Friends From Childhood. Brothers in War.

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Friends From Childhood. Brothers in War.

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By Megan Specia

Megan Specia and several New York Times photographers spent a year following the paths of a group of friends from Lviv as they went to war.

Oct. 29, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET

At a gas station in western Ukraine, three men in their late 20s, friends since childhood, slid into plastic chairs. Exhausted and anxious, they began to sing.

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It was March 2022, three weeks after Russian forces invaded, and the men were on their way to war. “Let It Be Cold and Windy” was an old folk tune about weathering adversity that they had sung as boys in a Ukrainian scouts group. Somehow, it brightened the mood.

“In grief and trouble, and the sea of ​​darkness,” they sang, “I will shield you from misfortune with a cloak.”

Their names were Artem, Dmytro and Roman. They had met as boys in the scouts group called Plast, in the western city of Lviv, and forged bonds over mountain hikes, sunburns, scratched knees and bug bites.

Later, boyhood games gave way to college and girlfriends and nights out in Lviv.

Artem Dymyd was a traveler. Addicted to adventure, he was never without his parachute as he sky-dived and base-jumped around the world. Friends called him “Kurka,” Ukrainian for chicken, because of the mop of curly hair he styled into a mohawk as a youth. The nickname stuck. When he got older and led a troop of younger scouts, they called themselves “the eggs.”

Dmytro Paschuk left college to join the French Legion, looking for adventure and a steady income, then came home to open a wine bar in Lviv. He was an entrepreneur full of big ideas. But he was also deeply invested in seeing his small home village near the city thrive, and hoped to start a small farm there.

Roman Lozynskyi studied political science in Lviv and got into local politics before spending time as an intern in the Canadian Parliament. He was elected to the Ukrainian Parliament in 2019, and had started to split his time between Kyiv, the capital, and Lviv.

The three friends sat in a gas station and sang an old folk tune about weathering adversity that they had sung when they were scouts, “Let It Be Cold and Windy.”

None of them were really sure of the exact moment they met. In some ways, it felt like they were simply always together.

“Artem, Dmytro and I were like three sides of the horizon: south, west and east,” Roman said. Their interests and personalities were very different, but, “Boom!” he said, describing how they had become fast friends.

Now war had reunited them. After the invasion, all three volunteered to fight for Ukraine. They had just returned from weeks in a military training camp and were on their way to Lviv to collect drones, radios, food and other gear donated to the unit they would serve in together.

If they were friends before, Dmytro later said, the war would soon make them brothers.

The War Begins

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Artem was traveling around Brazil, parachute in hand, seeking out places to base jump. He boarded a flight home when he heard the news. He had volunteered for the military in 2014 and fought in the east against Russia-backed separatists, so he quickly rejoined.

Roman was in Kyiv. He had volunteered as a reservist weeks earlier as the possibility of war became more real. He made plans to head to a military training base in central Ukraine, and called Dmytro, who was in Lviv running his wine bar and other businesses.

Dmytro had also decided to volunteer and was already on his way to the same facility, after talking to Artem about the best place to go for training.

Within days, the three men met at the base in central Ukraine to sign contracts and start training. And three lives that had diverged since their days in the scouts came colliding back together.

Artem Dymyd signing his military volunteer contract.Credit…Roman Lozynskyi
Dmytro Paschuk near the front line in the southeastern Mykolaiv region.Credit…Roman Lozynskyi

Soon, they were headed east as part of a specialist operations unit.

They found purpose and solidarity in their missions and a deep desire to seize back control of Ukraine and end the devastation of indiscriminate attacks on civilians. And they were driven by their shared vision of their country’s future — of a full-fledged democracy free from Russian interference.

Time and age had separated them, but the closeness they enjoyed as boys returned in those early days of the war. They stayed up late talking about life, faith and their hopes for the future. Artem was more direct, always in a rush, while Dmytro and Roman were more philosophical. In down times, they played card games and goofed around, singing patriotic songs, recording videos and taking selfies.

Roman, the lawmaker, shared updates about their exploits on social media, giving a behind-the-scenes look at their life at war.

Dmytro loved animals and never missed an opportunity to pet the many dogs they came across on their missions. He had an uncanny ability to make friends, and the babusyas, or Ukrainian grandmothers, they met in the east all loved him.

