Svetlana sits at the table of her small apartment in Ukraine, both hands cupping her tea. Its freezing cold outside, but her Soviet style apartment block still has good heating. She is worrying for her son, Zhenechka. It’s been days since she last spoke to him. He’s only 22, but he’s on the frontline in the country’s East, fighting Russian troops. She stares out at the falling snow and wonders whether he is dead or alive.
Zhenechka never wanted to tell his mother he was on the frontline. He was afraid she might get upset. It was 2014, the war – which has since led to about 10,000 deaths – was at its peak. Every mother in Ukraine was getting anxious.
She did eventually found out the truth of where he was, about six months after he left. And of course, she panicked. It was already enough to know he was in the army, but now he was in real danger. She watches the news every night. She knows what’s happening a few hours down the road from her. Russia is silently invading her country.
What made things worse was now Zhenechka was stuck in a besiegement, completely surrounded by Russian backed separatists. He was with around 10 of his fellow soldiers, now his friends. Svetlana knew they all loved him. Everyone loved Zhenechka, he was always smiling and well behaved, how could they not.
The siege went on for weeks. Zhenechka would call when he could, but they couldn’t talk for long. They were running out of food and water everyday. Ukrainians are used to their harsh winters, but the subzero temperatures still make being outdoors difficult. Soon enough, they had to drink water out of puddles, and biscuits became whole meals.
Around day 20 of the siege, they decided they were going to make a break for it. They weren’t going to survive for much longer, so they had no choice. They had access to a 4WD, so they would drive out through enemy lines.
Svetlana heard about this through another parent of the soldiers, he said ‘Sveta, they’re coming home’.
This should have been music to Svetlana’s ears, but it wasn’t. Without official knowledge, Svetlana sensed her son’s death. She had a dream that night, Zhenechka said ‘Mum, I am fine’, but he looked so sad.
For 10 days, they lost contact with the squad. They don’t know where they were, who they were with, or what even happened. The unknown was overbearing. Svetlana would spend all her time at the local military centre. They were constantly looking for updates. She was always waiting.
That was until one day, months later, she turned on the TV.
It was the channel from the separatist state. There is a news report about the siege he had been caught in. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Was this true? Do they really know what happened?
The news report rattled off the details. Whilst they tried to escape, the truck was stopped at a blockpost and they were attacked. They didn’t make it very far.
The news report has graphic images, photos of corpses, the ones that didn’t make it out alive. The enemy soldiers were standing over them like hunters with their winnings. That’s when it hit her.
One of those corpses looked familiar. Those eyes. She knew it.
It was her son, right there on her screen. Her Zhenechka.
She refused to believe it. It couldn’t be him, surely not.
She went online to the official separatist websites. She searched through all the morbid photos of war, propaganda pieces that fuels the war. It didn’t take long for her to find it. There was the same photo. Her son had died, and she found out by checking photos of his body online.
She saw it 10 days after he had died.
Svetlana’s story is one of thousands in Ukraine, something that sees their women united by maternal trauma. However, they don’t just sit back and mourn, they actively use their suffering to unite the country.
Svetlana now regularly volunteers to help collect goods and run events for soldiers like her son, to support them with the love of a mother. In fact, there is a very strong volunteer movement in Ukraine and it’s made up in large parts by mothers like Svetlana. Their numbers are so strong, the Ukrainian government now relies on them to support the soldiers where they cannot.
When Putin decided to send troops and artillery to Eastern Ukraine in 2014 and to this day, he looked at their weak economy, their fractured parliament, their small army, and envisaged an easy victory. What he didn’t take into account was women like Svetlana, the mothers of Ukraine, who came to bind the country together. They feed their sons and fuel their will power with their loving support, the kind only a mother can give, whilst sharing the deepest pain they can only feel.
To learn more about mothers like Svetlana, watch the Australian produced documentary, War Mothers, available to view online for free on Vimeo. Stefan Bugryn is one of the co-creators of the documentary film.