Photo courtesy of Dr Olesya Khromeychuk

Olesya Khromeychuk’s diary: Returning to Ukraine—and my brother’s grave

Volodya was killed in action in 2017. When the war broke out in February I craved somewhere to grieve—for him and for all my fallen compatriots
October 6, 2022

I never wanted to be a war tourist. When my brother was serving in the Donbas, more than five years ago, he suggested that I visit his positions. I refused. “I’m not a medic, not a soldier. I’m not even a war reporter. What use would I be at the front?” I asked, justifying my decision.

“You write and teach about war. Why not see it up close?” he asked in response.

The truth is, I did want to see it up close. I wanted to know how people created a sense of normality in circumstances that were far from normal. But I didn’t want my curiosity to turn me into a liability for those who were risking their lives to defend my homeland.

When the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began on 24th February, I desperately wanted to be at my brother’s grave. Volodya was buried in my hometown, Lviv, after being killed in action in the Luhansk region in 2017. I craved somewhere to grieve not just for him, but for the thousands of my countrywomen and men who were being killed by Russian troops—many of whom wouldn’t even get a burial.

Since February, many of my London-based Ukrainian friends have travelled to Ukraine to volunteer, work as fixers for foreign journalists, drive humanitarian aid vehicles to the front or join the armed forces. But I resisted the temptation to go back. I didn’t want to make my way east just as so many were heading west, desperate to reach the very safety that I would have been leaving. It would have felt like war tourism. Instead, I tried to make myself useful in the UK by speaking and writing about Russia’s war and amplifying Ukrainian voices as they started to ring louder, but still not loudly enough, in the western world.

When I got to my hometown, I headed to the cemetery. I found that the sizeable military pantheon in which my brother was buried was now full

Each day, however, I felt my need to go home grow stronger. And so, six months after the start of the full-scale invasion, I made the journey. Normally it would take me under four hours—now it took almost 24.

The first thing that struck me while standing in a queue at the Polish-Ukrainian border, consisting almost exclusively of women and children, was that the kids were uncharacteristically quiet. It was late and they looked exhausted, but no one was throwing a tantrum. Some played on a patch of grass outside the train station; others waited patiently by their suitcases. Many looked like they had done this journey before.

When I got to my hometown, I headed to the cemetery. I found that the sizeable military pantheon in which my brother was buried was now full. Soldiers killed in recent months had instead been laid to rest in the nearby field alongside those who served in the Second World War. The field is vast, and the 100 fresh graves didn’t take up much space. I couldn’t bear the thought that the next time I visited, this field too might be full.

I then walked to our family flat, which since February has sheltered numerous internally displaced people and their pets. Some have stayed a few nights, others weeks. This one-bedroom apartment, converted from a former communal Soviet dorm, had been given to my mother by the state after my brother’s death. She lives in the UK, and so it is currently home to four generations of women from the Zaporizhzhia region: the oldest is in her seventies, the youngest is four. They can’t return home until it’s liberated from the Russians.

The feeling of liberation was, however, in the air; my trip coincided with the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv. But liberation came with the uncovering of new mass graves, torture chambers and destroyed lives.

After a few days in Lviv I headed to the capital, Kyiv. The soundtrack to my walk through the city centre, past a checkpoint and some burnt-out Russian army vehicles, was an air raid siren. That day, Kyiv was spared. The Russian missiles hit Kryvyi Rih, Volodymyr Zelensky’s hometown. The outskirts of Zaporizhzhia took another hit, but not the nuclear power station. Not this time.

“I’ve never seen Kyiv so empty,” I told a friend who had accompanied me on the trip, as we looked over the mighty Dnipro river from one of Kyiv’s hills.

“That’s not empty—that’s it coming back to life. You should have seen it in May when it was truly deserted,” she replied. She had been there in that month, volunteering ever since.

We headed to one of the numerous volunteer hubs where people were doing everything from sewing balaclavas to raising money for another Javelin (a US-made anti-tank missile system). Everyone looked exhausted—seven months is a long time to volunteer in addition to a day job—but encouraged by the counteroffensive. This was their victory too.

“Bring the blinds down, ladies. All the way down, that’s it,” instructed the conductor on our night train back to Poland. She didn’t want our carriages, full of women and children, to be a moving target. Sitting on my bunkbed and writing the final diary entry of this trip, I tried to understand if I had become a war tourist. Perhaps I had. But I will be for ever grateful to all who are defending Ukraine, in and out of the trenches, for granting me this privilege to make a journey home.