Artem always brought his parachute with him and was determined to do a jump in the east; eventually, he persuaded local authorities in Dnipro to let him sky-dive from a helicopter.

“I was with some crazy people at some crazy places with Kurka,” Roman said. “Because I’m not a risk taker at all.”

Roman Lozynskyi, right, and Dmytro Paschuk.Credit…Roman Lozynskyi

There was comfort but also fear in serving together, Roman explained, especially after perilous missions in the spring of 2022, when their unit was focused on operations behind enemy lines.

“We really understood how high the risk was to lose someone from our team,” Roman said. But Roman took solace from the fact that Artem and Dmytro had previous military experience.

They had close calls, including once when their camp was hit by shelling in the first weeks of the war.

“We talked a lot about death,” Roman said.“And then, it happened.”

A Somber Homecoming

In the fourth month of the war, the three friends were deployed near the small village of Bila Krynytsya in Ukraine’s south. Fighting had been fierce along the banks of the Inhulets River, which served as a front line between Russian and Ukrainian troops.

On the night of June 18, Dmytro and Artem were asleep in their camp — Roman was on a mission in a different village — when a Russian shell came hurtling toward them. The explosion rattled Dmytro from sleep. He heard screams and instinctively searched for his friend.

“I couldn’t find Kurka,” he said, using Artem’s nickname.

Artem’s injuries were devastating. Shrapnel had ripped into his body. Another friend from the scouts, Vitya Kolya, who was a medic in the same unit, tried to treat Artem as they loaded him into the back of a pickup truck. Dmytro was at the wheel and sped to a field hospital. Artem managed a final few words: “I am alive.”

“For a minute, I couldn’t move at all, as if I forgot who I was or where I was,” Dmytro said.

“I was afraid, and I wanted everyone to do something,” he said. “I was giving orders to unload the car,” he said, adding, “I was afraid to be near him.”

Artem died within the hour. He was 27.

People lined up the streets as the coffin of Artem was carried to the military cemetery.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

“Kurka was a dude who wasn’t afraid of death,” Dmytro later said. “And he wasn’t just saying that, he lived like that.”

Three days later, Roman and Dmytro traveled to Lviv to say goodbye to their friend.

Hundreds of current and former scouts lined the streets as his coffin was carried to the military cemetery on Lviv’s outskirts. Roman, wearing military fatigues, eyes heavy with grief, and Dmytro, in a white linen shirt with long hair, joined the crowds. A military band played a funeral march.

At the grave, they helped unwrap Artem’s beloved parachute and spread it gently over the open ground. Then his coffin was placed on top.

They joined friends and family members who shoveled the first heaps of soil onto the wooden box.

While no official death toll has been released since the war began, U.S. officials estimated that by the end of August this year, close to 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and some 100,000 to 120,000 wounded. The mounting losses are evident in the military cemetery in Lviv, where the once-empty hillside around Artem’s grave has seen hundreds of burials since June 2022.

Scouts mourned near the grave of Artem after his burial.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

After the funeral, Roman and Dmytro sat on steps at the edge of the graveyard. They spoke of Artem, of his zest for life and his carefree attitude.

“To be honest, instead of this strange orchestra, it should be Metallica playing or Johnny Cash,” Dmytro said, pushing his shaggy hair back from his eyes. “We should have driven his coffin on pickup trucks. It should be some sort of celebration.”

Within days, he and Roman headed back to war.

A Return to the Front

Roman and Dmytro made it through the summer, conducting operations in southeastern Ukraine. They had each other, and their comrades, and the mission was still clear as they fought to regain an area around Kherson from Russian forces.

Roman took a video of Dmytro, left, and Vitya Kolya, another friend from the scouts and the army unit, singing while taking cover during shelling in the summer of 2022.

Artem’s death made them focus more intently on their own futures. Life choices that they were planning to put off until at after the war suddenly became more urgent.

Both Roman and Dmytro, for instance, had planned to propose to their long-term girlfriends, and it became a running joke about who would do it first. In the uncertainty of the war, the decision was fraught.

If they were killed, they wondered, would it be better to have stayed simply a boyfriend to their partners, rather than a fiancé or a husband? Or better to have made the commitment of marriage?

Roman did not want to put his life on hold. So he proposed to his girlfriend, Svitlana, in September. A month later, Dmytro proposed to his girlfriend, Ganusya.

