By Andrew R.C. Marshall
ZHOVKVA, Ukraine – Before he left for the front, Ukrainian military reservist Viktor Dudar hugged his wife Oksana and told her not to worry.
And every day he was away, fighting the advancing Russian forces, he found time to message or call her. “I’m alive,” he wrote once. “Everything is okay.”
Then on March 3, a week after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the messages stopped. Three days later, Oksana’s worst fears were confirmed when a priest and some soldiers arrived at her door.
“They entered the house and said, ‘Your husband is a hero,’” recalled Oksana, 47. “No other words were needed.” Her husband had died in a hail of Russian rockets.
Viktor, 44, who in peacetime was a journalist, is one of perhaps hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who have died since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24.
Ukraine says its forces have killed more than 12,000 Russian troops. Russia has confirmed about 500 losses. Neither side has disclosed Ukrainian casualties.
During his regular TV addresses, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has awarded the title “Hero of Ukraine” to soldiers who have died in action. On Thursday alone, Zelenskiy read out the names of 13 recipients.
The United Nations estimates that 1,500 civilians have been killed or injured, with Ukrainian officials predicting a much higher death toll as Russia continues to besiege and bombard their cities.
Oksana and Viktor Dudar met at university, when he came to her dorm to move some furniture. They made their home in Zhovkva, near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, and have a 21-year-old daughter, Sofia.
Today, still dazed with grief, Oksana sits with Viktor’s military badge and beret on her lap, rubbing the badge with fingers made red raw by the cold.
As a journalist who specialised in military affairs, Viktor believed a Russian invasion was imminent, said Oksana.
Within hours of the attack, he had driven to Lviv to present himself at the headquarters of the 80th Brigade. He had served in the brigade in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and started backing separatists who seized territory in eastern Ukraine.
He went straight to the front, Oksana later learned, to Mykolaiv, a strategic port city on the Black Sea. The region was the scene of fierce clashes as Ukrainian soldiers repelled Russian forces sweeping up from Crimea.
Back home in Zhovkva, a town untouched by the fighting, Oksana tried to gauge from Viktor’s daily messages and fleeting calls where he was and how much danger he was in.
He never revealed his exact location, but gave glimpses of his life on the frontline. One night, he slept in a tree. On another occasion, local people cooked hot meals for his unit.
He was candid with Oksana, who is also a journalist, about the battle ahead. “On TV we hear about Ukraine’s great wins, about how we’re destroying the enemy,” he told her. “But it looks like I’ll be here for a long time.”
Then, on March 3, Viktor went silent. “Where are you?” Oksana messaged him that afternoon. “What’s happening to you?”
After his death was confirmed, Viktor’s belongings were returned – just his wallet and its contents, nothing more – and then his body. The coffin was sealed. Oksana said she wasn’t allowed to look inside.
Viktor is buried in Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, his grave piled high with flowers. Next to him lie six other soldiers beneath flower-decked mounds. Behind them there is an empty plot, ready for more.
Viktor’s death has hardened Oksana’s resolve.
“After such great losses, after the grief that was brought to our land, we have no choice but to win,” she said. “For those who have already died, we must win.”