KOSIV, Ukraine — Lydia asks if she can have a quick cigarette before we start talking, a habit she had kicked years ago while raising her three sons, only to pick it up again two weeks ago. We step outside into the dark, onto a small, snow-covered terrace facing a quiet road with trees barren in Ukraine’s long winters.
She dances from toe to toe to stay warm as she anxiously takes drag after drag, the smoke intermingling with her breath in the below-freezing air. She whispers to me that she wishes I were visiting under any other circumstances than those that brought me to her hometown here, at the base of the Carpathian Mountains, normally teeming with tourists on their way to Ukraine’s renowned Bukovel ski resort at this time of year.
Its streets are mostly empty now, its shops locked, and its nearby slopes closed. Only a few children can be seen outside, even during the peak of the day. No one smiles, no one laughs loudly. Suspicious looks, given out freely during anxious walks to buy bread or visit an ailing neighbor, are common, maybe the new norm. It is war time, after all, and things are changing too fast to understand what’s happening, or if a new face can be trusted.
As a mother of three boys who volunteered to take up arms, Lydia never quite seems at ease any more, either. All she knows is that her sons are on the front lines of Ukraine’s impassioned resistance against the Russian invasion of their country.
“I don’t know where my two youngest sons are right now,” Lydia starts quickly when we return inside, into a small anteroom with two chairs, a bed, and piles of bedding and clothing and other emergency preparations on the floor. “Maybe Kyiv, maybe Donetsk or Lugansk, they could even be near Odessa — I don’t know. They cannot tell me,” she says.
She hadn’t been able to say goodbye before they left — maybe because it all happened so fast, or maybe because her boys had not had the courage to tell her about their decision to join the fight almost immediately after it began, instead leaving the devastating news to Nadia, one of her daughters-in-law, to share after it was too late for her to come back and try to stop them.
Lydia had been visiting her niece in Spain when Russian President Vladimir Putin began dropping bombs on Kyiv and several other Ukrainian cities on Feb. 24, kicking off a war and mobilization of troops across Europe the likes of which has not been seen since the end of World War II.
“My heart became so anxious,” she says about the moment she learned her sons were going to the front. “I didn’t know what to do. I cried all night,” she says, her voice breaking for a moment before she looks away to steady it. “I have no words to describe the feeling. It hurt my soul.”
The next day, she told her niece that she needed to return to Ukraine immediately — by plane, by car, or by foot if necessary. She couldn’t be so far away from her sons, she said, not now. Two days later, she crossed the border from Poland back into Ukraine, returning to a country so changed in the previous three days.
Lydia is not alone in suffering, and soon her childhood friend Natalia joins the conversation. Natalia’s only son is also on the frontlines, also somewhere unknown. She speaks loudly and with conviction about her son and the war, maybe because she has faith in her country, maybe because her fellow mother-in-arms is in need of a little confidence that day.
Natalia’s youngest child, 33-year-old Igor, was working in construction in Poland when the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, declared martial law in response to the invasion and called on able-bodied men aged 18 to 60 to either stay in the country or return to prepare to take up arms against the global superpower now threatening the country’s fledgling but hard-fought sovereignty gained just over 30 years ago.
Igor left behind a wife and two young children, who, like Natalia and Lydia, decided to stay in Ukraine where they could be closest to their loved ones on the frontlines instead of fleeing to Poland. Natalie spent time with Igor’s youngest, two-year-old Yaryna, every day.
This was not Igor’s first war, and so it was not the first time Natalia had to say goodbye to her son without any guarantee she would see him again. He had fought the Russians for over a year when they invaded Luhansk in 2014, from Aug. 8, 2014 to Sept. 10, 2015. She remembers the dates exactly. She knows the date he left this time too. Igor returned from Poland the Friday after war was declared, visited the military commiserate to present for service on Saturday, and left for the frontlines for the second time on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022.
“This war is like the one in 2014, but worse, because now it is everywhere and involves everyone,” Natalia says. “Putin is not just a nightmare for us, but for everyone,” she explains, taking a deep breath before letting out a sigh as sorrowful as it was sure of the truth of what she was about to say. “Because it will be the end of everything — not just Ukraine — everything.
Like Igor, Lydia’s youngest son Dmitro, just 23 years old, also returned immediately to Ukraine from Poland upon hearing Zelensky’s announcement. They are just two of many Ukrainian expats who turned their backs on their safe lives abroad, dropping everything within days of their president’s plea to come back to protect their families and towns now under attack.
“Sixty-six thousand two hundred twenty-four. That’s how many men returned from abroad at this moment to defend their country from the horde,” Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, tweeted earlier this month.
As over two million Ukrainians, mostly women and children, flowed from the east into Poland, Slovakia, and other neighboring countries as part of the largest mass exodus of refugees entering Europe in over half a century, these men were almost the only people that could be seen coming into the country from the west, pushing eastward towards the shelling and destruction.
Lydia’s middle child, 33-year-old Stepan, is also on the frontline. Deployed soldiers are not allowed to contact anyone while fighting, although both he and Dmitro have managed to send a couple quick messages to their mother saying “I’m OK” from smuggled phones shared amongst soldiers. They give no other information, or indication of when they may be able to write again.
Both Dmitro and Stepan are reservists, with basic military training from the time they were part of the country’s mandatory conscription requiring able-bodied Ukrainian men aged 20 to 27 to complete 18 months of military service, a law put into place shortly after Russia first invaded southeastern Ukraine in 2014.
But neither of Lydia’s sons have experienced war like Igor has. This is all new for them, and for Lydia. She could not reach into a well of faith from experience the way Natalia could. The dread of the uncertain ending to this nightmare, of the possibility that she might not see her sons again, seeped from every pore in her body, radiating from her eyes like an incessant and unanswered plea to the heavens, or anyone who would listen, for hope and for help and for victory.
Lydia has one son left to grasp onto, physically and emotionally. Her oldest son, 36-year-old Vasil, has not yet been sent to fight. He joined the regional Territorial Defense Forces, the local militia groups made up of mostly inexperienced soldiers— who have never seen combat— with light training that are meant to serve as a last line of defense should the Russians overtake the national military and reach even the remote corners of Ukraine, into small towns like Kosiv. The three brothers had not wanted to leave their parents, wives, and elders without any familial protection if the worst-case scenario were to become reality, Lydia explains. He stayed behind, giving her a small respite from her grief, at least for now.
With shy and distrustful eyes, Vasil pokes his head into the room to get a peek at the emotional conversation being held in two languages — a man unexpectedly entering the private and intimate conversation of women — discussing their shared pain as mothers of soldiers at the front.
“I wish that no mothers anywhere ever have to feel the pain we are feeling now,” Natalia says. She could not stop herself from expressing sorrow for Russian mothers, even, knowing that their sons could be the soldiers killing her son, but also knowing that the fear and pain of losing any child is a horror felt identically, universally, by every mother — no matter from where she hails or which side of a war she supports.