“We were celebrating it in the war together,” Roman said.

There were other things to celebrate, as an autumn campaign brought major success for Ukrainian forces who wrested back territory in the east and south.

In November, Dmytro and Roman were among the first soldiers to enter the city of Kherson as it was liberated. Local civilians greeted them with hugs and flowers.

Roman, left, and Dmytro were embraced during the liberation of the city of Kherson in November.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

The two friends stood in front of the local government building and unfurled a hand-painted banner with the Ukrainian flag and a watermelon, a symbol of Kherson, and they smiled for a photograph.

As they celebrated, Roman said, it was not lost on them that Artem had died in the campaign to reclaim this very region, and its capital city of Kherson. It was more than a symbolic national victory to them: It was a personal moment of triumph.

‘Why Was I Not With Them?’

The fall turned to winter, their first at war. In December and January, Roman and Dmytro posted videos singing carols for Christmas and Orthodox Christmas from the front line. They marked a year since Russia invaded.

In early March, they were given a short break. After a few days away, Dmytro returned to camp in the Kherson region, and Roman planned to follow several days later. Roman was still in Kyiv on March 12 when another soldier called from down south.

The Russians had discovered their position and launched a kamikaze drone attack. Dmytro died instantly. Like Artem, he was 27.

The death of another close friend haunted Roman. “You really don’t know why these things happen how they do, and why it happened to Kurka or Dmytro,” he said.

Roman mourned over the coffin of Dmytro. Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

The three were together all the time in the war, Roman said, but he was not present when both of his friends died.

“So why was I not with them?” Roman asked. “You think if you were there, probably you could do something, save them or something.”

Again, he traveled west to say goodbye to a friend.

Dmytro had grown up in the small village of Khlivchany, about an hour from Lviv. That was where he was buried in March as a rainstorm soaked the mourners, the drops mingling with their tears.

As his coffin was driven to the church, local residents knelt in the puddles that pooled along the roadside. A blue and yellow flag, soaked through by the rain, clung to the wood.

Roman stood alongside Dmytro’s fiancée, Ganusya, in the church. She and Dmytro had planned for an April wedding just three weeks later.

Photographs of Dmytro decorated a wall at a cafe he planned to open. His friends and fiancée opened it about a month after he was killed.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

“This is the greatest pain, I think, if we start to talk about how much stuff they could have done in the future,” Roman said this summer, reflecting on the loss of his friends.

He was sitting at a cafe called Respublika, one of Dmytro’s projects that he had long been planning to open. Dmytro died before he had the chance, but friends and family opened the cafe this spring.

A Year of Loss

On June 18, on the first anniversary of Artem’s death, Roman joined friends and family as they gathered once more in Lviv to remember both Artem and Dmytro. There were now two families mourning.

Roman arrived with some of the soldiers who had served in their unit and first stopped by Dmytro’s village to visit his grave and have lunch with his family.

“It’s not your fault they died, but every time you feel it,” Roman said. “It’s very difficult to look into their eyes. It’s difficult to know what to say.”

Roman and other soldiers visited the grave of Dmytro in June, a year after Artem’s death.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

At Dmytro’s childhood home, his mother and grandmother set out a spread of food. Nearby, a small table held trinkets from Dmytro’s life: photographs, a military award and a medal from a 24-hour overnight run he had done with Roman.

Oksana Paschuk, Dmytro’s mother, told the men to stop being polite and eat. Her grief was still raw, just weeks after Dmytro’s death and tears were visible in her eyes. But she also smiled at stories about him that she hadn’t heard before.

“The hardest thing for me is to fall asleep,” Oksana said, “When there is nothing but silence and you’re thinking, ‘He’s gone.’”

After hundreds of days of frontline combat, Roman returned to his work in Parliament this summer, though he remains part of the military. He is determined that his friends’ lives be celebrated.

“You feel this sense of injustice — why did it happen to them?” Roman asked. “And you’ll never get answers to this question.”

Roman took a moment to look at a memorial table that held trinkets from Dmytro’s life: photos, a medal from 24-hour trail run they had done together.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn, Daria Mitiuk and Sofiya Harbuziuk contributed reporting.

Produced by Gray Beltran and Mona Boshnaq.

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