Ukraine war saga unfolds across the lives of 5 friends
BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) — In the cemetery where Oleksii Zavadskyi and Yurii Stiahliuk are buried, the women they loved take drags on the men’s favorite brands of cigarettes. Clouds of smoke are exhaled in silence.
Interlaced between Anastasiia Okhrimenko’s dainty fingers are Camels. Anna Korostenska lights L&M’s, her hands shaking in the cold. An intimate ritual when the men were still alive — at the end of the day, when it was just the two of them — it is now a somber tradition carried on after death.
Oleksii and Yurii were killed on Ukraine’s eastern front five months apart. One was Vadym Okhrimenko’s best friend and died in his arms. “Gone, in an instant,” he says, briskly packing his combat uniform and gear. Soon he returns to the battlefield, heavy with sorrow, hungry for revenge.
The five had known each other since childhood. They came of age in Bucha, a Kyiv suburb now synonymous with the war’s most horrific atrocities. Their interwoven tales reveal how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exactly one year ago changed their lives, their neighborhood, their country.
“This war is not just about soldiers,” says Anna. “It’s about everyone connected to them, and their pain.”
With each passing month, sedimentary layers of grief formed: violent occupations followed by tearful separations and interminable waiting. Between chaotic frontlines where victory turned to attrition and homes assailed with constant air raids and power cuts, love blossomed, friendships deepened and the fear of death burrowed in.
As the conflict that killed their loved ones still rages on, Anna, Anastasiia and her brother, Vadym wrestle with a question that all of war-torn Ukraine must grapple with: After loss, what comes next?
In Bucha, familiar childhood landmarks are imbued with a new, dark history.
There is the building behind the playground where dozens took shelter from the approaching Russian troops; the garages where Russian soldiers burned to death those sheltering inside; the supermarket, from where the funeral processions now start.
The occupation, which lasted 33 days from the start of the invasion on Feb. 24 to April 1, when Russian troops withdrew, became a potent symbol of the war’s horrors. Liberation revealed the mass murder of civilians and cruel accounts of rape. More than 450 people were killed, according to local authorities.
Anastasiia fled the area for another. Anna remained in Bucha until March 10. She spent nights in the shelter as Russian tanks rolled past her neighborhood of Sklozavod, soldiers ransacked shops and ran over a man sitting in a car. All this, she witnessed.
“We are still processing,” says Andrii Holovyn, 50, the community’s priest, who presided over Yurii’s funeral and those of countless other soldiers after him. “People are living in constant danger, without light, with no breaks in between.”
The occupation propelled the childhood friends to act. Oleksii’s mother and sister escaped to Germany. Vadym’s wife fled to the Czech Republic. Yurii asked Anastasiia to leave her job and stay at home.
They were very different, the three men. Yurii had an aura of eternal youth, the kind of guy who smiled broadly even when enraged. Oleksii was a brawler, a rebel on the outside but intensely introverted. Vadym, a terse, self-described “football hooligan,” was their leader.
Stirred by the massacre in their hometown, they joined the army in the spring of 2022. No one could afford to fold their arms and watch the war happen, said Vadym.
LIVING CALL TO CALL
This was the moment Anastasiia chose to propose marriage to Yurii.
It was her way of telling him he could count on her to wait for him. They had been together for seven years, a relationship sparked the day that Yurii, the boy she had met as a child and known only as her brother’s friend, reappeared in her life with an innocuous greeting on social media.
“I realized that he was the only person with whom I could imagine my future,” she says.
It was a no-frills ceremony. Papers were signed, rings exchanged. But future plans were elaborate. “First, we had to win this war,” Anastasiia says, twirling her wedding band around her finger. “Probably the first thing we would do after is go on a honeymoon.”
Yurii arrived in the eastern city of Kramatorsk in July, heading toward the salt-mining town of Bakhmut, a fierce battlefront that would turn out to be the war’s longest. Says Anastasiia: “I lived from call to call.”
Through him, she bore witness to the hellscape that was the war.
Russia had shifted tactics, withdrawing troops from the north after fierce Ukrainian resistance and focusing on what Moscow described as the “liberation” of the contested Donbas region.
His correspondence with Anastasiia over six months revealed his unit was constantly on the move. The shelling and artillery battles were relentless, he told her. After one night of extensive bombardment, he texted, “I will definitely return,” with an emoji blowing a heart-shaped kiss.
In August, he complained that the enemy had more advanced weapons while they had to make do with automatic guns. Helpless, they spent hours hiding in the trenches.
The night before Ukraine’s Independence Day on Aug. 25, Yurii said he expected the Russians would mark the occasion with missiles. He made her promise to sleep in the corridor, away from windows.
He returned to the front later. When the shelling ceased for a moment, Yurii made a dash for the car, thinking he had just enough time as the enemy reloaded weapons.
