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For many Ukrainians, life is split in two: Before and after the war. This is one family鈥檚 story

As Russia launched its war in Ukraine, the lives of millions of Ukrainians were irreversibly changed. Like the Dmytryks, they mark their lives in two periods: before and after Feb. 24, 2022. (AP Video/Vasilisa Stepanenko, Trisha Thomas)

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) 鈥 Kateryna Dmytryk had been waiting for this moment for almost two years 鈥 nearly all of her young son鈥檚 life.

Side by side, they ran, 2-year-old Timur leading the way as snow crunched beneath their feet. A slender, pale man made his way to the pair from the military hospital. Artem Dmytryk hadn鈥檛 seen his family for about 24 months, almost all of which he spent in Russian captivity.

He picked up his son. Kateryna pinched her husband and clasped his hand, anything to reassure herself this wasn鈥檛 a dream. All three embraced, kissed, laughed.

Kateryna had buried her mother, fled her hometown and passed through countless Russian checkpoints with her son, all while imagining the worst about her husband鈥檚 captivity. She knew the wounds would take years to heal, but in that moment, she let herself break into a smile.

After a prisoner exchange, Artem Dmytryk hugs his 2-year-old son, Timur, right, and a nephew in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

After a prisoner exchange, Artem Dmytryk hugs his 2-year-old son, Timur, right, and a nephew in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

As Russia launched its war in Ukraine, the lives of millions of Ukrainians were irreversibly changed. Like the Dmytryks, they mark their lives in two periods: before and after Feb. 24, 2022. Tens of thousands have laid their loved ones to rest, millions have been forced to flee their homes, and the entire country has been thrust into a long and exhausting war, with 26% of the territory under Russian occupation.

Even if peace is achieved, the war has shattered reality for generations to come.

For Kateryna, her husband鈥檚 liberation brought a glimmer of light back to her family鈥檚 life. But she knows their experiences over the past two years will stay with them forever.

鈥淲e鈥檝e had two years of our lives stolen,鈥 she said. 鈥淎nd those two years were like living in a constant hell.鈥

鈥淣ORMAL FAMILY LIFE鈥

The Dmytryks were just beginning life as a family of three when the war started.

Kateryna and Artem had met quite young, in their seaside hometown of Berdiansk in southeastern Ukraine. Ages 16 and 18, they immediately liked each other and started dating. Later, he joined the army and began serving in the State Border Guard Service, stationed in Berdiansk.

In May 2021, they got married and soon welcomed Timur.

鈥淚t was a peaceful, simply normal family life,鈥 Kateryna said.

It was Valentine鈥檚 Day 2022 when Artem received a call to combat alert. He鈥檇 be on continuous duty, no longer coming home in the evenings. Kateryna didn鈥檛 think much of it, even with escalating tensions amid Russia鈥檚 military buildup on the border.

Kateryna Dmytryk, left, takes part in a prisoners of war families protest with her 2-year-old son, Timur, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Jan.14, 2024. Her husband was in Russian captivity at the time. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

Kateryna Dmytryk, left, takes part in a prisoners of war families protest with her 2-year-old son, Timur, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Jan.14, 2024. Her husband was in Russian captivity at the time. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

The last time Artem was home was Feb. 23. He asked Kateryna鈥檚 friend to come over and stay with her. It was unusual 鈥 he didn鈥檛 want her to be alone. But, Kateryna said, 鈥淚 never imagined that a war on such a scale would unfold.鈥

In the early hours of Feb. 24, Kateryna was startled by Timur鈥檚 sudden cries, swiftly followed by a powerful blast, she said, 鈥渓ike almost every Ukrainian who woke up then to the sound of explosions.鈥

Nervous and in a state of shock, she managed to dial Atem. Already on duty at sea, he instructed her to gather her belongings and head to her parents鈥 village nearby. He was worried about the power of the Russian ships, she said, and feared there鈥檇 be fighting in Berdiansk.

She did as Artem said, and that evening they spoke again.

He鈥檇 received orders to go defend Mariupol.

鈥淚 WILL RETURN鈥

Within several days, Russian forces had occupied Berdiansk and the surrounding area. Artem could rarely be in touch 鈥 only through the news did Kateryna learn what was happening in Mariupol. The city was surrounded, thousands of residents were trapped, and one of the war鈥檚 bloodiest battles was playing out.

In the brief conversations they did manage, Artem told her: 鈥淓verything will be fine. Ukraine will prevail.鈥

Some calls lasted only a minute. Once, Artem asked her to take a photo of Timur every day, so one day he could see how his son was growing.

鈥淚 will return, I will definitely return,鈥 he reassured her.

Kateryna Dmytryk, left, and husband Artem Dmytryk hold their son, Timur, after Artem was released from Russian captivity as a part of a prisoner swap in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

Kateryna Dmytryk, left, and husband Artem Dmytryk hold their son, Timur, after Artem was released from Russian captivity as a part of a prisoner swap in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

But Kateryna couldn鈥檛 sleep as the situation in Mariupol grew more dire. She spent her days crying and praying for Artem鈥檚 safety.

