While driving a military vehicle, Serhii and the others took two shots from a rocket-propelled grenade. He died on the spot. I learned that Serhii’s unit, from the first moments of the invasion, held back the Russian advance of troops on the Belarusian side.
CHERNIHIV, Ukraine ꟷ On February 23, 2022, I bought a wedding dress and called my fiancé. I wanted to tell Serhii I found a dress I really loved for our wedding in two weeks. I could not have imagined or believed what would happen next.
At 4:40 a.m. the following morning, on February 24, my phone rang. Serhii, who was stationed with his military unit on Ukraine’s northern border, spoke in a steady voice. “Now, calm down and get out of bed,” he told me. “Take your documents, get in the car, and leave the city. These bastards are already shelling Horodnia.”
[Horodnia, a city in the Chernihiv Oblast, sits in the northern region of Ukraine bordering Belarus. In February 2022, Russian troops invaded Ukraine from several directions, including from the north. Horidnia sits just 33 kilometers or 20.5 miles from the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. It became an early target of the Russians.]
Shock came over me. I did not anticipate a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Serhii never said anything to me because he did not want me to worry. Little did I know his unit had been preparing. They were combat ready.
I could not believe what I heard. I burst out crying and became hysterical as I gathered my things. Serhii reassured me that we would be fine and asked me to take care of our unborn son and his mother. Then, he promised to call as soon as he could, and he hung up the phone.
While Serhii insisted I leave Chernihiv, I decided not to go anywhere without him. So it happened, I remained in Chernihiv from the first day of the invasion to this very day. I could not leave him, and so we promised to be together to the end.
[Chernihiv came under Russia’s blockade in the early stages of the full-scale invasion. Most buildings had no electricity, heat, or water. The Russian army heavily bombarded the city, including residential areas, from land and air, killing as many as 50 people each day. As morgues filled and they shelled the cemetery, residents buried the dead in freshly dug trenches in the beautiful, coniferous forest of Yalivshchyna. Russians announced withdrawal on the northern front on March 29 and within one week, abandoned the post, leaving Chernihiv – once a flourishing and lively city – an urban cemetery.]
One day after the news of the invasion, I waited at home for Serhii’s call. An SMS message came through my phone from his comrade in arms. The words read, “I am very sorry for you, how can I help?” I gave the words no meaning. Rather, I wondered why he would be expressing sympathy.
Based on my reaction, Serhii’s comrade must have realized I did not understand, so he asked me where Serhii was. I told him what I knew. Serhii was stationed with his unit, in service of the military. At 1:18 p.m. on February 25, another message arrived – one I will never forget. “I am so sorry, but Serhii was killed,” he said. I was two and a half months pregnant.
After receiving the devastating news from Serhii’s comrade, I got into the car and drove to all the civilian and military hospitals in our region, but I did not find Serhii among the wounded. My mind absolutely refused to accept the fact that he could be dead. Three different people who saw Serhii told me to my face he got killed. I believed none of them.
“He just lost consciousness,” I replied. “He is alive. Why didn’t you take him away?” I had to resist these claims, so I continued, “The explosion knocked him out. He’ll catch up with everyone. I will find him.”
I waited all day for Serhii to call, but nothing happened. The next morning, I woke up and went again to the hospitals. I could not find him anywhere. So, I relented, and made my way to the morgue. Joy overcame me when I got there, and they did not have his body. Then, I suddenly remembered, we had a second morgue in the city.
That morgue contained a number of unidentified bodies. I had to look at them, and there, among the dead, was Serhii. The story of what happened began to unfold. While driving a military vehicle, Serhii and the others took two shots from a rocket-propelled grenade. He died on the spot. I learned that Serhii’s unit, from the first moments of the invasion, held back the Russian advance of troops on the Belarusian side. Yet, they lacked proper equipment and had to retreat from the borders, to move closer to the city center. Some of his colleagues told me the Russian troops exceeded the Ukrainians by 30 times.
The first 40 days after Serhii died, he came to me every single night in my dreams. He reassured me, “I am fine, I’m alive, and I’ll be home soon.” I awoke from these dreams firmly believing it was all some terrible mistake. As time went on, he came to my dreams less often, but always gave me hugs and promised me he was doing okay. He asked me not to cry.
When I gave birth to my child, Serhii’s friends and comrades in arms came to the maternity ward to see me and our son. I know Serhii would have imagined it that way. It felt so sweet to see them there. Tears came to my eyes, but so did another thought. As I looked out at the crowd of military uniforms, I searched for him, but he wasn’t there.
The pain of losing him never stops, not even for a second. Every single day since last year, I look through the photos and watch the videos of us. Not one day has passed without crying into my pillow as my son sleeps. I make sure he doesn’t see me this way. I cannot say if or when this pain will become easier to bear.
Serhii always considered me a strong woman, so I stay that way now, for him. My son has become my purpose in life. I must live for him – to do everything, so he can be the happiest child in the whole world. This remains my duty to Serhii. I will also do everything in my power to keep his memory alive – to tell his story. By doing this, he will be more than the initials carved out on a gravestone.
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