‘I’m angry at the war’: Ukrainian family waits anxiously as father goes off to fight for the second time

He gets angry when he sees a man in his neighborhood teaching his son to ride a bike, knowing that Mikhail is risking his life in a combat zone.

While the father of my own child was deployed, I also felt anger seeing other parents with their children. But I have no comparison for what is happening: the risks, the magnitude of the casualties and the atrocities, the threat to Liuba and the children at home during this war.

“Mostly I am angry with the war, which is happening again,” she tells me.

In war, there is always a focus on the warriors, and for good reason. But for every person on the front lines, there are many more at home supporting them, worrying that they don’t come back, picking up the pieces if they don’t, or if they’re injured, physically or mentally. and their experiences are also charged.

Liuba and the Ukrainian interpreter and “fixer” I’m working with, Sofia Harbuziak, have a mutual friend, and that’s how we found ourselves talking on a couch in her sister’s apartment on the outskirts of Lviv. We are using only the family’s first names to help protect them.

Liuba moved here with her children because it is safer than her home near the city center, not far from where a Russian airstrike hit a fuel depot a week and a half ago.

He lent his apartment to a woman who had fled kyiv with her son. Everyone is looking for a safer place, and right now in Ukraine, safety is relative.

Mikhail is a veteran of the 2014 war, when Russia first invaded eastern Ukraine.

He served in a reconnaissance unit for 14 months while Liuba cared for their young son, Semen. After Mikhail came home, they had another baby, Yustyna, “the baby after the war,” Liuba calls her, though it occurs to me that’s no longer true. Yustyna is now the interwar baby, or maybe just a war baby, as the recent invasion of Russia is seen here as a continuation of the last conflict.

Semen now has 9, Yustyna has 5, and Liuba and Mikhail have another one on the way. She is pregnant with the third, due at the end of August. All of her babies were or will be born around Ukraine’s Independence Day, Liuba tells me with a hint of pride.

“Then he promised me he would never go to war again, but this started and he had to go again,” says Liuba. Since he is a veteran, he explains, he is on the short list of the reserve forces that were deployed in the first wave. “Once the war started, he got a call from his unit, asking him to join in the first 48 hours.”

Liuba went with Mikhail to the recruitment center, where there was a long line of Ukrainians signing up to join the army.

“I saw some of his friends and veterans that he was serving with in 2014. I saw how they met, I saw how they hugged, and I realized this is a special friendship that spans the years. I saw the spark in their eyes. The next day we had breakfast and went to the recruiting center and said our goodbyes, and that was it.”

Liuba is direct with her children.

“My children know that the war is going on. They know that their father is in the army. Semen is going through this as an adult. He understands everything. Yustyna will cry and she is afraid that her father will be killed, but I always tell His dad is big and strong.”

During our interview, Yustyna is crying, moving between her mother and her aunt, Juliana.

Liuba's sister Juliana delivers supplies to Mikhail on the front lines during his 2014 deployment.

Juliana is a designer by profession, but she is also a volunteer, bringing supplies to Mikhail’s military unit on the front lines, as she did in 2014.

“It’s a very funny story,” he tells me. “I had to bring washing machines to military units because they didn’t have machines to wash clothes.”

She shows me a photo where she is indeed standing with soldiers in front of large washing machines.

Juliana and Mikhail share the same birthday, three years apart, and call each other “sister” and “brother”.

She has just returned from driving almost 1,000 kilometers (over 600 miles) each way to Mikhail and his brothers in arms to deliver night vision goggles, long underwear, even a car and a drone.

In 2014, Juliana says, she would spend the night at the military post after such a long journey, but now it is too dangerous. She saw Mikhail alone for about 15 minutes, long enough to take a few photos with him, his friends, and his loot, before turning around.

“I was very worried when I first went a couple of weeks ago,” Liuba tells me, “because the front line is not a clear line because of the air strikes. The front line is blurred.”

Even Poufa, the family dog, is a war veteran.

In 2014, a military unit that Juliana was helping to supply asked her to bring them several puppies that they could train to detect mines.

When the breeder he found found out why he was buying them, they gave him Poufa, a German Shepherd, for a dollar.

“She was too young to be trained, so…she stayed with me until she was 5 months old and then I took her to the unit,” explains Juliana.

Poufa the dog served in Mikhail's unit in 2014 before returning home with him to live with the family.  Poufa is now with family in Lviv, while Mikhail is redeployed.

She shows me a photo of Mikhail sleeping in a personnel carrier during the war, Poufa passed out at his feet.

“When the guys from the unit came back, Poufa came back too, saw me and jumped on me. He was so big by then. It’s the best thing I got from that war.”

Poufa is scared of fireworks and other loud sounds, and is wary of anyone in uniform he doesn’t know, but he more than tolerates Semen and Yustyna’s exuberant caresses, comforting Mikhail’s children while he is fighting.

“I think our father is very protective of all of us and I think he didn’t want to do this, but that’s what he had to do,” Semen tells me.

Yustyna desperately wants life to return to normal.

“When I get back, I’d like to buy a big cotton candy,” she says. “And I don’t want him to go to war either. And I want us all to stick together.”

It’s everything this family hopes for.

It is what they fear this war will take from them.

Liuba worries that Mikhail will not return. She hopes that the war will be over soon and that he will be home for the birth of his third child. She hopes that Ukraine will emerge victorious. The future of her family depends on it, she says.

“If we don’t win this war, probably in 15 or 20 years my son will have to go to the next war and defend our country.”

This story has been updated.

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