I felt like I was trespassing. Maybe I shouldn’t be here. It felt too private to stand in the graveyard filled with soldiers from Lviv, Ukraine who had died in war with Russia.
Each row in the yard was divided into 12 individual plots which were then separated into two groups of six. Each plot held one soldier who was buried under a raised-bed garden. Each soldier’s photograph was posted at the head of the grave.
A woman from the shelter we visited a few days ago explained to me through a translation program that many soldiers could not be buried here because… “They no find bodies or parts bodies.”
She was the one who pointed out the graveyard to us. We didn’t have time that day to look around, but today we did. As a sign of respect we brought yellow and blue flowers to lay on graves.
Was it better for me to stop and look at the photos of the soldiers killed in the war, or try not to meet their eyes?
Flags flapped in the wind, adding touches of yellow and blue that in any other place might be dubbed ‘beautiful’. Each site had a Ukrainian flag and then a flag from the battalion the soldier belonged to. Some graves were covered with plants and flowers.
If a small garden on a grave site was a proof of love, then these soldiers were very, very loved.
There were more men than women. I became transfixed by their life spans. Some had died last year, many passed away this year. Several had been buried in the past week.
I watched a soldier who may have been in his 40s walking through the graveyard as if he were searching for one particular grave. He stopped to talk to me, but neither of us spoke the other’s language, so he walked on.
Which grave would I lay my flowers on?
I walked back to our Lviv driver who stood over a grave. He said that this man was a very good friend of his.
“He was doctor of science.” The driver said as he stared at his friend’s photo.
“Everyone love him. Good man. Good father. Good man. Good…”
There was a vase at the back of his grave with water in it. Rosie put her flowers into the friend’s vase. I did the same. I’m not sure if the driver noticed as he was in remembering mode.
We have two choices in this life: keep our hearts turned on, or turn them off. We can choose to feel everything or feel nothing. Standing in this graveyard while I fought back tears, it was clear to me that I subscribe to the “Feel Everything” camp.
That’s okay. I accept that I feel all of the emotions.
Now I have to learn to let them go so they don’t weigh me down.
Standing in the graveyard felt heavy. Sad. Awkward. Angry. Upsetting. Uncomfortable. Confusing. Why do we permit wars in our world?
I left my friends and walked along the paths around the site. Some graves were being attended by family members, some sat empty.
Luksaz was talking to the mother of a soldier and invited me to listen to her, too.
The soldier was known by his code name, TAH, because he loved to do Thai martial arts.
According to his mother, he was a rich man who had been married to the love of his life for eleven years. They had no children.
We looked at his photograph as she described him.
He worked in IT with a company based in Krakow. The company tried to get him to move to Krakow at the start of the war and offered to rent an apartment for him in the best part of town, but Thai wanted to join the army in Ukraine. On the very first day of the war, he went to the army commission and volunteered to join a territorial defense team.
The soldier’s mother smoothed her dress, then continued.
He earned his Ph.D. at university in Ukraine, was a world traveler and did all of the basic electrical and plumbing repairs on the old house he and his wife were renovating.
As his mother talked to me through translators, she looked back at his photo, as if he were a part of this conversation rather than the topic of our conversation.
He played piano, accordion and guitar. In 2018 he began learning how to play the cello.
She bent low to pull a weed out of the garden, then straightened up again.
He was accomplished at surfing and diving.
My group stood around her listening. Maybe that’s the gift we could give to her: listening.
He was handsome, hard working. He spoke English and Spanish and was learning Chinese in the army.
There’s no question that learning about him made him more—real. He no longer felt like a stranger: he became someone I knew about.
His plan was to become a professor at the university level. His friends used to tease that he was better than Google at answering questions.
She broke down and Oksana put an arm around her for a moment. Then she stood and continued.
He was a fashionable guy and loved wearing good clothes. At his funeral his friends all wore expensive clothing in his honor.
He died on October 22, 2022 from stepping on a land mine.
I asked her how often she came to his grave.
She looked at the grave then back at me. She answered and Oksana translated and then Luksaz translated. “Every day.”
She told us that her husband died three months ago.
I said to Luksaz, ‘How did he die?”
Luksaz said he could not ask her that.
In Poland it is considered rude to ask someone a personal question.
It’s a good thing I don’t live in Poland.
I repeated my question. “How did her husband die?”
He hesitated, then asked her.
She said that he was sixty-five-years-old and had a small problem, but nothing that would kill him. His doctor said that he died of a broken heart.