Then the shooting started again.
It was Vadym, not Yurii, who called Anastasiia that morning. He had bad news from the Military Commissariat.
“Tell me it’s not true,” reads the last text message she sent her husband. “I’m begging you, tell me you’re alive.”
A DECLARATION OF LOVE
September was a turning point.
Ukraine launched surprise counter-offensives in the northern and southern regions, denting the image of Russia’s military might. Kyiv was encouraged to seek more arms from the hesitant West to sustain the fight, and Oleksii finally summoned the courage to tell Anna he loved her for the first time.
Theirs was an affair only the two of them understood, one in which moments of affection could quickly devolve into thunderous arguments.
Oleksii was Anna’s first kiss at 15, but there was no relationship to speak of until Yurii’s death. That changed him. Oleksii revealed he had loved her his entire life but had stayed away because she had been with one of his friends. Now he didn’t care anymore.
“Yurii’s death pushed us to accept the fact that you can do anything in this life while you are still alive,” Anna says.
After Yurii’s funeral, Anna planned to spend the night with Anastasiia to comfort her grieving friend. Oleksii, who had taken leave to attend the burial, walked her to the door and kissed her.
After, he called her almost every day.
In mid-September, he seemed especially tired on a video call while stationed in Zaporizhzhia. He asked Anna to help him find out how long soldiers were permitted to take leave. He sent her a link, an information page for officers looking to get time off to get married.
“Zavadskyi, do you want to go on vacation or get married?” she asked him, teasing.
“Let’s combine the practical with the pleasant,” he responded. That was Oleksii’s style. They were engaged.
Autumn turned to winter, Ukraine liberated the northern city of Kharkiv and Kherson in the south. The victories boosted morale, but were won bit by bit with the help of Western weapons that wore down Russian forces and supply lines.
In the east, gains were harder to come by. Russian forces, with Wagner mercenaries, unleashed human wave tactics to exhaust Ukrainian defenses. On January 11, Oleksii was deployed to a position near Bakhmut, very close to the same front where Yurii was killed.
On Jan. 13, he called. It was too cold to sleep, he said, quivering. The combat lines were very close; he was 15 meters away from the enemy. He was scared.
In long-range battles it’s not easy to see when you’ve killed someone, he explained. He had sent videos of himself from these positions before, shooting toward the faraway enemy lines, crying out: “For Stiahliuk!” — for Yurii. But here, he could clearly see how the bodies of the men he extinguished fell.
Anna told him, sharply. “You have to understand: If you don’t kill, they will kill you.”
He died the next day from a bullet to the neck.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
Until their redeployment to the east, they had felt invincible. In Zaporizhizhia, they had captured two prisoners after an ambush operation and pushed the Russians back by at least 10 kilometers. Oleksii was both an infantryman and drove the platoon’s armored vehicle.
In Bakhmut, they were tasked with carrying out dangerous maneuvers at the foot of the flank, close to enemy lines.
“You have to fight every day, every minute,” Vadym says. Russian attacks seemed endless; their soldiers walked passed the corpses of their own comrades in their relentless push toward Ukrainian positions.
In the middle of the shootout on Jan. 14, Oleksii suddenly collapsed. As there was no blood, Vadym thought he had suffered a shock.
He dragged his friend to cover and looked for a pulse. He could swear he felt one, but the medic at the scene said Oleksii died instantly.
This time, Vadym could not bring himself to call Anna. As the commander of their platoon, Vadym had felt responsible for protecting his best friend. He promised Oleksii’s father, Sergey, he would bring him back home alive. “I was ashamed,” he says. Yurii had been with a different unit.
“There are no golden or miraculous words that can instantly ease their pain,” says Holovyn, the priest of the parishioners who come to him with their tales of suffering. The other day, the teacher of the Sunday school told him her husband had died on the front, but that his body remains in Russian controlled territory. Lying there in the snow.
In Bucha, some people are already rebuilding. The smell of sawdust wafts in the air, as workmen repair destroyed roofs and residents embrace the precarity of living without peace.
In Oleksii’s grandmother’s home in Bucha, Anna holds her fiance’s shirts close to catch the lingering scent of him. “They say the Earth spins. My Earth has stopped,” she says.
Time hasn’t made it any easier for Anastasiia, either. “You come out of a stressful state and begin to realize what is actually happening.” Sometimes she catches herself still waiting for a call.
Side by side, both women stood together at the funerals of the men they loved. “Only Nastya understood me — like no one else,” Anna says, using a nickname for Anastasiia and clasping her hand.
For Vadym, the time to leave has come. “Only fools have no fear at all,” he says, realizing that he is the last of his brothers in arms. “But I will try to survive.”
The next day, he is gone.
AP Baghdad correspondent Samya Kullab is on assignment in Ukraine. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/samya_kullab