Tamara is 33 years old. Thin, she seems fragile, but she moves heavy boxes with humanitarian aid with ease. Some of them are stuffed to the top with cheese, canned tuna, pasta, olives, sweets — these were donated by benefactors from Italy. Others are lighter — they have medicines, pads, dishwashing detergents, childrenʼs toothbrushes, diapers, notebooks and pencils — those from the USA and western cities of Ukraine.
One of the boxes tilts, and packages of cotton buds fall to the floor.
— Ear sticks are a very popular thing, — Tamara picks them up, tossing her thick blond braid over her shoulder. — When I first received a request for them, I was shocked — it turns out that the woman is asking for cotton buds and pads because she does not have money even for this. I became so afraid for this family that I packed them with everything I could.
Tamara talks about the family of an “Azov” soldier, who was killed during the defense of Mariupol. On a separate piece of paper on the wall address and telephone numbers of his relatives are written, and whether they have children. Everyone has the same "brief" — the mother of a newborn daughter, parents, a woman who sees only 6% in one eye, a cancer patient, a woman with diabetes. Most of them are resettled women. All of them lost someone in this war: a husband, a brother or a son, some even several relatives.
Tamara looks very lively, but she is also one of them. She packs and sends a box with humanitarian aid to her mother-in-law in Zaporizhzhia. Tamaraʼs husband, Oleksiy Yanin, died on April 7.
Oleksiy Yanin was the champion of Ukraine in kickboxing and the world champion in Thai boxing. As part of "Azov" since 2015, he defended Mariupol from Russians. Thatʼs all that can be found about him in open sources.
When Tamara wipes her tears, the sleeve of her embroidered shirt slips and the tattoo "Tamara the Beautiful" is visible on her forearm. It is left over from the time when she was photographed in mystical Ukrainian style in the Carpathians.
— This was back in the days of VKontakte. Oleksiy regularly liked my posts, and I visited his page, but there was no interest, — recalls Tamara. — I did not understand whether he was in the ATO or somewhere else. He had a gloomy, brutal look. And these ethnic-themed photographs played a role — he loves that. Loved.
On March 15, 2017, Tamara, after another “like” from Oleksiy, wrote him: "Good evening, Oleksiy. I see youʼre paying attention to my page, youʼre an interesting person, but to be honest, Iʼm a little afraid of you." Oleksiy answered on this — and thatʼs how they started talking.
Until 2014, Oleksiy worked at plants in Zaporizhzhia and in Kyiv at the Ministry of Nature Protection, he also had a higher coaching education. However, he did not see any prospects for himself as a coach in Zaporizhzhia. In 2015, he went to “Azov” Batallion. He was sincerely interested in the science of fighting, tactical medicine, the history of Ukraine, and shooting.
Tamara had an interesting time with him. He knew a lot of things, and was reading everything: from books on anthropology to Arab philosophers. When she found out that he had a tattoo of Bukovyna folk clothing (in addition to a tattoo with Cossacks and the "Aeneid" myth scene), she decided that it was a sign of fate: she had a postcard with the same Bukovyna embroidery.
— I understood that it is mine. I fall in love very quickly. Fell in love.
Within four days, Tamara sent him a box of goodies: tea, sweets, many of his favorite "Barny" bears, a postcard. For another month, she sent him packages every week, and then Oleksiy offered her to meet — he only had two days, he could not leave the military base for a long time, so the meeting was arranged in Berdyansk. Tamara drove there from Khmelnytskyi for two days — because of Easter, tickets for all convenient routes were sold out.
In June 2017, they went on vacation together to the Carpathians in the Bukovyna region. Oleksiy made an offer to Tamara on the Written Stone:
— It was funny and clumsy: he pressed me to him and said that he did not know how it was done, but he wanted me to become his wife. And he quickly put a wedding ring on me, I didnʼt even have time to answer. However, it was clear what I would say, — recalls Tamara. — And we were very hungry, so we had sandwiches with sausage and tomatoes for breakfast.
They did not see each other until the wedding in Zaporizhzhia. On the 23rd of August 2017, on National Flag Day, they signed and held an ancient Ukrainian ceremony on the island of Khortytsia. Only two of them were at the celebration: they went for coffee and just spent time together. In January 2018, Oleksiy moved to Khmelnytskyi. Tamara was happy and hoped that now a perfect family life awaits them.
— It was worse for him here than in the basements of Mariupol, — says Tamara quietly. — It was tearing him apart.
