Love and remembrance

“We all love Vanya,” says Vika, smiling across the table at the young man opposite. “All the women love to have him round for dinner. He’s our hope.”

Vanya seems nice enough, fair and twitchy, with thin skin stretched tight over his skull. Probably no more or less lovable than a thousand other young men who got caught up in the war between the government and Russian-backed ‘republics’ in east Ukraine. Vika and all the women love him not for his blue eyes and scattershot attention, for what he did or didn’t do in the war, for the prejudices and inherited responses and experiences and fantasies that make up his personality. They love him as we’d probably all want to be loved: simply because he’s alive.

No, not quite that. Because he was lost, and is found. Because he came back from the dead.

“Our Vanya’s unique,” Vika told me, when she suggested I meet him.

After 8 May 2016 when he was taken off a bus at a checkpoint of the unrecognised ‘DNR’ in east Ukraine, Vanya was one of the war’s many missing.

The ‘DNR’ security services said he was dead, when they put a gun muzzle to Vanya’s head. They called his mother and told her that. Then they stopped calling.

The Ukrainian security services told his mother to stop looking for him, or hoping for him to come home, because he was dead.

There is nothing unique in this story. Vanya’s mother didn’t believe it and kept hoping, and in that she was not unique either, she was the same as Vika, whose brother went missing at a checkpoint in 2014; as Yadviga and Svetlana, whose sons vanished at the battle of Ilovaisk; as Lilya whose son went missing in Debaltsevo in January 2015.

DNA matches, photographs of bodies, gunshots heard over a telephone connection – none of it is enough to make these women give up hope. Not when there are psychics to tell them their loved ones are alive, and social media messages with photos showing them alive. Not when there are conflicting lists of dead and missing and prisoners. Not when the DNA samples get mixed up, the body parts, the names; when police dump identifying clothing and belongings from the war dead in fields. Not when there are basements and building sites and brick factories and illegal coal mines where hostages and slave labourers could be imprisoned for years. Not when there is Vanya.

In early 2017 the Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko – captured in east Ukraine, sentenced in Russia then freed in an exchange – crossed the frontline to visit a ‘DNR’ prison. She shouted “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine) in a corridor. From a cell someone shouted back “Heroim Slava!” (Glory to the heroes).

It was like a magic password back to the land of the living.

“I’d written a letter to the ‘DNR’ security services, asking them to shoot me,” Vanya says, matter-of-factly. He’d been in so many different basements and cells by then. “I wasn’t right in the head any more. I couldn’t see any way out. I never got any parcels. All the others there got humanitarian aid parcels, except me. I never got any because I wasn’t there.”

And then, suddenly, he shouted two words and he was there. Savchenko published his name. He was added to the Ukrainian official list of prisoners held by the other side. In December last year he was exchanged for ‘DNR’ prisoners held by Ukraine, and came home to his mother.

There are many more details to Vanya’s story. Not all of them make sense. I could do the fact-checking, as much as is possible in Ukraine’s murky and brutal war where everyone lies about everything. But this is a story about love.

Vika wanted me to meet Vanya because he was found after being missing, alive after being dead – and that means they all can be found alive. Vika’s brother Sergey, Sveta’s son Maxim, Yadviga’s Andrey, Lilya’s Sasha. All the sons, all the brothers, the loved ones.

“Our Vanya’s unique,” said Vika. He tells the women he isn’t unique, there could be many more like him. He heard them, in neighbouring cells and dark basement rooms. Love never gives up, and neither does the desire to nurture hope.

kyiv-war-memorial-may15-sm

Waiting and war memorials. Kyiv, 2015

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