Article by: Valentyna Eminova
The incredible story of the mother of an ATO soldier who received official notice of her son’s death, and a year later was reunited with him on the doorstep of their home.
Olha Pohrebnyak told us that she had continued waiting and believing when everyone else had given up. 46-year-old Olha from Lviv lives alone with her two sons: 22-year-old Oleksiy and seven-year-old Mykyta. Oleksiy left for the front in the summer of 2014.
Oleksiy had repeatedly said that he wanted to serve as a volunteer, and one day Olha came home from work and found a note on the table saying he had gone to fight.
She got a call a few weeks later: “Mom, I’m alive, everything’s fine!”
“Our conversations were always very brief.” recalls Olha. “He didn’t tell me where he was stationed. He said he shouldn’t repeat such information over the phone as it might fall into enemy hands. Once he mentioned that he was with the Azov Battalion.”
Olha cried, prayed and watched the news in horror, when she learnt about the Ilovaisk hellhole.
The official death notification arrived in late August.
“Aliosha’s last called me on August 25 last year, and on August 28 I received the official death notification. At first, I believed it, but when I was told that Aliosha’s body couldn’t be found, I began having second thoughts.”
Long days stretched into sleepless nights filled with anguish, pain and faint sparks of hope. Olha’s heart refused to believe that her son was gone…
“All my attempts to get more information were useless. I searched everywhere, and even learned to use Facebook. If not for my youngest Mykyta, I really don’t know if I’d been able to cope with this endless sorrow. I told Mykyta about Alyosha’s death said, but not at once; I was very worried how he’d take the news… But he listened to my story and told me he’d never leave me.”
Three months after receiving news of her son’s death, Olha went on the Ministry of Internal Affairs website – “unidentified bodies” – which displays hundreds of photos of soldiers’ mutilated bodies.
“I filled in my son’s data and clicked on “Search”. I can’t talk about it… the photos are gruesome and horrible to look at. In most cases, all you see are charred remains… I shiver every time I think of it.”
Olha was relieved… she did not recognize Oleksiy in any of the photos.
In May, Olha got a text message from an unknown number: “Mom, I’m alive.” She wanted to cry for joy, but she knew that these could be scammers who report about men held as prisoners and claim money from their victims.
“No one answered when I called that number. Volunteers warned me that they might be pranksters who try to take advantage of people’s grief. I went to the SBU where I was told that it was impossible to determine exactly where this text message came from. They could only say that it originated in the Donbas, and that most likely these were fraudsters trying to get money from me as my son had died and his name didn’t appear in the lists of prisoners or missing persons.”
Olha continued to wait for her son…
“You know, I prayed all the time. Not just for my son, but for all the boys fighting in the east.”
On August 5, close to a year after the official notification, Olha dreamt of an enormous bright red kalyna bush (guilder rose). The next day she posted the following message on Facebook:
“I had such a strange dream… It seemed as if I wasn’t looking directly at the bush. In fact, I had actually become the kalyna. How could that be? The kalyna symbolizes motherhood and represents the home, parents and everything dear. The kalyna is the Ukrainian symbol of unity, unity between the living, those who have departed to the other world, and those who are waiting to be born… Was it a sign from my Alyosha?”
On August 9, Olha wrote and posted a poem dedicated to her son. “Dear son of mine, I trust and believe that you will return home.”
Oleksiy returned the next day…
“I went to visit my sister in Volyn; she was taking care of Mykyta then. When I came back in the evening, my neighbour Dusya said: “Olia, dearest, some guy has been sitting on your doorstep since Saturday. I said to myself: “It’s Oleksiy!” My knees buckled and I felt faint…”
Below is Olha’s Facebook post:
It turned out that Oleksiy had been held prisoner, and had really sent his mother the text message. He was thin, with scars on his head and cheeks, several teeth were missing, several broken ribs had not mended properly and were sticking out strangely from under the skin; he refused to go to the hospital, shook and trembled at every loud noise, covering his head and face with his arms. Oleksiy screamed at night during his sleep, and refused to leave his bed…
Little Mykyta was a great help to Oleksiy.
“Mykyta didn’t leave his brother’s side. He told him stories, and Alyosha listened and listened. He hardly talked to me, but I wasn’t offended; I was thankful that both my sons were home. Mykyta is so serious and proud that his brother has come back from the war; I hardly recognize my youngest. I ask him what they talk about, but he tells me that it’s men’s talk.”
One day, Olha decided to call in a psychologist, but nothing worked out. When Oleksiy heard that his mother had called a doctor, he got angry, turned the table over, yelled at both of them and locked himself in his room.
But, one day, the bubble burst… When official data on the number of victims during the battle of Ilovaisk was announced, Oleksiy said it was all a lie and that the men had lived through hell. Olha was sitting at the computer in the kitchen; it was about four in the morning when Oleksiy came up to her and said: “Mom, let’s have a drink.”
“And so, it all came out… like blood pouring from a fresh wound. He told me about the horrors they had experienced, about the boys who didn’t return home, how he felt when they were being shelled with Grads in Ilovaisk, how everything became confused before his eyes and he didn’t know where the sky was and where the ground was, how he didn’t know where to go and what to do. He told me about the moment when he realized that only God could help, when a friend with whom he was talking a few minutes ago was suddenly killed, when he had no more strength left to pull his friend away, when he began blaming himself for having survived.”
At one point Olha said she just stopped her son because it was too hard and painful to listen to his story.
After talking about those terrible times, mother and son spoke about how many soldiers had remained unburied on the battlefield, been taken prisoner, and what anguish and pain the families of these fighters were experiencing.
“I wanted to help and support all the women who were left in the dark like me. They should also express themselves, share their pain and I decided we should get together and find out what really happened to their loved ones. Alyosha and I decided to draw up a list of men who had died or were missing in action. This task gradually turned Oleksiy’s life around.”
Many people responded to their call to action; people sent their own lists, some offered to help with data processing, another person created a website and published the collected data. Olha admits that it took her a long time to publish the lists as they were afraid that fraudsters would take advantage of the families. Oleksiy finally convinced his mother that it was the best thing to do.
“He told me that the boys over there should know that families and friends are looking for them and waiting for them to come home. It seems that Alyosha thought I had learned to live without him and didn’t expect him to come home…What terrible thoughts come to our sons in this awful war!”
Oleksiy calmed down, began to communicate more with his family and friends, slept easily and began renewing the documents that had been lost during his captivity. However, he refused to go in for rehabilitation therapy, saying that it was far too expensive.
Oleksiy got even better when Olena came to see him. Olha knew nothing about this young girl…
“Alyosha didn’t tell me anything about Olena; he just said that she’d helped him a lot on his way home, and if not for her, he wouldn’t have made it home. It seems I have a daughter now.”
The home where recently lived a lonely woman with her young son now houses a large family plus Barsyk the cat, a new member of the family. The young men don’t have much to say, but it’s enough for a mother to see her son again and dream of grandchildren. She doesn’t want to publish photos of her Alyosha and hasn’t changed her FB profile picture – a candle burning in memory of all the other men who never returned from the war.
Olha has become a symbol of hope for many Ukrainian mothers who want to believe that one day they will come home and also hear a familiar voice saying: “Hello! Recognize me?”
“A mother’s heart never makes a mistake. Believe me, it can never be fooled. Dear women everywhere, don’t give up, pray, trust your heart, and don’t believe what you hear. Have faith and hope, despite everything and contrary to everything!”
According to official figures announced by the SBU, 800 Ukrainian servicemen were declared missing in action as of October 2014.