I exhaled slowly. So this woman lost her husband and her son at roughly the same time. I asked her who was helping her now.
She absentmindedly fiddled with her wedding ring as she talked. She said that she had a granddaughter from her daughter who helps her most days.
She paused as she looked at her son’s photo.
She said that his friends created a scholarship for children who have his name so they might be able to attend university.
We each hugged her goodbye. I thanked her for her story.
She nodded, then sat on the bench next to his grave and rested her eyes on his photo.
According to statistics, between 100 and 1000 soldiers from Ukraine die every month. That’s an unfathomable number of holes ripped out of a country that is roughly the size of Texas.
This story has launched my own Day of Remembering. Every October 22nd I will think of the soldiers who have died in this war.
Join me if you wish.
Our vans arrived with hungry drivers. After eating dinner at a cafeteria on the far side of Lviv, we piled into our vehicles and headed towards the boarder.
Our goal was to get all four vehicles through at one time. It was important that each vehicle had less than 10 liters of gas in it, per law in Poland, or be forced to turn around, reenter Ukraine to dispose of the excess gas and then wait at the border again.
Good thing I wasn’t in charge of knowing how many liters of fuel were in each vehicle.
One of the drivers bought cigarettes. He handed two packs to me and two to Rosie.
The law states that you can only bring two packs of cigarettes into Poland.
It has to do with pricing and taxes.
In Ukraine you can buy a pack of cigarettes for 6 zloty.
In Poland you can buy a pack of cigarettes for 20 zloty.
In the UK, you can buy a pack of cigarettes for 60 zloty.
Poland wants people to buy cigarettes in Poland and pay Poland taxes.
While we waited for our turn at the border, Luksaz told a story about a time he was at the border and a guard was giving a man a terrible time because he had two extra packs of cigarettes.
Luksaz went up to the guy and interrupted the situation. “Hey, buddy. There you are. I forgot to get my cigarettes from you.”
The man was relieved and handed Luksaz two packs of cigarettes. The border guard was furious. She finally backed down, but made the guy unpack every part of his car before she would let him through.
When you hear stories like this, you have to be ready for long delays at the border.
Okay. I was ready for anything.
When we got close to the first barrier, Luksaz got out of the car and talked to the guard. He wanted to be sure the guard knew that we had four vehicles and needed to go through together or roughly at the same time.
I watched him talking to the unsmiling young man.
Luksaz said something and the guard laughed out loud.
Getting a border guard to laugh is as unlikely as meeting the tooth fairy.
When he returned to the car, I asked him what he said to the guard.
I said “please give us a beautiful woman to meet with us. We are willing to wait all day if we have to.”
We all laughed.
When it was finally our turn, a beautiful woman came up to our car.
I told Luksaz he got his wish.
She let us know that her shift was over and that we would have to wait fifteen minutes for the next shift to start.
Andrew said, “That’s something that would never happen in the states. They would never tell you to wait while they changed shifts.”
When another woman came out and announced that it would take her five more minutes to prepare for her shift, Luksaz told her that we were willing to wait since she was beautiful. If she were not beautiful, there might be a problem.
The guard smiled.
When she returned and took our passports, she looked at my passport and said, “Holly a good name.”
I thanked her.
When she looked at Rosie’s South African passport, she said, “Everything will be fine.”
Rosie and I both caught her phrasing. Is there a problem? Do we need more paperwork?
In order for Rosie to go into Ukraine, she needed a visa since she had a South African passport. Before the trip, Luksaz went with her and translated as she filled out piles of paperwork. She was directed to go and put money into what seemed to be a random bank account and then bring the receipt back to a clerk at one of the offices.
She said she never would have figured out the tangle of offices and paperwork if he hadn’t been there to translate and help her.
I asked Luksaz why the guard said that my name was a good name.
He shrugged. “Maybe she likes your name.”
“Holly means nothing in Polish.” He said.
Rosie’s passport was returned to her without any drama; I guess the guard’s tone and wording had more to do with word choice than foreshadowing.
In the end we all made it through easily, some vehicles faster than others.
We met at a parking lot down the road for our final group photo and several more stories before we hugged each other goodbye again and again.
I have committed to writing about the war and its affects on people in a personal way so others might know what is truly happening there. My writing is a gift for Ukraine.
We never asked each other why we went on this trip when we could have been anywhere else in the world. For each of us, helping Ukraine was on our “Must Do” list.
We piled into our respective vehicles and went our separate ways.
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