These Ukrainians have managed to find and hold onto love in a time of war
Lilya Lohnya, 22, and Maksim Manakhov, 23
When Lilya Lohyna, 22, got the call from her mother that the war had started, she thought it was just hysterics. She hung up. She was accustomed to paranoia about an invasion. On her way to work that morning, the metro was already free, but she didn't notice. She got to the debt collections office where she worked and found it empty. She called her coworkers to ask why they weren't there, and she didn't believe them either.
She bought a bag of chips and some lemonade and went home to watch anime. She didn't believe it until around 2 p.m., when the bombardment of Kharkiv began. She hid in her first floor bathroom and cried. She called her mother, then her friend Maksim, an Azerbaijani student who'd come to Kharkiv to attend university. He made a couple of jokes to calm her down, which only served to make her furious. Sitting on their bed in the apartment they now share, they laugh at the memory.
She'd asked him to stay with her so she wouldn't have to sleep alone, and during the long nights of shelling, they fell in love. Together, they pass the time watching movies and collecting a menagerie of animals left behind by evacuees. Lilya cooked often, waiting in long lines for scarce groceries. Their tiny one-bedroom apartment is now home to two cats and a chinchilla that Lilya thought was a rat until she got him home.
Maksim's student visa is set to expire, which will force him to leave the country because he cannot continue his studies in Kharkiv. Reluctantly, they'll be forced to join the millions of Ukrainians abroad to begin a new life.
Oleksandra Darmohrai, 31, and Andrii Freel Shalimov, 35
Oleksandra (Sasha) Darmohria gave birth to twins, Solomiia and Ostap, exactly seven months after Russia's full-scale invasion began, on Ukrainian Flag Day, Aug. 23. The next day, Russia launched a massive missile attack across Ukraine. She'd had a C-section, and together, with her husband, Andrii Shalimov, a rapper and activist who goes by the name Freel, she tries to count how many times they have had to take cover in the hospital's bomb shelter with her fresh surgical scars and two infants in hand.
Sasha gracefully juggles the 6-month-olds in the couple's 19th-floor apartment in Kyiv.
It's warm inside thanks to a device that Andrii built to generate heat from clay pots and a camping stove. "My husband is a professional survivor," Sasha says warmly while rocking the twins.
Andrii's life was forever changed by the Maidan Revolution. "I saw a river of my people's blood running down the street ... and I looked up and saw that, despite the violence of the police, everyone kept fighting," he recalls. Since then, his music has become a rallying cry for pro-Ukraine activists, but recently, most of his energy has been devoted to making sure his young family is safe, while using his wide outreach to raise money for the Ukrainian army.
He's been able to support their troops with everything from flaks to drones to vehicles. In the darkness, his face is lit by the blue glow of his phone as he proudly shows photos of the supplies he's been able to send to the front. It's late and, at one point, the bomb sirens go off on everyone's phones as Sasha is trying to get the twins down to sleep for the night. The twins don't react. They've never known nights without the sirens.
Yaroslava Ivansova, 49 (Husband Mykola Ivansov, 51)
As Yaroslava shares her story, she clutches her phone: "Every day, I am praying for a prisoner exchange."
The Russian invasion fell on Mariupol quickly and ferociously. She recalls fleeing with her daughter with shells falling around the city. Yaroslava made it to safety, but she left not only her husband but two sons-in-law — all members of Ukraine's Azov Battalion — behind.
What happened next has become the stuff of legend: Russian forces bombarded the city for months, razing it to the ground, and its Ukrainian defenders took shelter with hundreds of civilians in the basement under the Azovstal steel plant. They begged for backup, but none came. Many were wounded and hungry.
Finally, in May, the men were forced to surrender. Mykola and his sons-in-law were alive, but in Russian hands. Yaroslava was terrified.
She and her daughters came to Kyiv to live together, advocate for their husbands' release and wait for news.
One day, she was told that her husband was being held in Olenivka, along with one of her sons-in-law. But in July, it was blown up in an attack the Russians tried to pin on Ukraine without evidence. When the list of Ukrainians soldiers who had been wounded while captive there came out, she saw her son-in-law Alexei's name but not her husband's, and she feared he was dead. Eventually, though, word came that he had been transferred elsewhere just days before the explosion, likely saving his life.
Since then, the months have dragged on, and Yaroslava's hopes have been kindled several times, only to eventually be shattered again by prisoner swaps that proved not to include her husband. The family rejoiced when her other son-in-law was finally released, but without Mykola and, knowing how fragile his health is, Yaroslava continues to be consumed by her worry for him. Every day, she waits by the phone, praying that it will bring news of freedom and not tragedy.
Natalia Borysovka and Anton Mankivskyi
Natalia's winter fatigues fit her loosely. She has the brisk gate of a career soldier and sharp, laughing eyes. She holds gloved hands with her husband, Anton, in a park in Konotop, in northern Ukraine, near where they're stationed. She is tall but he towers over her with a smile somewhere between shy and mischievous.
Inside a warm café, their story tumbles out over coffee.
Like so many couples, when asked how they got together, there is debate about the details. Natalia remembers walking into a room where Anton, a sniper from Melitopol, was speaking with her commander on a day when their units were stationed near each other. She said hi and Anton didn't respond and she thought, "Who does this guy think he is?" They laugh. A mutual crush formed, but wary of dating within the military, it wasn't until they were each off base and on a break that they began seeing each other. They returned to the base together. They eventually transferred to the same unit and were married soon after.
"I am more careful now," he says. "There are two of us. We are responsible for the beasts we've domesticated," he says, eyes twinkling at Natalia.
