Separated by war, a Ukrainian family balances safety, duty and love
TROSSINGEN, Germany — They said goodbye at the Ukrainian-Slovak border, hugging and kissing and telling one another the war would be short. A year later — the conflict still dragging on — the lives of Andrii Mishchenko and Olha Taranova have veered apart to a degree they never planned.
Andrii, 39, has been performing some of the Ukrainian military’s riskiest reconnaissance work on the front lines of eastern Ukraine. His wife, Olha, 45, has been adjusting with their daughter to life in small-town Germany.
He’s lost as much as 18 pounds from the stress and intensity. She’s taken to sleeping with one of his old T-shirts under her pillow.
He tries to send her a heart emoji every morning, a way to let her know he’s still alive. And she has so come to depend on those messages that they can determine whether she is upbeat or in shambles when she walks out the door.
“Today I got my heart. That’s why I can smile,” Olha said on what happened to be her daughter’s 11th birthday, celebrated with pizza at an indoor playground called Kinderspieleland, along with other Ukrainian refugee children and mothers — and no dads.
Since falling for one another nearly two decades ago as IT co-workers — Olha the boss, Andrii the young new hire — they had never been separated for more than a six-week stretch. Together, they raised their daughter, Sasha, renovated a home in Kyiv, vacationed in the Maldives. Olha called it a “true partnership.”
But Russia’s cataclysmic invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love. As the war hits the one-year mark, so many once-intertwined lives have become unrecognizable.
“What I have missed is a year of life itself,” Andrii said one day last month, while stationed near Ukraine’s Luhansk region.
“This separation is one huge anxiety,” Olha said that same week, more than 1,200 miles away in Trossingen, Germany. She worries above all about her husband’s safety. But also: How much will they have they both have changed by the end of the war?
Andrii sends a heart emoji in the mornings as a sign that he’s safe. Olha replies with a kiss.
Living apart, trying to connect
It was Andrii’s idea for Olha and Sasha to flee Ukraine, and Olha went along with it only because she thought her husband deserved the certainty that his family was safe. But from Germany, she saw the toll of that decision. She noticed Andrii’s absence in all the small daily tasks that used to be his — making the coffee, driving Sasha to school, hauling in the heavy family packs of bottled water. She also felt “rage” about Russia, about the war, about what she saw as a forced separation stemming from the invasion. Sometimes, she felt such anger that it veered toward “hatred.”
“These are new feelings for me,” she said.
She didn’t want this chapter in her life to become a “black hole” for her husband. So, though she knew he was busy, she tried to share even the mundane details of their German lives. She made videos, slickly cut and produced, about getting her hair colored, banking, nursing a leg injury and heading out of her apartment building with Sasha.
“Well, good morning, Trossingen,” she narrated in one video, musing about why nearby dogs weren’t barking.
The video continued down the sidewalk.
“Today, brown bins are out — these bins are for food waste garbage,” she said. “Every day you throw out and sort garbage.”
The video cut to an image of the beige, flat fields outside the southern German town.
“Almost like Ukraine,” the video caption said.
Andrii sent her videos too, but they were short, his exact location always secret. He referenced the war as “going to work.” Olha asked him not to spare her the details, but even so, he never talked about death or destruction. She guessed she was getting only “20 percent” of the real story, an uncertainty that spiraled into panic on days she didn’t hear from him.
On one morning when she didn’t receive a heart, she retreated to the bathroom, so Sasha wouldn’t see her sobbing. During Ukraine’s counteroffensive in September, she didn’t hear from Andrii for three weeks.
She tried to visualize him with a glass shield over his body, protected, but she couldn’t fully convince herself. Even when it came to the notion of reuniting with him, she girded herself, trying to learn about the psychology of veterans returning from war. One of the books she read: “Trauma and Recovery.”
Ohla has been able to continue her IT job remotely. Andrii refers to war as “going to work.”
