The Lives Of 5 Friends Are Intertwined With The Ukraine War

BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) — At the cemetery where Oleksii Zavadskyi and Yurii Stiahliuk are buried, the women they loved smoke men’s favorite brands of cigarettes. They exhale smoke in silence.

Intertwined in Anastasiia Okhrimenko’s delicate fingers are Camels. Anna Korostenska lights up an L & M, while her hands shake from the cold. An intimate ritual when the two men were still alive—at the end of the day, when it was just the two of them—it is now a grim, posthumous tradition.


Oleksii and Yurii died on the eastern front fighting in Ukraine within five months of each other. One of them was the best friend of Vadym Okhrimenko and died in his arms. “He’s gone, in an instant,” he says, hastily packing his uniform and combat gear. He soon returns to the battlefield, heavy in pain, hungry for revenge.

The five had known each other since childhood. They came of age in Bucha, a kyiv suburb that is now synonymous with the most terrible atrocities of the war. Their intertwining stories reveal how the Russian invasion of Ukraine exactly one year ago changed their lives, their neighborhood, and their country.

“This war is not just about soldiers,” Anna maintains. “It’s about everyone connected to them and their pain.”

With each passing month, sedimentary layers of mourning formed: violent occupations followed by tearful separations and endless waiting. Between the chaotic fronts where victory turned to attrition and homes were rammed with air raids and constant blackouts, love blossomed, friendships deepened and the fear of death entrenched.

As the conflict that killed their loved ones persists, Anna, Anastasiia and her brother Vadym grapple with a question that all of war-torn Ukraine must face: after loss, what next?


In Bucha, the familiar places of childhood have been infused with a dark new history.

There is a building behind the playground where dozens of people took shelter from the approaching Russian troops; the garages where Russian soldiers burned alive those who took refuge inside; the supermarket from where the funeral processions now leave.

The occupation of Bucha—which lasted 33 days from the start of the invasion on February 24 until April 1, when Russian troops withdrew—became a potent symbol of the horrors of war. The liberation revealed the mass murder of civilians and gory accounts of rape. More than 450 people were killed, according to local authorities.

Anastasiia fled the area. Anna stayed in Bucha until March 10. She spent nights in the shelter as Russian tanks passed through her Sklozavod neighborhood. Soldiers looted shops and ran over a man sitting in a car. She witnessed all of this.

“We are still processing it,” says Andrii Holovyn, 50, the community priest who presided over Yurii’s funeral and those of many other soldiers after him. “People live in constant danger, without light, without rest between all that.”

The occupation prompted childhood friends to act. Oleksii’s mother and sister fled to Germany. Vadym’s wife fled to the Czech Republic. Yurii asked Anastasiia to quit her job and stay at home.

The three men were very different.

Yurii had an aura of eternal youth, the type of person who smiles brightly even when angry.

Oleksii was a fighter, a rebel on the outside, but intensely introverted.

Vadym, a gruff and self-described “football hooligan”, was their leader.

Shocked by the massacre committed in the place where they were born, they joined the army in the spring of 2022. No one could afford to sit back and watch the war unfold, Vadym explains.


This was the moment that Anastasiia chose to propose to Yurii.

It was her way of telling him that she could count on her and wait for him back. They had been together for seven years, a relationship that sparked the day Yurii, the boy she knew as a child and whom she only knew as a friend of his brother, reappeared in her life with an innocuous greeting on social media.

“I realized that he was the only person I could imagine my future with,” she says.

It was a no-frills ceremony. Papers were signed and rings exchanged, but future plans were detailed. “First, we had to win this war,” Anastasiia adds, twisting her wedding ring on her finger. “Probably the first thing we would do afterward would be to go on our honeymoon.”

Yurii arrived in the eastern city of Kramatorsk in July, heading for the salt-mining town of Bakhmut, a fierce battlefront that would prove to be the longest of the war. “I lived between calls and calls”, says Anastasiia.

Through him, she witnessed the hellscape that was war.

Russia had changed tack, withdrawing troops from the north after fierce Ukrainian resistance to focus on what Moscow described as the “liberation” of the disputed Donbas region.

His correspondence with Anastasiia over the course of six months revealed that his unit was constantly on the move. The shelling and artillery battles were relentless, he told her. After a night of intense cannonading, he texted, “I’ll definitely be back,” with an emoji blowing a heart-shaped kiss.

In August, he complained that the enemy had more advanced weapons while they had to make do with automatic weapons. Defenseless, they spent hours hiding in the trenches.

The night before Ukraine’s Independence Day, Aug. 25, Yurii said he believed the Russians would mark the occasion with missiles. He made her promise to sleep in the hallway, away from the windows.

He returned to the front. When the cannonade stopped for a moment, Yurii ran towards a car, thinking that he had enough time while the enemy reloaded his weapons.

