A Life Removed

“Everything we have done, we have done for our children,” says Sasha Dobyri at his cramped kitchen table, his wife Marina sitting to his left, “They are the most important thing we have.” He puts his fork down, leaving two small bites of boiled buckwheat and pork on his plate, and looks up to Marina.

It’s Monday, January 25th and 524 days since Sasha, 41 and Marina, 38 gathered their two children, Kostya and Artyom, packed their car with the TV and some clothes and left home, joining the ranks of the estimated 1.4 million others who have been forced from their lives by Ukraine’s ongoing war in the east.

“We never guessed we would be where we are now,” says Sasha, “Two years ago I could not have predicted our community would fall apart.”

Following the Euromaidan revolution that rocked Ukraine’s capitol and deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, counter-demonstrations by separatist and pro-Russian groups began to take hold throughout eastern and southern Ukraine. By late February 2014 the protests had fomented an insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. The Ukrainian government responded quickly, deploying it’s military and engaging in an all out war, but by spring rebels had established the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in Ukraine’s far east, and Russia had annexed Ukraine’s southern peninsula, Crimea. The fighting has roiled on at intervals since, killing at least 9,115 and costing the public more than one million jobs according to the UN Development Programme.

“The fighting had become so bad” recounts Sasha of the summer in 2014 when shelling and gunfire rumbled just a few kilometers away from their home in the small town of Charcizk in Donetsk province, “We hated what was happening, but we had our home and jobs in Charcizk,” says Sasha upturning his palms on the table, “my mother is there and all our friends.”

He falls silent and looks down at his plate, his hands lying across the table. Marina stands from the small stool where she’s been perched, lifts a large white kettle from the kitchen counter and begins to fill it at the faucet.

“Do you want tea? I’ll make tea,” she says as she places the kettle on the stove and turns on the gas, its hoarse whisper filling the room as the lighter clicks over and over. With the flame lit she turns back to the table, softly touching Sasha on the back as she moves to her seat.

By the end of summer, 2014 it had became clear any final resolution between the Ukrainian government and the DPR was still far off and life in occupied territory was only bound to become more complicated. “Our Doctor told us that medical supplies from the Ukrainian government would probably be cut in the next year,” Marina explains “he said that the border [between DPR and Ukraine] might close as well,” and so the decision about whether to stay or leave was made for them. Their two sons — Kostya, 16 and Artyom, 10 are diabetic and the prospect of a shortage in the supply of insulin was untenable. They were soon driving northwest to the town of Kramatorsk in northern Donetsk.

By many standards the family has been lucky — they have a small apartment with running water and heat, both Sasha and Marina have been able to finally find work, and there is warm food on the table at the end of the day. Their kids are in good physical health. And yet the trauma of leaving the life they knew and the loneliness they face day-to-day are constants. While Kramatorsk sits only 70 miles from Charcizk, the family feels a world away.

“It’s not the physical isolation or being in a small apartment,” says Sasha as Marina pours hot water into mugs, “The hardest part has been the emotional isolation. We have this powerful feeling of loneliness.”

Marina grabs a spoon and stirs tea into her mug, swirling the small leaves around and around its hard ceramic edges.

“The last time we saw our friends, it ended in yelling and crying,” she says looking up, still holding the spoon, mid-stir, in the mug, “Since then we haven’t talked with them about the war. We can’t…” She looks back down into the cup as the leaves slowly bleed color through the water, “We want to try and maintain our relationships for when this ends.”

Sasha and his family never agreed with the occupation by the rebels, but some of their friends have, and in the time they’ve been gone the community and home they knew has changed into something they have neither been a part of, nor agreed with. Uncertain about the future, they have yet to invest in building a new community in Kramatorsk, but feel increasingly out of touch with their old.

The future for Kostya and Artyom weighs most heavily on their minds. “We worry about the ways the fear and uncertainty has affected them,” says Marina, “We worry the sadness of losing their home and friends will make them more isolated.” “Especially Kostya,” chimes in Sasha as he looks across the table to Marina, “He has become more closed.” Marina nods her head slightly, “We want them to have ordinary lives with their own friends and family” she says, her two hands wrapped around the warm mug, waiting for the water to cool.

As the night winds on Kostya wills away the hours seated quietly at a desk in his nearby bedroom, meticulously painting small figurines he has assembled from a model set. “I’m not very active now in finding new people to get to know,” he says, his fingers moving slowly up and down as he paints a figurine from a game called War Hammer. The room is dark save for a desk lamp staring down onto his hands and silent but for the occasional tap of the lids of paint containers as he lays them on the desk. “I don’t know what will happen,” he says of the conflict and his plans, “I live day by day. I don’t look into the future because your plans usually don’t come true.” A soft tick and gasping noise come from the kitchen as Marina cracks the refrigerator door’s seal to put away leftovers. Kostya’s eyes continue staring down. His body is still except for his hands, the figurine held in his left as his right dabs millimeter by millimeter of gold paint onto the hard, dark plastic.

In Sasha and Marina’s neighboring bedroom, Sasha sits on the bed. His laptop rests by his side, but he stares forward, eyes cast to the middle distance, lost in thought. Marina walks in from the kitchen, her hands still damp from washing dishes in the sink, and his focus comes back to the present movements, tracking her body as she walks in front and sits to his right, her left shoulder softly leaning up against his right. After a moment he takes the laptop onto his knees and pulls up a song by the late Viktor Tsoi, the revolutionary Soviet rocker and Sasha and Marina’s favorite. The song, called Pachka Sigaret — A Pack of Cigarettes — fades in with a slow and winding guitar riff, it’s bending notes as nostalgic as the lyrics that soon fill the room.

“I sit down and look out another’s window at another strange sky

And I don’t even see one familiar star,

I’ve travelled along all the roads, I’ve been here and I’ve been there,

And when I turned back, my own footprints were gone…”

Sasha wraps his arm around Marina’s back and she rests her head against him, a faint smile slowly forming across her face. The sorrowful drone of the first verse gives way to the chorus, and multiple voices take up the rhythm. Sasha and Marina hold still and listen.

“But if I’ve got a pack of cigarettes in my pocket,

Then today won’t be so bad after all,

And a ticket for the plane with silver wings,

Which flies away, leaving only a shadow on the ground…”

A tiger-print fleece blanket lays underneath them on the bed. Both the bed and blanket belong to the owners of the apartment who fled when fighting erupted. It is 9:53pm — nearly 525 days since they left home, and -19 C outside. Sasha and Marina soon climb into bed, pull some other family’s blanket across their bodies, and sleep until daybreak.

*A version of this story was featured in The Washington Post’s June 15th print edition, and on The Washington Post’s photography page, In Sight here.