the first wave. “Once the war started he received a call from his unit, asking him to join in the first 48 hours.”
Liuba went with Mikhail to the recruitment center, where there was a huge line of Ukrainians signing up to join the military.
“I saw some of his friends and veterans he was serving with in 2014. I saw how they met each other, I saw how they hugged each other, and I realized this is a special friendship that goes through the years. I saw the spark in their eyes. The next day we had breakfast and went to the recruitment center and said goodbye, and that was it.”
Liuba is straightforward with her children.
“My kids know the war is happening. They know their father is in the military. Semen is going through this as an adult. He understands everything. Yustyna will cry and is afraid her dad will be killed, but I always tell her her dad is big and strong.”
During our interview, Yustyna is teary, moving between her mother and her aunt, Juliana.
Juliana is a designer by profession but she also volunteers, running supplies to Mikhail’s military unit on the front line, like she did in 2014.
“It’s a really funny story,” she tells me. “I had to bring washing machines to the military units because they didn’t have machines to wash the clothes.”
She shows me a photo where, sure enough, she is standing with soldiers in front of full-size washing machines.
Juliana and Mikhail share the same birthday, three years apart, and they call each other “sister” and “brother.”
She just got back from driving almost 1,000 kilometers — more than 600 miles — each way to Mikhail and his brothers in arms to deliver night-vision goggles, long underwear, even a car and a drone.
In 2014, Juliana says, she would spend the night at the military position after such a long drive, but now it’s too dangerous. She saw Mikhail only for about 15 minutes, long enough to snap a few pictures with him and his friends and her haul, before turning back around.
“I was very worried when she went for the first time a couple weeks ago,” Liuba tells me, “because the front line is not a clear line because of the airstrikes. The front line is blurred.”
Even Poufa, the family dog, is a veteran of war.
In 2014, a military unit Juliana was helping to supply asked her to bring them several puppies that they could train to detect mines.
When the breeding center she found discovered why she was buying them they gave her Poufa, a German shepherd, for a dollar.
“She was too small to be trained so … she stayed with me until she was 5 months old and then I brought her to the unit,” Juliana explains.
She shows me a photo of Mikhail sleeping on a personnel carrier during the war, Poufa konked out at his feet.
“When the guys from the unit returned, Poufa returned too, and she saw me and jumped on me. She was so big by then. She’s the best I got from that war.”
Poufa is scared of fireworks and other loud sounds, and wary of anyone in uniform she doesn’t know, but she more than puts up with Semen’s and Yustyna’s exuberant petting, comforting Mikhail’s children while he is away fighting.
“I think our dad is protecting all of us very much and I think he didn’t want to do this, but that’s what he had to do,” Semen tells me.
Yustyna desperately wants life to return to normal.
“When he comes back I’d like to buy a big cotton candy,” she says. “And also I don’t want him to go to the war. And I want us all to stay together.”
It’s all this family hopes for.
It’s what they fear this war will take from them.
Liuba worries that Mikhail won’t come back. She hopes the war will be over soon and he will be home for the birth of their third child. She hopes Ukraine will be victorious. The future of her family depends on it, she says.
“If we don’t win this war, then probably in 15-20 years my son will have to go to the next war and defend our country.”
Quoted from Various Sources
Published for: The Bloggers Briefing