Dreams for the future are often an early casualty of war. Years ago, Natalia suffered a combat wound that left her able to get pregnant, but only via artificial insemination. They had planned on having the procedure in Kyiv to start their family, but when the bombs began to fall in February, non-essential surgeries were paused in the hospitals and the couple took their place in the trenches.
"After we win — and we will win," Anton says, they want to build a life of the kind of quiet that isn't full of foreboding. With kids, in a safe and free Ukraine, and, while he's dreaming, Anton says he'll throw in his dream car: a '69 Mustang.
When the full-scale Russian invasion began in February 2022, Kharkiv, a youthful university town in northeastern Ukraine that sits just 25 miles from the border, was one of the first Ukrainian cities to come under attack. The city emptied out as civilians fled the rain of rockets. Maria Kulieva, a 28-year-old fashion designer who goes by Masha, stayed alone in a top floor loft where she lived with her best friend, Dina Shaheen, 27. Often startled awake by the sound of explosions, she would make black tea in the morning and watch smoke rising over her city from the window.
Masha says she wasn't afraid. Like many Ukrainians, she wanted to be useful, and so she began to sew. She turned her workshop where she once made women's clothing into a production house for plate carriers. She stitched extra pockets in the sides for plates to protect the soldiers' ribs — often an Achilles' heel in flak jackets.
One day, she went to a base to deliver the plate carriers she was making. There, she met a young soldier. They fell in love. He would come and spend the night and then disappear into the fighting, only to reappear on her phone or on her doorstep whenever he was able. One day, she didn't hear from him, and she got the sense that something was wrong. Her breath was tight and she did her best to push worst-case scenarios from her mind. When she finally got the call, it was the good kind of bad news: He had been injured, but the side plates she had sewn had saved his life. He was going to be ok.
Yevheniia Slivko, 27
"After he had been missing for six months, I stopped imagining how his return might be. But every time I see someone in military uniform, I think, 'Maybe it's him.' "
Yevheniia can't say much about her beloved. He's a soldier, and there are security concerns. She says he felt like home to her. He didn't have a lot of family, so she was all he had. He once gave her a pair of earrings as a gift, and when he pulled out the little jewelry box, he realized it was a setup for a misunderstanding. Always the clear communicator, he immediately said "it's not an engagement ring!" The couple laughed and laughed. The memory still lights up her face.
When the full-scale invasion began, he was in Mariupol. He called and told her to get out of Kyiv, worried it would very soon be completely overrun, but she refused. A couple of weeks in, Yevheniia received a text. It was her boyfriend's name and last name, followed by 200 — military code for killed in action. "That is where this story begins," she explains. Conflicting accounts followed. There were rumors that someone had seen him dead, but a body was never found.
It's been almost a year since his disappearance, and she knows that most people have given up on him and even think she's crazy for her steadfast belief that he will come home. She understands this, but Yevheniia is solid in her faith.
"Everyone deserves to have someone waiting for them."
Ruslana Fylymonova, 19, and Ivan Fedko, 19
A year ago, Ruslana and Ivan were just friends — seniors at the same high school. Ruslana says that their obvious crushes on each other were the source of running jokes among their friends, but she wasn't sure of his intentions and was waiting for him to show that he was serious. But when Kyiv woke to Russia's invasion last year, everything changed.
The day of the attack, Ruslana's parents signed up to join the territorial defense, together. Soon, Ruslana was alone in Kyiv, and she and Ivan bonded. Eventually, Ivan joined her parents' unit at the front and she went to Poland to continue her first year of medical school, trying to focus while terrified for the safety of everyone she held dear.
They exchanged letters and hurried phone calls, whispering plans for the future. One day, Ivan sent her a selfie from a trench, and she made a drawing of it and sent it back in a letter. She tried to remain calm the first time she heard a student from her school matching his description had been killed in action, and the mix of heartache and relief when she found out it wasn't him who had died.
Ivan says thinking of her and his family and pets remind him to dig the trenches deep to stay safe — and to never be reckless. His dreams of a future with Ruslana keep him focused and grounded, but to her, sometimes the fear for his safety makes it hard to even think about tomorrow.
Victor and Luybov Lada, 90 and 91
Luybov Lada, 91, and Víctor Lada, 90, were in bed at their home in Slovyansk, in eastern Ukraine, when Luybov's eyes snapped open at the sound of a deafening crack. Residents of the Donetsk region had become accustomed to the sounds of the war since it began in 2014, but this hit sounded very close.
"We should go down to the basement," Luybov told her husband. "Don't worry, go back to sleep," Victor said. The next explosion hit directly underneath their second-floor room, sending shrapnel flying through their bedroom. Luybov was stunned but unhurt. She heard Victor's voice in the cold darkness: "Don't move," he told her. "Stay still and I'll help you." There was glass and blood everywhere. Victor's arm had been badly injured.
A few weeks later, in their son's apartment only a couple of blocks from the wreckage of their home, the couple laughs at their fickle luck. Flashing her gold teeth, Luybov takes her husband's hand. "If we had stood up ... the shrapnel came in sideways, so we probably would have been killed."
The first time Victor saw Luybov, he was 18 and she was 19. She was dancing at a local nightclub and he was enthralled, but he couldn't work up the courage to talk to her until he got a job in management at the soda plant where she worked. Luybov was heartbroken after losing her hand in an accident at the plant, and her boyfriend at the time left her in the aftermath, but Victor, a hard-working and educated young man with a bright future, stepped in and pursued the beauty from the nightclub.
The two have been inseparable for seven decades since. They've helped raise children and great-grandchildren. They've tried to live a normal life as they find themselves at the center of the conflict that's gripped the Donbas since 2014.
Natalie Keyssar is a documentary photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. See more of her work on her website nataliekeyssar.com or on instagram @nataliekeyssar.
Photos edited by: Grace Widyatmadja
Text edited by: Zach Thompson
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