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2 Ukrainian mothers struggle to stay in touch with their children in front-line cities

Dana Lahunovych's daughter is serving in the Ukrainian military. Lahunovych writes to her daughter about once a week on a messaging app, but she also fears knowing too much.
Ryan Kellman
/
NPR
Dana Lahunovych's daughter is serving in the Ukrainian military. Lahunovych writes to her daughter about once a week on a messaging app, but she also fears knowing too much.

Hundreds of miles from the front lines, in western Ukraine, Dana Lahunovych still feels the daily strain of Ukraine's war against Russia.

She, like many other Ukrainians, has family living or fighting in cities on the front lines of Russia's full-scale assault on Ukraine.

In Lahunovych's case, her 38-year-old daughter and son-in-law are serving in the Ukrainian military in some of the hardest-hit regions of the conflict, including the Donbas region in the east and the port city of Mariupol.

Dana Lahunovych and a group of friends contribute to the war effort by cooking mountains of food — pierogis, salads, chicken — to help feed the military and territorial defense forces stationed nearby.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Dana Lahunovych (center) and a group of friends contribute to the war effort by cooking mountains of food — pierogis, salads, chicken — to help feed the military and territorial defense forces stationed nearby.

"My daughter is at the front. She doesn't say where they are exactly, so I cannot say where. They are located in places that they don't talk about where they are," Lahunovych says.

She tries to write to her daughter at least once a week on a messaging app to keep in touch and to make sure she's OK.

"I'm crying and saying, like, 'Where are you? How are you?' She doesn't answer. And then after a while, she says, 'Mom, I'm OK,' " Lahunovych says. "They don't talk to me much. They don't tell me what's going on because they know how hard it is for me to live through this."

Lahunovych said her daughter and son-in-law have a 12-year-old daughter who's staying with her paternal grandparents. Having both parents away at the front has been hard on the girl, she says.

"She's very sad and missing Mom and Dad, and looking at their picture every day and wanting them to come back," Lahunovych says.

Lahunovych works for the Ukrainian postal service, but in her off time she joins other women from her village in western Ukraine who get together to cook food for the military and territorial defense forces in the area.

Several other women who help out with the food also have children in harm's way.

One of them is Tetiana Protsek, whose 18-year-old son, Nazar, is in his first year studying engineering at a military university in Kharkiv, another city that has been pounded by Russian forces.

She says they text each other several times a day — usually just a few words.

Tetiana Protsek has an 18-year-old son in his first year of studying engineering at a military university in Kharkiv, another city that has been pounded by Russian forces.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Tetiana Protsek has an 18-year-old son in his first year of studying engineering at a military university in Kharkiv, another city that has been pounded by Russian forces.

He tells her not to worry, that "everything will be fine," she says.

"But I'm worried," Protsek says. "Only a fool wouldn't worry. But I tell him, 'You're a rock. Be strong. You can do everything. You're a hero.' I pray for him."

Like Lahunovych, Protsek doesn't know much about her son's whereabouts. She says he's not fighting but may be helping unload railroad cars or guarding a military warehouse. But he has told her there isn't much to eat — really, they're just trying to survive, she says.

"I just don't even want to think about it," Protsek says. "The main thing is that he's alive. And that he writes back."

As difficult as it is to get information about what their children are doing and exactly where they are, both Protsek and Lahunovych aren't sure whether they even want to know more.

What Lahunovych does know, though, is what she wants to tell her daughter when she gets the chance: "I would say that I love her very much and that I want us to be together."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.