Artem grew to fear he wouldn鈥檛 make it. He called to say goodbye.

鈥淗e said that if he didn鈥檛 make it, he would become a guardian angel for our son,鈥 Kateryna said.

DARING TO LEAVE

Kateryna remained in her parents鈥 village, which was under occupation. Artem urged her to flee to territory controlled by Ukraine.

But her mother had stage 4 cancer. Kateryna wanted to care for her.

鈥淗e knew I wouldn鈥檛 leave,鈥 she said, 鈥渂ecause I wouldn鈥檛 be able to say goodbye to my mom.鈥

On April 14, 2022, Kateryna鈥檚 mom died. Kateryna mourned for over two weeks. Only then did she dare to leave.

There was no safe way to leave the occupied territory 鈥 no humanitarian corridors, no international organizations that could guarantee safety. Kateryna and Timur ended up driving with a couple who offered to help, even though her status as the wife of a soldier carried additional risks.

Over two days, they traveled to Zaporizhzhia 鈥 a trip that would have taken about three hours before the war. At Russian checkpoints, they told the soldiers Kateryna was their daughter-in-law, traveling to their son, who was in territory under Ukrainian control.

Timur was 9 months old, and Kateryna stayed strong, holding him close. 鈥淗ow could I allow myself to weaken when my husband faced such tough battles?鈥 she told herself.

Once safely in Zaporizhzhia, she made her way to Kyiv, where her sister-in-law lived. A new stage of struggle began 鈥 almost 21 months awaiting Artem鈥檚 return from captivity.

鈥淲E鈥橰E WAITING鈥

Artem was among more than 2,500 soldiers taken into Russian captivity when the massive Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol fell, after 86 days of relentless fighting.

Kateryna lost track of days, months, years. She awoke every night in anxiety. Where was Artem? What was happening to him? She didn鈥檛 care what clothes she wore or what food she ate.

The only one who could pull her out of the darkness was Timur. He grew into a healthy child, looking and acting more like his father every day, she said.

She showed Timur the photo of Artem on her phone鈥檚 wallpaper and told him Daddy would call and one day come home.

鈥淗ello, Daddy?鈥 Timur would say into the phone.

Kateryna Dmytryk, left, takes part in a prisoners of war families protest with her 2-year-old son, Timur, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Jan.14, 2024. Her husband was in Russian captivity at the time. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

Kateryna Dmytryk, left, takes part in a prisoners of war families protest with her 2-year-old son, Timur, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Jan.14, 2024. Her husband was in Russian captivity at the time. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

Other times, he鈥檇 approach his uncle and call him dad. Kateryna gently corrected him, pointing again to the photo on her phone. 鈥淗ere鈥檚 your daddy, and he鈥檒l be back soon.鈥

As Timur grew, Kateryna started attending rallies, with relatives of prisoners of war gathered. She was largely in the dark about Artem鈥檚 situation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross had confirmed he was captured after surrendering at Azovstal. Nearly nine months passed before the next update, when Artem鈥檚 comrades were released during an exchange. They told her he was in the occupied Luhansk region. One told Kateryna that Artem sent her hugs and expressed his deep love. She clung to that feeling and to hope. 鈥淚t felt like he truly embraced me,鈥 she said.

Occasionally, she opened Google Maps to calculate the distance between them. Somehow, that made it easier to cope.

She devised other tricks to feel connected. She assembled a bag for the hospital where prisoners were typically taken after exchanges, stocking it with clothes from his favorite Ukrainian brand and small items he cherished. As the seasons shifted, she updated the bag.

She also arranged duplicate keys for their Kyiv apartment and ordered a keychain with the message, 鈥淚 love you very much. We鈥檙e waiting for you at home.鈥

THE REUNION

On Feb. 8, Kateryna received a text from the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of POWs.

Artem Dmytryk was part of a prisoner swap. She couldn鈥檛 believe her eyes.

A few hours later, he called. 鈥淗ello, I鈥檓 in Ukraine,鈥 he said.

They talked on the phone all night. Then Artem and other former POWs were brought by bus to Kyiv. That morning, Katernya finally got to bring the bag she鈥檇 long prepared to the military hospital where he鈥檇 undergo rehabilitation.

They hardly talk about the captivity. Artem, now 25, isn鈥檛 keen to share what he went through. Instead, they focus on catching up on things they missed.

鈥淲e鈥檙e rediscovering each other, falling in love all over again,鈥 Kateryna, now 23, said. 鈥淎fter going through something like that, you feel it differently, like it鈥檚 definitely for a lifetime.鈥

Each of them has changed. They鈥檙e stronger than they were before Feb. 24, 2022. That brings new challenges, as they learn to live with each other again.

鈥淓ven now, you can鈥檛 just return to a peaceful life,鈥 Kateryna said. She thinks often of the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers still in Russian captivity, even as her family enjoys the happy ending to this chapter.

The first night Artem spent at their home in Kyiv, Kateryna slept soundly.

___

Vasilisa Stepanenko in Kyiv contributed to this report.

Arhirova is an Associated Press reporter covering Ukraine. She is based in Kyiv.