Musician and former intelligence officer Roman Nabozhnyak and his wife Yulia Kochetova live on the 15th floor of an apartment building in one of the residential districts of Kyiv. They invite us into their small but bright kitchen where a box of Veterano Brownies waits for us on the gleaming table – a brand that Roman and his wife launched when he returned from the war in Eastern Ukraine.
Roman begins talking about his life before the war and why he enlisted.
Before the war I studied music, performed as a singer and played the bass clarinet in a band called DVIZH PARIS. I also worked in a computer company, received a good salary in dollars and didn’t have a care in the world.
Roman didn’t go to war immediately… his decision to enlist grew gradually as Roman went through several stages of questions and growing awareness.
I joined the student protest movement on the Maidan. We worked out of a friend’s apartment and it was on the third day without sleep that it finally hit me – the Yanukovych regime couldn’t be overturned unless we were ready to die for our beliefs! I realized that I wasn’t ready for that yet. That’s why I didn’t enlist right away…it wasn’t till until August 2014, when our boys were massacred in Ilovaisk that I first realized that the war wouldn’t end so soon. I joined a group of friends and we started combat training. That’s when I got to know some real fighters from the Aidar Battalion and I decided to help them financially. I realized that was far from enough and in winter 2015 when our boys were fighting it out in Debaltseve, I woke up knowing that I could no longer be a mere bystander.
I joined Pravy Sektor, did some combat training and passed my driving license.
Roman served in a reconnaissance battalion and took part in intelligence operations in the Mariupol sector along the Chermalyk-Shyrokino defense line and near Stanytsia in Luhansk Oblast. He doesn’t go into too much detail about his work in the military.
I didn’t even try to communicate with the locals. After all, we were part of an intelligence unit. We didn’t even wear chevrons on our uniforms. We were assigned different missions, from routine duty at checkpoints and digging trenches to reconnaissance missions, combat and taking control of certain sites in the “grey area”. However, our main objective was to collect information.
All our actions were planned in detail. Each of us had clear instructions, maps, plan A, plan B, etc.
I remember one scary moment…. We were working in the “grey area” in the Mariupol sector. We’d organized a very quiet but effective operation. We had three days to clean up the area and take the town. We worked for two days and on the third day we approached the defense line controlled by the terrorists. They saw us and opened fire, showering us with ammo and AGSs. We lay in the middle of the field and couldn’t budge an inch until the group that was covering us finally opened fire. We came out alive, but we understood that we’d come out of there by the skin of our teeth.
Roman smiles as he talks about the war, trying not to focus too much attention on painful memories. He then recalls his short periods of leave from the army with Yulia, how she tried to distract him, involve him in other plans and make those traumatic moments disappear. Several days before the New Year, during one of their brief holidays in the Carpathians, Roman proposed to Yulia.
I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, so why postpone the inevitable? We got married in August 2016, and I was demobilized on October 15, 2016.
I started seeing a psychologist when I got back from the front lines. At first, Yulia and I slept with all the lights on because if I fell asleep in the dark, I knew I’d get up at 2:00 a.m. to take up guard duty at the post…”
I didn’t sleep well… I had nightmares – the war, the shelling, the smells… I still wake up in a sweat sometimes, but it’s less real.
My hair started turning grey. After I returned home, I decided I wouldn’t risk my life anymore. I think Yulia can tell you more about how our lives changed.
Yulia nods… She’s a photojournalist and director. Her debut documentary film – “I’ll see you soon” (До скорого) is the story of her personal experience and anxiety for her beloved Roman, which helped her survive more than a year of waiting.
Roman was a stranger when he returned, I won’t deny this. He was tired and grey, but I saw that some of his principles and views, which were so important to me, had remained intact. Of course, after seeing the war you become more straightforward and direct. No more fooling around…
It was hard for me to describe how I felt at that time, so I decided to shoot a documentary – it was both therapy and a work project.”
While Yulia muses about the past, Roman buzzes around the kitchen and suddenly appears with a tray of brownies topped with scoops of ice cream.
We ask Roman and Yulia about their business. At first, Roman just wanted to make desserts for their friends, but then a close friend told him he should start selling them. Roman is currently totally engaged in the production process, experimenting and tasting, and working on business plans and development. Yulia is responsible for advertising, marketing and promotion.
I wanted this to be a Veterano story (the Veterano Group is a chain of pizzerias and coffee shops founded by ATO veterans – Ed.). It was important to show others that it was possible to adapt to a new life. Returning from war is not the end, but perhaps only the beginning of something new. I realized that I couldn’t forget the war completely. Today, I’m part of the veteran community, and I want to continue helping our soldiers and family members who have lost their loved ones… because it’s all about helping others, being there for them. You know, there are specific terms and conditions if you want to join the Veterano family – a psychologist must be included in your company and 10% of the profits go to families of soldiers killed in the war zone.
So many things have lost their sense and importance for us. I can’t understand why people continue arguing and worrying about minor things, why they’re so frustrated…
Both of us look at things more simply – there’s life and there’s death, we’re together and we love each other. Everything else is just a lot of hot air that can be changed. We became more loyal and honest towards everyone and everything. After all, it’s so much easier to ignore what doesn’t match your own values.
Yulia and I have many plans. Both of us have invested heavily in this business, so now I’m here… in our kitchen. But, both of us are fully aware that the war is not over…