A responsibility to protect
On the day of their separation, Andrii was lying. He felt he had a duty to shield his family as best he could, even from anxiety. So he promised Olha that if she and Sasha sought refuge in the European Union, he would stay in western Ukraine, which was considered the safest place in the country. But within a few days he was back in Kyiv, as Russian forces attempted to encircle the capital.
[A train station full of goodbyes]
Andrii had told Olha he wouldn’t join the military. He was lying then, too. Any other work had lost meaning to him. He was angry, he said, and the rage grew every time he thought about invaders barging into his home, hurting people he loved. He went to one recruitment office and then another. Finally, in April, he was called to serve — and it felt like his “calling,” he said.
When Andrii was assigned to be an armored personnel carrier driver more than 30 miles from the front line, he reassured Olha that he was far from any action. What he didn’t tell her was that he was trying to get closer, seeking out a more dangerous post. He transferred to a reconnaissance unit in the 92nd Mechanized Brigade, volunteering for a forward-operating role that often requires creeping behind enemy lines.
This war could reach anyone anywhere at any time, he figured. “If you have to die, you’ll die,” he said. “Isn’t it better to do it here, liberating your home, defending your family, trying to do everything for the war to end as soon as possible, so that you see your loved ones sooner? Or, if you aren’t able to do that, others will see their loved ones.”
Each step of the way, Andrii informed Olha of his choice after he already made it. Sometimes he kept secrets for weeks.
And there was still more he was holding back — the moments when artillery crashed just 20 yards away from him, or when he said a silent prayer that a nearby Russian tank wouldn’t turn in his direction and open fire. He didn’t tell her about the men who died fighting beside him. Or about the soldier who hung back, too scared to go to the front, and then was killed when a missile struck their base.
“I fully filter the information, I never talk about anything like that,” he said. “What for? They’d get nervous, and I’d get nervous because they’d be nervous.”
For months, Andrii’s unit was moving forward, fighting to recapture the northeastern Ukrainian city of Svatove — which the Russians had turned into a military stronghold.
[On east front with Ukrainian troops: Constant shelling, no heat or coffee]
But that push has stalled, and the winter has been difficult. He and his men are stuck, settling for defensive positions, trying to take out enemy assets while they prepare for a renewed Russian offensive.
Sunny mornings with clear skies bring anxiety. At the base, soldiers are instructed not to walk leisurely outside in case an enemy drone is overhead. Few hours pass without the sound of explosions, some close enough to make the windows tremble.
During the most intense front-line battles, the kind that last days, he has left his regular cellphone at the base and instead carried a simple burner phone — with a keypad instead of a touch screen — that he powers on every 12 hours. He would text Olha “++” or “4.5.0” — Ukrainian military code that signals everything is okay.
Trossingen’s neat rows of red-roofed homes are a world away from the eastern Ukrainian villages destroyed by shelling.
A new country, a new home
Trossingen, for Olha, was never supposed to become a semi-permanent home.
She and Sasha had arrived in a rush after a series of quick stops in Central Europe — a night in Krakow, Poland; another in the Polish city of Wroclaw; several nights in a Czech town where Olha’s adult son from another relationship, also named Andriy, studies medicine. They finally settled on Germany and Trossingen after hearing about it from a distant acquaintance, who said nothing more than that it was safe.
“I didn’t even ask them what kind of place it was,” Olha said. “I saw it on the map and went there.”
What she found was a town of about 16,000 people, with rows of tidy homes, not far from the Black Forest. Trossingen bills itself as “the music town,” a nod to its longtime production of harmonicas and accordions.
The rental Olha found was nothing like their suburban home in Kyiv, which had been a big communal gathering spot. Her new apartment was right near the main square. It had been occupied by an elderly woman until her death. There were ceramic hens in the kitchen. And so many foreign smells. Olha resisted making it feel like her own, buying only the bare minimum supplies: a few towels, a few plates, a few mugs.
“It was like living in paralysis,” she said.
But the war kept going.
