Those Who Keep the Memory Alive. Stories of Kharkiv Women Lost Loved Ones in the War

Denys Glushko - 01 July 2023 | 00:19

“I have this feeling. I don’t know how to explain it: there is a human body and there is a human soul. Even if he is not physically with us, his soul will always be here. Dad lives as long as we keep him in mind.”

Anton Derbilov, the father of 16-year-old Sonya, was killed on April 6 in the fighting near Kreminna in Luhansk region. The man stood up to defend Ukraine at the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion. Anton’s wife Kateryna stayed with their three daughters in Kharkiv all this time, doing volunteer work and waiting for their husband and father to return.

On June 4, Anton’s family and friends organized a concert honoring their fallen loved one. It was an opportunity for them to talk about their pain. To document their memories so that people would not forget the hero.

We have collected stories of women who lost loved ones in the war. They are united in their desire to preserve the memory of the men who stood up to defend Ukraine and died during the Russian invasion.

“The five of us are like an unbreakable fortress.” Derbilov family

Kateryna is an artist. Before the full-scale invasion, she and her husband Anton had a family business, the Sirko Toys studio, making soldier figurines: Anton sculpted and Kateryna painted them.

They met at the age of 15 at the Kharkiv Art Lyceum. When two parallel classes gathered for a meeting, Anton and Kateryna saw each other for the first time. Then they accidentally came to a joint course, where one of them lacked a book-the pair read from the same German textbook together. Five years of friendship, doing things together, and sharing the same company awaited them, and then Anton and Kateryna realized that it was time to be together.

Kateryna Derbilova, wife of fallen Ukrainian defender Anton Derbilov / Photo: Oleksii Yeroshenko for Gwara Media

— We did not doubt that we would get married. A year later, we got married and had children, and now we have three: Anya, Oksana and Sofia. “For all 22 years, except, unfortunately, the last one, we were almost constantly together,” says Kateryna.

On the night of February 23-24, 2022, Anton and Kateryna watched the series at home – it was their tradition. It was a warm, quiet night. At 3 a.m., the couple watched the last episode.

— It was the calm before the storm. The phrase “Stop, just a moment!” was in my head.

The eldest daughter heard the first explosions in the morning and went to wake up her parents and two younger sisters. Anton and Kateryna realized that a full-scale invasion had begun. The family decided to stay at home for the first few days.

— “Back in April 2021, Anton and I discussed that there would be a war, so we tried to think of an action plan. He said he didn’t go to war in 2014 because the children were still young, but he couldn’t stay away this time,” Kateryna recalls.

On the first day, the family was organizing their daily routine, buying groceries, and preparing for the events that would last for who knows how long. On the second day, the children went to Pakufuda (a coffee shop with a bakery where volunteers set up a humanitarian headquarters at the beginning of the full-scale invasion – ed.), and Anton packed a bag with the necessary things and headed to the nearest military registration and enlistment office.

The man participated in the liberation of Balakliia, Izyum, and Borova. In the autumn, the military unit reached Kreminna in Luhansk region.

— He would change the type of military service – he just had to wait for the last approval. Anton believed that he would do more good there. The day Anton died was supposed to be his last day in those positions,” Kateryna says.

Kateryna’s birthday was the following day. The night before, Anton had promised his wife: “Honey, I’ll congratulate you when I come back.” That morning her husband died.

— I got a call from our friend who is also serving, he said he wanted to talk to me. I immediately understood everything. While driving to the meeting place, I managed to go through all the stages of accepting the inevitable,” the woman says quietly.

And then he added: “We have lived a whole life that year. I’m glad I didn’t follow our plan to leave the city and stay in Kharkiv. My daughters and I were volunteering, I had the opportunity to see my husband, help our military, and I was with him all the time. Anton was a bright, warm person who felt uncomfortable here, so he kept going. I want to believe that.”

— Our parents have created a happy childhood for us: they have invested in us the strength and inspiration that support us even from a distance. “Throughout the year, my father told us that he was proud of us,” Oksana said, daughter of Kateryna and Anton.

“We always said that the five of us are like a fortress. This feeling did not disappear even when our father passed away. The fortress did not collapse, and there will always be five of us.

The last thing Anton posted in the family chat: “I love you very much.” The family responded with a stack of messages that his feelings were mutual.

— “Honestly, before the war, I didn’t know how to say simple words: “I love you”. It sounds trivial. But when the war came, I realized that every word could be the last. You do not know what will happen tomorrow, so it is important to talk about love now.

On June 4, Anton Derbilov’s family and friends organized a concert in honour of the fallen hero. The event featured performances by the bands Rohata Zhaba and Alcohol Ukulele. This is how they paid tribute to Anton Derbilov, who has lived as long as he is remembered.

— “Our friends offered to organize a concert in honor of Anton,” Kateryna says, “We are grateful for their support and the opportunity to honor my husband’s memory.

