Irina Zlochevskaya is 19 years old, and a widow. They brought her husband's corpse home to her on May Day. Along with the body in American-issue camouflage came a new DVD player he had bought, a roll of film -- undeveloped -- and a death certificate from the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.
The cause of death was left blank.
But his young wife believes she knows why Yaroslav Zlochevsky died in the Iraq war launched by the faraway American superpower. Officially, she has been told he was killed in an ambush near the Iraqi city of Kut, his legs and one arm torn off his body. On the news, she heard a Communist Party official say he died "in the interests of an alien empire."
In reality, she said, "he died for money."
The abandoned child of an alcoholic raised in an orphanage, Zlochevsky had tried, and failed, to continue his education after high school. He had tried, and failed, to find work in the big city, away from the poverty of the grim hamlet in western Ukraine where the young couple lived, six people crammed into her family's sour-smelling apartment.
At 23, he finally found a job.
For $670 a month, he signed up to serve in Iraq, part of Ukraine's 1,650-member military contribution to the U.S.-led occupation. He arrived in Iraq in late February after telling his family he would be a peacekeeper, handing out humanitarian aid. "He had no idea it's a real war there," said his wife. "No idea at all."
Zlochevsky was killed on April 28. Kostyantyn Mykhalev, another son of western Ukraine, born just three days after Zlochevsky, died with him. Mykhalev had also sought education and work but found no possibilities that did not involve wielding a gun. They became the fifth and sixth Ukrainians killed while serving in Iraq, adding to a roster that now includes 109 non-American troops.
The news of the deaths of the two young men came as a jolt to a place that had largely forgotten the Iraq war. And it served as a reminder that the conflict's toll has been felt not only in the United States but in Poland and Bulgaria, Italy and Estonia. Ukraine has one of the largest contingents in Iraq after the U.S. and British forces, but its soldiers are poorer, less adequately equipped and more uncertain about their country's mission there than the Americans whose occupation they serve.
The last time Ukraine sent its young men to die in war, the conflict was in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the superpower waging it was the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was a part. This time, Ukraine's soldiers went as volunteers after President Leonid Kuchma enlisted his independent but economically struggling country in the U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" for Iraq.
To a Ukrainian public that overwhelmingly opposed the war, Kuchma explained the mission as peacekeeping, while his critics accused him of signing up to rehabilitate an image tarred by accusations of illegal arms sales to Saddam Hussein before his ouster as Iraq's president. But as the sector of southern Iraq where the Ukrainians were stationed erupted into rebellion this spring, the new realities turned the job from peace to war.
In March, the Ukrainians were forced to retreat from Kut after a takeover by Shiite militiamen loyal to the rebel cleric Moqtada Sadr. One soldier was killed. In late April, the ambush that claimed the lives of Zlochevsky and Mykhalev aroused a new political debate about the troops' presence in Iraq, as Ukrainians saw the charred remains of one of their armored personnel carriers on television and heard military experts say the Ukrainian convoy had not been properly protected.
Kuchma rebuffed Communist demands for the troops' immediate withdrawal as "brazen cynicism," and the pro-presidential majority in parliament has blocked efforts for a vote. But Kuchma's defense minister has acknowledged "frequent attacks and a worsened situation" for Ukrainian troops and pledged to provide them better equipment, communications and security.
The families of the dead soldiers are to receive $105,000 each in compensation -- an unprecedented sum for the Ukrainian military, which has struggled to reduce its force after the Soviet collapse but still has about 310,000 men in uniform. Many are poorly paid conscripts who have inadequate food and housing and outdated weapons and equipment.
Here in the green farmland of western Ukraine where Zlochevsky and Mykhalev were born, the young men's decision to go to Iraq was just another case of economic desperation. "Nobody needed a war here. Our children just wanted to live, to have a future," said Galina Korzhenevska, the bookkeeper for Berezivka, Mykhalev's home town on the banks of the Dnister River. "The state fell apart, the village is dying. Nobody has seen a salary here in 10 years."
Berezivka today feels more like a ghost town than a farming outpost. A decade ago, about 1,000 people lived there, most of them employed at a collective farm left over from the Soviet era. Mykhalev's mother worked feeding calves; his stepfather drove a horse-drawn cart making deliveries for the farm.
Today, most of the farm's decayed brick buildings are abandoned. The official population of Berezivka is 750 -- and unofficially much lower, according to village officials -- because anyone who is able leaves to work as an illegal migrant in Western Europe. Horses are still the standard mode of transportation. When Mykhalev graduated from high school in 1998, there were 13 in his class; this year, just three children started first grade at the town's one school.
A sports enthusiast who loved soccer and volleyball, Mykhalev went off to the regional center of Kamyanets-Podilskyy to study to be a gym teacher. His best friend since childhood, Roman Chorny, went with him to study agriculture. Both dropped out and served their mandatory military service.
With neither of his parents working and a brain-damaged epileptic younger brother in need of medical care they could not afford, Mykhalev went to the capital, Kiev, in search of a job. He found one as a security guard but was never paid the wages he was promised, said his mother, Lyudmila Mykhalevskaya. After six months, he came home.
"Kostya for that family was the only hope," said Anatoly Shevelyov, the school principal.
Last fall, Chorny came up with a plan for them -- join the Iraq-bound 6th Brigade. Both young men had to persuade skeptical parents who, despite the lure of what by local standards was an enormous salary, initially refused permission. Both then threatened to arrange fake marriages, according to their families, and get their supposed new wives to sign the necessary papers. "He said it would only cost less than $60," said Chorny's father, Viktor.
The recruiters showed them a video in which young Ukrainian soldiers were portrayed seeing the world and placidly manning checkpoints, the families said. "They made it seem as if they were going to a health resort," said Mykhalev's mother. "Of course it was deception -- all these kids were fooled. They took them to war and they knew it."
"They were lied to," said Chorny's mother, Galina, a $50-a-month math teacher. "They were not told the truth."
Once in Iraq, the mission became clearer. In one of his phone calls home, Mykhalev, who had been trained as a sniper, told his mother that "they shot so much in Iraq" that it was "more than in his entire two years of military service" as a conscript.
Now, the people of Berezivka are waiting to see whether Chorny will be allowed to come home early. His parents have not spoken with him since the ambush. Both said they did not blame the United States for Mykhalev's death, but rather their own country. "I have never seen America, and I will never see it," said Chorny's father. His mother added, "It's here we have trouble."
In nearby Vinkivtsi, Zlochevsky's widow, Irina, was struggling with the same questions, as their 2-year-old son Dima squirmed on the couch. Her husband was persuaded to go to Iraq by her brother Alyosha. He is still there.
"I don't have anything against America. But our authorities should just tell people the truth," she said. "Let them say we are preparing people for war, and if you want to go, you can go."
She has developed the film that came back with Zlochevsky's body and put the pictures in an album. In one photo, he is shown wielding his machine gun on top of an armored personnel carrier. In another, he is sitting in his underwear at a table with his friends, drinking a toast. At the end of the album are other pictures, of her at his funeral, dressed in black, holding a picture of Yaroslav.