She bought pots and pans. She bought a desk. She enrolled Sasha in the local German school, where the student body had swelled 15 percent with children from Ukraine. She started labeling objects around the house with German vocabulary words — das Regal, die Blumen.
She even persuaded her elderly father, Viktor, to come visit from Kyiv, suggesting that he could try it out for a few weeks. He ended up moving in.
Then, a few months ago, after spending a day in Stuttgart with fellow Ukrainian refugees, Olha parted ways by saying, “Okay, I’m going home.” The word just slipped out, but she lingered on it: Her home was now in Trossingen.
She has had an easier time than some because she was able to continue working her IT job, which involves using big data to find potential Russian fingerprints on foreign companies — an effort she considers therapeutic and patriotic.
But she also credits her transition in Germany to government-funded integration classes, held most weekdays, that force her to leave the apartment even on days she doesn’t want to. She said the classes offer some semblance of a “peaceful life.”
The teacher, Fatima Majsoub, German-born with Syrian roots, said her goal was to help keep her students’ minds “far, far, far away from war.”
Majsoub’s class consists mostly of women. Some are finishing Ukrainian university courses online, about to graduate into the German job market. Majsoub wants to make sure they won’t feel helpless. She brought in representatives from local sports clubs to talk about social opportunities for the women and their children. She has talked about Trossingen’s elite music school, its three museums and its small place in history as one of the first spots with an electrified train. And she has taught them lots and lots of German.
“These are the conjugations we need to know,” she said in one recent afternoon class, plowing through page after page of exercises.
She called on people to read sentences aloud.
“Example 12?” she asked.
It was Olha’s turn.
“Einmal habe ich mir sehr wehgetan, …” Olga began.
Once I hurt myself badly, …
Majsoub stopped to correct her pronunciation.
“WEH-getan,” she said, encouraging Olha to keep going.
She did, and she followed closely as the class ticked to its conclusion, taking notes with a set of colored pens. Her German was improving. But it was too much to hope that she and her classmates could stop thinking about the war. When they were walking out after class, a fellow refugee spotted a small Russian flag included in a collage near the school exit. “Get that out of here,” the friend said.
Olha is learning German in government-funded integration classes. Andrii is preparing for a renewed Russian offensive.
When war becomes routine
Andrii used to wake up before 6 a.m. to drive Sasha to school. His alarm is still set for the same time — and some mornings he sends Olha a selfie while brushing his teeth.
Almost every other aspect of his routine has changed.
His days are spent planning missions — analyzing aerial reconnaissance to identify targets, such as Russian tanks and other weapons, that drones can strike at night. He said his reconnaissance unit has destroyed more than 75 tanks.
His evening leisure activity involves reading aloud transcripts of intercepted Russian conversations, laughing when the subject is heavy Russian casualties.
In the 92nd brigade, he’s not Andrii but “Ded” — a sarcastic call sign translating to “grandpa,” because they can’t believe he’s almost 40 yet looks like a much younger man.
The IT business he spent years building has been entrusted to a manager, whom Andrii checks in with once a month. If there’s time.
He wears the same thing every day: a green T-shirt and camouflage cargo pants.
Ukrainians don’t talk about their plans for after the war, but for “after the victory.” Andrii’s are simple: to slide back into what he now refers to as his “civilian life.” But in the handful of times he’s left the front line, the country he’s fighting to protect has felt foreign to him. It’s like a “different planet,” he said.
As for Olha and Sasha? “That’s my planet,” he said.
Sweet dreams! ❤️
Until tomorrow, honey! 😘😘😘
Kissing and hugging you tightly. 😘
I am yearning for you
Miss me but do not be sad
I am trying
Andrii has never been to Trossingen, but he has tried to picture himself there with his wife and daughter. He looked up their regular routes through town on Google maps. He stored away details from the Wikipedia page.
He ordered flowers to be delivered to Olha — no occasion, just because. She used the box they arrived in to send him German chocolates. He now keeps that box next to where he sleeps — a piece of cardboard considered precious because it’s from his wife.