But then the shooting started again.

It was Vadym, not Yurii, who called Anastasiia that morning. She had bad news from the Military Commissariat.

“Tell me it’s not true,” says the last text message she sent to her husband. “I beg you, tell me you’re alive.”


September was a turning point.

Ukraine launched surprise counter-offensives in the northern and southern regions, succeeding in denting the image of Russia’s military might. kyiv was encouraged to ask the faltering West for more weapons to keep up the fight, and Oleksii finally mustered her courage to tell Anna, for the first time, that he loved her.

Theirs was a romance that only the two of them understood, one in which moments of affection could quickly turn into thunderous arguments.

Anna’s first kiss was with Oleksii, when she was 15 years old, but there was no relationship to speak of until Yurii’s death. That changed him. Oleksii revealed that he had loved her all her life, but that he had stayed away from her because she had a relationship with one of her friends. Now he no longer cared.

“Yurii’s death pushed us to accept the fact that you can do anything in this life while you’re still alive,” says Anna.

After Yurii’s funeral, Anna planned to spend the night with Anastasiia to comfort her grieving friend. Oleksii, who had requested a license to attend her funeral, walked her to the door and kissed her.

Afterwards, he called her almost every day.

In mid-September, he looked especially tired on a video call while stationed in Zaporizhia. He asked Anna to help him find out how long soldiers were allowed to take leave. He sent her a link, an information page for officers who need time to get married.

“Zavadskyi, do you want to go on vacation or get married?” she asked playfully.

“Let’s combine the practical with the pleasant,” he replied. That was Oleksii’s style. They were engaged.

Autumn turned to winter, Ukraine liberated the northern and southern cities of Kharkiv and Kherson respectively. The victories boosted morale, but they were won little by little, with the help of Western weapons that wore down the Russian forces and their supply lines.

In the east, victories were more difficult to achieve. Russian forces, with the help of mercenaries from the Russian military contractor Wagner Group, unleashed tactics to exhaust the Ukrainian defenses. On January 11, Oleksii was deployed to a position near Bakhmut, very close to the same front where Yurii was fatally killed.

On January 13, he called her. It was too cold to sleep, he said shakily. The fighting lines were very close. He was 15 meters from the enemy. He was afraid.

In long-range battles, it’s not easy to see if you’ve killed someone, he explained. He had sent videos of himself from these positions before, as he fired into the distant enemy lines and yelled, “For Stiahliuk!” For Yuri, but here he could clearly see the men he killed falling.

Anna snapped. “You have to understand that if you don’t kill, they will kill you.”

He died the next day from a bullet to the neck.


Until they were redeployed to eastern Ukraine, they had felt invincible. In Zaporizhia they took two prisoners after an ambush and forced the Russians back at least 10 kilometers. Oleksii was both an infantryman and a driver of the platoon’s armored car.

At Bakhmut, they were ordered to perform dangerous maneuvers at the foot of the flank, close to the enemy lines.

“You have to fight every day, every minute,” Vadym explains. The Russian attacks seemed endless. His soldiers passed the corpses of their own comrades in their relentless advance toward the Ukrainian positions.

In the midst of a January 14 firefight, Oleksii suddenly collapsed. Since there was no blood, Vadym thought that he had suffered a shock.

He dragged his friend to safety and felt his pulse. He could swear she felt it, but the on-site doctor said Oleksii died instantly.

This time Vadym did not have the strength to call Anna. As his platoon commander, Vadym felt responsible for protecting his best friend. He promised Oleksii’s father, Sergey, that he would bring him home alive. “I was embarrassed,” he says. Yurii had been with a different unit.

“There are no golden, miraculous words that can instantly ease your pain,” says Holovyn, the priest of parishioners who come to him with their tales of suffering. The other day, the Sunday school teacher told her that her husband had been killed at the front, but her body remains in Russian-controlled territory. She lies there, in the snow.

In Bucha, there are already some people who are rebuilding it. The smell of sawdust hangs in the air as workers repair destroyed roofs and residents accept the precariousness of living without peace.

At Oleksii’s grandmother’s house in Bucha, Anna hugs her fiancé’s shirts to catch his lingering scent. “They say the Earth spins, but my Earth has stopped,” she says.

Time hasn’t made it any easier for Anastasiia either. “You come out of a stressful state and you start to realize what is really happening.” She sometimes surprises herself by still waiting for a call.

Side by side, both women were together at the funerals of the men they loved. “Only Nastya understood me, like no one else,” says Anna, using a nickname for Anastasiia and holding her hand.

For Vadym, the time has come to leave. “Only fools have no fear,” he notes, realizing that he is the last of his brothers in arms. “But I will try to survive.”

The next day, he left.


Associated Press journalist in Baghdad, Samya Kullab, is on assignment in Ukraine.

Kullab is at: