Three Ukrainian soldiers. Two years of war. How their lives changed.

On Feb. 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to invade Ukraine, setting off the largest land war in Europe since World War II. Thousands of Ukrainians with no military experience committed to fight that day, fearing that their survival — and their country’s existence — depended on it.

Two years later, many are still fighting. Some have lost limbs. Many have barely seen their families. For everyone, their hopes and dreams for the future have shifted as a war that most expected to end quickly could drag on for years. They long for a return to their civilian lives.

Here are the stories of three Ukrainians who enlisted on Feb. 24, 2022, after two years on the battlefield.

Vadym Burei, 44, call sign Vasylovich

Burei cannot take a step without a reminder of what he has lost while fighting. In September 2022, while driving infantry and fresh supplies to the front line near the besieged Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Burei’s car was hit with an antitank missile.

He was lucky, he said recently, because the missile didn’t detonate. It caused a catastrophic crash but did not immediately incinerate everyone inside. And the person with him knew how to quickly apply tourniquets to Burei’s legs. Still, when Burei came to, he was a double amputee, his legs ending at the knee.

“If I had at least one leg, I wouldn’t have been bothered at all,” Burei said with a shrug. “And I understood perfectly well that I would still get back on my feet within some time.”

He’s one of thousands of Ukrainians who have lost limbs in the war. What came next was “purgatory,” Burei said. He was shuttled from hospital to hospital around Ukraine. Eventually, he traveled to the United States to be fitted with a prosthesis and begin rehabilitation. His desire to start walking again was stronger than what his body could handle at times. Sometimes his stitches would bleed. Sometimes the prostheses were a bad fit — or just broke.

He never used to be afraid of walking on snow or ice, but now he second-guesses every move to avoid falling. Showers that used to be simple pleasures became exhausting because he needed to take a chair with him every time.

“I mean, there are some inconveniences, but life doesn’t end there, does it? No, it doesn’t,” Burei said. “Yes, it is uncomfortable. Yes, it hurts. Yes, it is not yours. Well, what can you do? What is the way out?”

Burei has remained deployed in eastern Ukraine with the 58th Motorized Brigade despite being able to claim that he’s “unfit for military service.” He pleaded with the brigade’s leadership to stay in some capacity and works as an administrative clerk in a rear base away from the unit’s forward-most positions.

Before he signed up to fight on the first day of the war, Burei had a plan. He had been careful with his finances to provide for his family — a wife and three children. His days started with coffee at 7 a.m. before taking the kids to school. His youngest child, a girl, was just 3 when he enlisted.

He has lost time watching her grow up, too. Another thing he cannot get back.

“Everything was just fine,” Burei said. “And now it’s been turned around. You already understand that it will not return to its original state — well, to the prewar state.”

Oleksandra Ryazantseva, 40, call sign Yalta

Ryazantseva was the kind of girl who loved heels. She drove a pink car. She was one of the top stylists in Ukraine, with her own wardrobe studio for movie casts.

But over the past two years, she has forgotten how to wear makeup. The clothes she loved no longer suit her. She has turned to an all-camouflage uniform.

“I’ve been a stylist for 15 years and now I can’t match,” Ryazantseva said. “I have 33 shades of green — both pixel and multicam.”

She considered becoming a soldier long before the morning she woke up to the sound of Russian missiles exploding in Kyiv. She’s from Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed illegally in 2014. Her father was in the military, serving with Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

“I realized, well, that’s it,” she said. “I mean, you’re not going out like that again, on a date or something. So, on the 24th, when it was already daylight, I went to the military enlistment office.”

She was handed a gun she didn’t know how to use and deployed to Hostomel, where Russian paratroopers descended on the airfield from waves of helicopters. Her teeth chattered as she cowered behind an armored personnel carrier. She and the Ukrainian troops she had just met were caught in an ambush.

“They say, ‘Look, little one, let us probably send you back,’” Ryazantseva said.

Women remain an overwhelming minority in the Ukrainian military and struggle to be trusted with front-line duty, often serving roles in the rear or as medics. After two weeks helping patrol downtown Kyiv when the capital was still under threat, Ryazantseva was invited to join a territorial defense force brigade — how most Ukrainians without prior experience eager to fight were mobilized in the war’s first days.

She said she killed for the first time days after that: She shot a Russian soldier in the Kyiv suburb of Irpin. “I was so nauseous then,” she said. She was later deployed to the Belarusian border on a reconnaissance mission, wearing adult diapers while lying down in the swamps because raising her head too much could mean revealing her location.

Ryazantseva’s military life now feels more familiar than her civilian past. But it has come at a heavy personal sacrifice. Ryazantseva wanted a child — “a silent and naughty” little girl she would name Matilda, she said. But dating and relationships are out of the question because she cannot commit to a future.

“I think I’m going to die soon,” Ryazantseva said recently. “Well, to fall in battle. But I’m not afraid of death at all.”

Taras, 24, call sign Stoyik

Taras was convinced there would not be war with Russia — and said so to anyone who would listen. The military was never part of his plan. He was an academic, working on his master’s degree and planning to continue research “that no one actually needed” on philosophical issues, he said with a laugh.

He was just 22 — the sort of educated young man that was Ukraine’s future. Much of his generation has now been sacrificed to the war effort.

On Feb. 24, 2022, before Taras volunteered to fight, he went to a cathedral in downtown Kyiv to pray.

“At that moment, a rocket hit somewhere,” said Taras, whom The Washington Post agreed to identify by just his first name and call sign for security reasons. “I heard it and saw this smoke. And I kind of just said a few more words so that the Lord — I asked the Lord to save us, or the defenders of Kyiv.”

Taras’s faith has been just about the only constant in his life since then. He and his comrades in the Bratstvo Battalion, which focuses on sabotage missions against Russian forces, pray together before every operation. There were some that he thought would be his last. And then there are the memories that sting worse than the moments when he thought he might die — the deaths of friends and brothers in arms.

“You live these things in a kind of vacuum,” Taras said. “Because it seems to me that if I perceived all these things and losses in the same way as in civilian life — the loss of a loved one, of course, is a tragedy, you grieve for a long time and so on. But here, all events are forced and accelerated a little bit. And if you were to go through all these things with the same usual approach, you could really go crazy.”

A dear friend of his died in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region in July, during Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive. The man had planned to propose to his girlfriend the next day, Taras said. But then he was asked to help with an assault.

Taras, a reconnaissance drone pilot, spent the next four nights monitoring his friend’s dead body with other soldiers — one of them always hovering overhead with a drone to make sure the corpse didn’t move and could eventually be recovered.

“There’s this feeling of screaming helplessness, you can’t do anything, and your friend is lying there dead literally very close to you,” he said. “You can’t go and pick him up or comfort him. And his girlfriend calls, she is broken.”

The weight of that experience and others has made it difficult for Taras to relate to his loved ones’ everyday problems. His ambitions for a career as a teacher are gone, too. He may never finish that master’s now, he said. He cannot picture spending so much time in a library after the adrenaline rush of battle.

He imagines a postwar Ukraine with many veterans struggling to adapt back to civilian life and haunted by what they experienced in combat. But that is still so far away, he said, that he does not envision it as a possibility for himself yet.

“Perhaps with sadness for some of the adventures, but I will return calmly and plan to return to civilian life,” he said. “God willing.”

Credit:
1: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2024/02/24/ukraine-solider-portraits-war-anniversary/

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