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Ukrainian soldiers' valentines arrive by 'train of love'

A soldier meets his partner at the train station in Sloviansk, in eastern Ukraine, ahead of Valentine's Day.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
A soldier meets his partner at the train station in Sloviansk, in eastern Ukraine, ahead of Valentine's Day.

A week before Valentine's Day, Inna Yermolovych and Yulya Dmytrieeva booked train tickets from Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, to the east, where they will meet their husbands — soldiers who serve in the same unit.

"On this day, we usually expect presents and flowers, cards and hearts," says Inna, a 30-something import manager and hat-maker. "Not this year."

She and her husband, Dima, are newlyweds. She hasn't seen him for a month. Seeing him for even a couple of days, she says, "recharges me."

Soldiers arrive at the Kramatorsk train station, in eastern Ukraine, holding flowers for their wives and girlfriends.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Soldiers arrive at the Kramatorsk train station, in eastern Ukraine, holding flowers for their wives and girlfriends.

"It's amazing, these moments," she says. "I enjoy even how he's drinking tea or how he's putting on his shoes or, like, how he's moving, just to see he's breathing."

Yulya and her husband, Vadym, have been together for almost 14 years. "He's incredible," says Yulya, who's 49, works in IT and has red-tinted dreadlocks. "He's creative. And he makes people around him happy."

Inna Yermolovych meets her husband, Dima, at the train station in Sloviansk, in eastern Ukraine. They will spend a few days together before he returns to the battlefield.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Inna Yermolovych meets her husband, Dima, at the train station in Sloviansk, in eastern Ukraine. They will spend a few days together before he returns to the battlefield.

The women board a train headed to the Donetsk region, where the war's fiercest fighting is going on. It's filled with the partners of soldiers fighting there. The route that starts in Kyiv and ends in the city of Kramatorsk is sometimes called the "train of love."

Inna and Yulya are due to get off at the train's second-to-last stop. Inna's husband, Dima, arrives first.

Inna Yermolovych holds hands with her husband at the train station.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Inna Yermolovych holds hands with her husband at the train station.

"She's the best thing in my life," he says. "She's what I'm fighting for and what I live for."

Then Yulya's husband, Vadym, arrives, running to the train of love to meet her. Like Yulya, he also has dreadlocks, but his are dyed blue and yellow — the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Vadym's face lights up when he sees his wife. She jumps into his arms and they kiss. Inna and Dima hug each other tightly.

There are reunions all day at the Sloviansk station and at the train's final stop, in Kramatorsk. Every day is Valentine's Day here. Shops that sell flowers and chocolates are always busy, making as much money as they did before the war.

It's snowing, so Dima and Vadym take their wives to a cafe to warm up. They try to see their wives as often as possible. They lament that wartime separation has ended too many marriages.

Flowers for sale at a shop in Kramatorsk, near the train station.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Flowers for sale at a shop in Kramatorsk, near the train station.

"Some wives go abroad and build new lives," Dima says. "And sometimes, women who stay here cannot understand how their husbands change on the battlefield."

Vadym brings up a soldier in their unit who divorced his wife.

"She made all of us these," Vadym says, holding up his wrist to show a knitted friendship bracelet. "After we returned from a difficult combat mission, something snapped in him and he said he could no longer talk to her."

Yulya Dmytrieeva and her husband, Vadym, sit together at a cafe to warm up on a snowy day.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Yulya Dmytrieeva and her husband, Vadym, sit together at a cafe to warm up on a snowy day.

There's a couple moments of silence. Then they change the subject. Inna and Dima talk about having kids. Vadym and Yulya say they plan to adopt. But two years of war have also lowered expectations for the future.

"The main thing now is to just stay alive," Vadym says, "and that's what we plan to do."

At the station, the next train of love arrives. Soldiers holding flowers line the platform, waiting for the doors to open.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Soldiers hold flowers as they wait for their wives and girlfriends to arrive to the Kramatorsk train station.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Soldiers hold flowers as they wait for their wives and girlfriends to arrive to the Kramatorsk train station.

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Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
Claire Harbage
Hanna Palamarenko
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