Kateryna, Oksana and Sofia, wife and daughters of fallen Ukrainian defender Anton Derbilov / Photo: Oleksii Yeroshenko for Gwara Media

“After the victory, we wanted to have two children.” Melnyk family

My beloved, you are going down to the ground, but in reality, you are flying up to the sky,
You were good, now be evil – let me feel this anger in myself,
Let me live this hatred and move on through it,
But in reality, I love you more. You are my hero, you are eternally glorified.

Tetiana dedicated this piece to her husband, Andrii Melnyk, who died in the war; she read it at his funeral. Andrii died on May 5 while performing a combat mission in Bakhmut. The man was awarded the “For the Defense of the Hero City of Kharkiv” commemorative medal and the “Shield of the Territorial Defense of the Armed Forces of Ukraine” badge.

— If there is unconditional love in the world, then Andriy loved me with precisely that kind of love. He always gave me compliments and wrote to me every day from the front line: “You’re the best,” “You’re so beautiful,” “You’re so strong,” “Darling, I love you so much,” Tetiana said. “After the victory, we wanted to have two children and travel around Europe together in a rented trailer. We planned to go to Georgia – Andriy was eager to go there.

After the full-scale invasion, all of Tetiana’s poems are dedicated to Andriy or the war. It is her way of expressing pain and reflecting on the tragedy. Tetiana writes about Andriy so that as many people as possible can learn about him.

— “You know, we always thought that we would be together until we were old,” she says. “Andriy was so bright and warm. He had jokes for all occasions, always lived by his conscience, and never hurt anyone. In 2019, his friend died, who wanted to write a music album for his granddaughter – Andrii completed this work for him, but he never released his album.

Tetiana Melnyk, also known in the literary community as Tati Sun, is a volunteer, poet, and teacher. Andrii and Tetiana have been together for 12 and a half years, attending creative events together, and participating in events organized by the FRI NGO, including cooking at the East Cost FRI camp on the Azov Sea coast near Mariupol before the full-scale invasion. He also participated in the Poetry Nights and the “Your Country” project.

In 2019, Andrii joined the School of Media Patriots (a non-governmental organization that promotes patriotism in the information space – ed.): he actively participated in organizing and conducting all events, and was responsible for technical support of events. The man created and recorded the anthem of the School of Media Patriots.

Tetiana Melnyk, wife of fallen soldier Andrii Melnyk, at her husband’s funeral / Photo: Oleksandr Magula for Gwara Media

“He was one of those people for whom the country was really above all else,” recalls Andriy’s friend Ivan Bondarenko.

On the second day of the full-scale invasion, Andriy went to donate blood for the wounded and joined the Territorial Defense of Pivdenne. He was in charge of the medical unit and always walked around with a backpack and medicines. On March 16, he signed up as a volunteer at the Kharkiv military enlistment office and joined the 127th Brigade of the Kharkiv Territorial Defense as a combat medic,” Tetiana says.

— Andriy participated in the de-occupation of Velyki Prokhody village in Kharkiv region. For the last month of his life as a combat medic, he saved the soldiers’ lives in Bakhmut.

One day, Andriy saved eight people and was promoted to lieutenant. He evacuated, provided first aid and assisted in surgery.

— “I remember him calling me and telling me that we had to take care of ourselves and he would do the rest. Our goal now is to keep Andriy’s memory living. The country is being built by people like Andriy, who are ready to get up at any moment, take a soldering iron, 10 meters of cable and do what he has to do,” said Ivan, a friend of Andriy’s.

How the stories of fallen soldiers and their wives are told in Kharkiv

This pain has no geography. Photo project “Alone”

Photo Journalist Kateryna Moskaliuk has created a project about the wives of fallen soldiers called “Alone.” She collected the stories of five women who lost their husbands in the war.

Photo Journalist Kateryna Moskaliuk has created a project about the wives of fallen soldiers called “Alone”. She collected the stories of five women who lost their husbands in the war.

— “Last year, I took many photos of the burials of fallen soldiers in Lviv. What I remember most is the moment when the wife, mother, or daughter of the dead is given a flag, and she hugs the flag to her with a perplexed expression on her face. No matter how long this war lasts, the wounds do not become less painful,” says Kateryna.

The journalist interviewed women from Lviv, Kharkiv, Kyiv, Dnipro, and Odesa.

“This pain has no geography, no age. It is everywhere,” Kateryna says.

— I asked myself, “Why do I need this?”. Then I realized that it was important for me to preserve the evidence of the crimes, the stories and the people’s memory. As it turned out, for the wives of fallen soldiers, this is also a kind of thread, a connection with their husbands, an opportunity to preserve memories,” Kateryna says.

Visitors of the photo exhibition “Alone” by Kateryna Moskaliuk, April 26, 2023 / Photo: Oleksandr Magula, Gwara Media

“Kateryna keeps the memory of people who were torn from their normal lives by the war. They died so that Ukrainians could live. One of the women told Kateryna a phrase: “Thanks to this project, I no longer feel alone.”

by Viktoriia Mankovska

translated by Denys Glushko

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