POLITICS

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

Feb 20, 2024, 9:14 PM

After a prisoner exchange, Artem Dmytryk hugs his 2-year-old son, Timur, right, and a nephew in Kyi...

After a prisoner exchange, Artem Dmytryk hugs his 2-year-old son, Timur, right, and a nephew in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

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

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.

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 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 broke 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 loved ones to rest, millions have fled their homes, and the country has been thrust into an exhausting war.

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.”

“NORMAL FAMILY LIFE”

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

Kateryna and Artem met as teens in their hometown of Berdiansk, southeastern Ukraine. They immediately liked each other and started dating. He joined the army and served 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.

On Valentine’s Day 2022, Artem received a call to combat alert. 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.

In shock, she called Artem. Already on duty at sea, he instructed her to gather her belongings and head to her parents’ village nearby.

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

He’d received orders to go defend Mariupol.

“UKRAINE WILL PREVAIL”

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 their rare, brief conversations, 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.

Kateryna couldn’t sleep. She spent her days crying and praying for Artem’s safety.

Eventually, Artem grew to fear he wouldn’t survive. 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.

DARING TO LEAVE

Artem urged Kateryna to flee her parents’ village for territory controlled by Ukraine.

But her mother had stage 4 cancer. “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 do so — no humanitarian corridors, no international organizations to guarantee safety. Kateryna and Timur ended up driving with a couple who offered to help, even though it was risky with a soldier’s wife.

Over two days, they traveled to Zaporizhzhia — pre-war, a three-hour trip. At Russian checkpoints, they said Kateryna was their daughter-in-law, traveling to their son in territory under Ukrainian control.

Once 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.

“WE’RE WAITING”

Artem was among more than 2,500 soldiers taken into Russian captivity when the massive Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol fell.

Kateryna lost track of days, months, years. She awoke every night in anxiety. Where was Artem? What was happening to him?

The only one who could pull her out of the darkness was Timur. He looked and acted more like his father every day, she said.

She showed Timur a photo of Artem on her phone and told him Daddy would one day come home.

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

Kateryna started attending rallies, with relatives of prisoners of war gathered. She was largely in the dark about Artem’s situation. But when his comrades were released during an exchange, they told her he was in the occupied Luhansk region.

She devised tricks to feel connected. She assembled a bag for the hospital where prisoners were typically taken after exchanges, stocking it with clothes and small items he cherished. She 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.”

REUNITING

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.

He was brought by bus to Kyiv. 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.

Each of them has changed — they’re stronger and learning to live together 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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For many Ukrainians, life is split in two: Before and after the war. This is one family’s story