Nearby is a small red plastic duck. Sasha collects them and wanted her dad to have something of hers with him always. When Andrii asked what she wanted for her birthday, she sent a list, then backtracked. She suggested buying him a drone instead — something he could use at the front line. He encouraged her to take karate classes, so she can defend herself when he’s not around to do it for her.
He has seen his family twice since the big separation. The first time, in August, Olha and Sasha came to Kyiv for two weeks. But it was an intense time for Andrii’s unit — preparation ahead of a sweeping counteroffensive in the northeast Kharkiv region — and it was hard for him to take leave.
When he was finally granted two days off, he hastily rented a Smartcar in Kharkiv and began the five-hour drive to the capital. On the way, his commander called: They now had a mission at 3 a.m. and Andrii was needed back. He would have only four hours to see Olha and Sasha.
Andrii’s sister recorded a video as he pulled into the driveway, where his wife was waiting. Olha was crying. He wrapped his arms around her and didn’t let go.
“She’s strong,” he said later. “But she needs care.”
The second meeting was longer. They met in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv in December for five days — and didn’t leave the hotel room for the first three. Andrii sat on the bed between them, one arm around his wife and another around his daughter.
“She has grown so tall,” Andrii said. “I missed this moment.”
The topic of Olha and Sasha moving back to Ukraine came up. It’s in those moments — when his old life and his new reality collide — that Andrii considers himself the selfish one. He knows starting anew in Germany has been hard on his wife and daughter. But if they were in Ukraine — where a Russian missile could conceivably reach them — how could he focus on his military service?
He asked them again to wait for Ukraine’s victory.
And so when the reunion was over, Olha and Sasha once again went west, to safety, and Andrii went east, back to the pull of duty and responsibility.
Olha and Sasha navigate a German grocery store. Andrii and his unit unload supplies.
A good day, and a bad one
Then came a night when Olha had almost everyone in her family together.
Her 20-year-old son, Andriy, had bussed in from the Czech Republic for a visit, and the apartment felt downright full.
They gathered around to make Ukrainian dumplings, on a table labeled “der Tisch.”
“No no no!” she teased her son, watching him misshape a dumpling. “You’re going to be a surgeon!?”
“Surgeons don’t need to make these,” he said.
They laughed and kept making more, good ones and lumpy ones, stuffed with whipped potato and shredded beef. Olha played music from her phone. It was a good day, she said: She’d just passed her German A2 test, confirming basic language competence.
She said it was a little “unfair” to show her husband what he was missing, but she did it anyway, sending a photo of the crowd around the table, dumplings in the middle. Then her phone vibrated.
“My love,” read the caller ID.
That day, everything had gone wrong for Andrii.
While the booms of incoming artillery could be heard landing nearby, he spent the afternoon identifying targets for overnight drone strikes. But some of the munitions turned out to be faulty — a mistake by the manufacturer that would take at least a day to fix. Then one drone had to be grounded because of technical difficulties. Another was on its way back to the base after repairs, but the car transporting it broke down.
They were losing critical time.
Andrii and his commander, Oleksandr, examined new satellite images they had received. “That’s a lot of weaponry heading our way,” Oleksandr said. “It could be the day after tomorrow.”
Andrii had zoomed in on images of the Russian materiel when Olha’s text came through. He smiled at the photo — a first smile after hours of bad news — and kept the upbeat expression as he snapped a selfie to send.
Then, on impulse, he called.
“Is it quiet these days?” Olha asked.
“Yeah, everyone is relaxed,” Andrii said. “It’s quiet. It’s like we’re at a resort lodge.”
The conversation between husband and wife continued. Andrii was smiling and laughing lightly on his end. Olha became somber, at one point wiping a tear. Then Andrii had another call come through. He needed to turn back to the war.
“I have to go,” he told her. “Kisses.”
About this story
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.