The young friends raise their glasses of Irish whiskey in a toast. There are smiles, hugs and excitement all around in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. The celebration is only 18 miles (30 kilometers) from the Russian border and 62 miles (100 kilometers) from the frontlines. Even under the heavy weight of war, there are still reasons to celebrate life and friendship. The friends have gathered to celebrate the birth of Yaroslav’s son, Ilia, on March 10. Yaroslav is a cab driver and volunteer soldier we interviewed in November 2022 when he was part of the counteroffensive to retake the southern city of Kherson. Next week, he will return to Bakhmut and Soledar in the Donbas region, now the site of the war’s bloodiest battle. Thousands have died on both sides in the fight for Bakhmut that is still raging. A Ukrainian military spokesman said on March 16 that it’s a critical chokepoint for holding off the Russian advance.
“I got pregnant quickly in case something happened to Yaroslav,” said his smiling wife five days after giving birth. Nastia (short for Anastasia) went to Ireland for two months last year to escape the war, but her stay only lasted two months. She returned home to Kharkiv and resumed life with Yaroslav, her partner for the last seven years. They were married on June 10, and soon after, a baby was on the way. Nastia chose to have a child that might be orphaned rather than risk losing her husband before she could conceive. But she knew the nine months ahead would be spent mostly alone with Yaroslav away fighting the war.
In our interview last November, Yaroslav told us he wanted to be at his wife’s side as they waited for the baby. But that was impossible during Ukraine’s fierce counteroffensive to regain control of Kherson, over 300 miles (500 kilometers) south of their home. Yaroslav was later posted closer to home, but his unit has been deployed to one of the war’s most dangerous battlegrounds for the last few months.
For over six months, an intense battle has raged for control of Bakhmut, killing thousands of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers. “It’s a defensive operation right now,” said military spokesman Serhii Cherevatyi on national television last week. “The main goal is to contain the enemy and inflict heavy casualties.” Bakhmut is not a strategic territory, but Moscow and Kyiv show no signs of retreat. The town once had 70,000 residents, but after six months of fighting, most civilians have left.
Neither army has advanced much since Ukrainian troops regained control of Kherson in mid-November. Yaroslav was a truck driver in that counteroffensive, responsible for reclaiming abandoned Russian equipment for Ukraine’s reuse and transporting wounded combatants to the rear.
Yaroslav’s imminent return to the war hangs heavy on this celebration of new life, and everyone chooses to ignore it. “Not talking about the army helps my peace of mind,” said Nastia, who doesn’t think she’ll tell her son much about the war he was born in.
To lighten the mood, Nastia half-jokingly chides her husband for breaking his promise to only sign a six-month contract with the army. “Of course, I’m proud of my husband,” she said. “He’s doing what Ukraine needs him to do right now. That inspires me.”
The little boy makes a brief appearance at the celebration in his honor. The childhood friends hover around the bassinet to look at Illia, peacefully sleeping and wrapped in a blanket with a Harley Davidson logo. They call for a photo and cluster around the proud father with his little son in his arms. Nothing seems to disturb the baby’s slumber. “He just ate,” the mother explains.
“It was strange being alone during the pregnancy, but it was worth it,” said Nastia. “We talked almost every day, although sometimes he was in an area where he couldn’t call. I was always nervous, but I just tried to be positive that everything would be alright.” Nastia has a degree in English philology and works in the marketing department of a manicure tools and accessories company.
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