There were no "Azov" structures in Khmelnytskyi, so Oleksiy worked in "Municipal Squad"; but he did not make friends there — he communicated only with his fellow “Azov” men. Tamara became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Nazar. Then they got their own apartment. Oleksiy dreamed of combining family life with service in "Azov" and suggested moving to Mariupol or Berdyansk. Tamara did not want to: those regions seemed hostile to her, she was afraid for herself and her child. But Oleksiy could not stay in Khmelnytskyi and in 2020 told Tamara that he had signed a new three-year contract with “Azov”.
— I canʼt imagine how we didnʼt break up at that moment. He killed my little world then, — recalls Tamara. — It is very difficult to be a wife of a military man because you are always in second place. My great desire to be together did not come true.
On February 24, Oleksiy was in Khmelnytskyi for his sonʼs third birthday. He went to war from here. At the train station, saying goodbye, Tamara did not kiss him. She thought she would kiss when Oleksiy returned. She was certain that it couldnʼt be otherwise. Nazar was sleeping at that time.
In Mariupol, the mobile connection disappeared on March 5 — before that, Tamara and Oleksiy regularly talked on the phone and wrote each other. Then there were only text messages and a few calls on “Telegram” messenger. Oleksiy sent his photos, but did not tell in detail what was happening there. Once he received a through gunshot wound. He could not take the body of a friend from the battlefield. He was glad that Tamara and Nazar are safe.
On April 9, Tamara received a call from the “Azov” Patronage Service and was informed that Oleksiy had died defending “Azovstal”.
— I was terribly angry with Oleksiy for not being able to leave the war and “Azov”, — says Tamara. — For him it was a separate world.
Not everyone can get to "Azov". In addition to standard selections for professional suitability, there is also a check in the team: those who do not settle in are not accepted into the regiment. So Oleksiy felt like a family among his brothers.
He answered sparingly to Tamaraʼs inquiries. Then she learned that other widows knew just as little. She wanted to go to "Azov" herself, to work there in the headquarters — just to be closer to her beloved. However, Oleksiy was peremptory: "This is not for you". Tamara knew that he was right.
She met the families of other "Azov" residents already in the “Telegram” chat, which was created by the "Azov" Patronage Service to inform the relatives of those killed in "Azovstal". Now there are approximately 350 people there. In the group, they exchange news, help with legal support, offer psychological help, and together collect funds for the rehabilitation of the wounded. One of the gatherings, which Tamara joined, was for a refrigerator for bodies to be taken out of Mariupol.
― First of all, the families of the victims began to attend this gatherings. Not because it is in our interests, but because we are one family, says Tamara. — I know how my husband died, and I know that I have no chance to bury him, the most that will be there for me is his empty coffin. But I gave money too so that they could bring another womanʼs husband.
Until Olexiyʼs death, Tamara never felt that "Azov" was a family. She was very jealous of him for the war and his “brothers”. Oleksiy always said that Tamara and Nazar were in the first place for him, he even promised not to sign any another contracts — but Tamara felt that it wasnʼt true.
— But now I understand him, — she says. — Iʼm not jealous anymore. Because it does not affect my interests anymore. Thatʼs it, there is no one to be jealous of.
On June 28, Tamara reads the news while riding in a taxi around noon: "Ukraine returned the bodies of 46 defenders. 21 of them are ʼAzovstalʼ defenders. The exchange took place in the Zaporizhzhia oblast".
Those who will have to go through the terrible procedure of identifying the body are somewhat lucky — they will be able to bury their loved ones. Tamara is not among them. She only has her husbandʼs death certificate from the National Registry of Citizens, which she received recently. The Military Commissariat should have informed about Oleksiyʼs death, but the Patronage Service did it. Instead, the Military Commissariat learned about his death from Tamara and for almost three months has not issued any documents to confirm it. At Tamaraʼs request to remove her husband from all types of support, she was refused. Without a certificate from the military commissariat, a woman with a son will not be able to receive a survivorʼs pension. The process does not move: a forensic medical examination must be carried out, but this is impossible when a personʼs body is in uncontrolled territory. Tamara does not know what to do and when it will end.
— Several hundred bodies of "Azovians" remained in Mariupol," she says. — There is very little chance that the bodies of those who died in February and March will be brought back. Those who died in May are already in the active phase of decomposition. There are relatives who know the date of death but have no idea where to look for the body. There is no point on the map. And even if there is — what can be left of a body in such heat and such intensity of bombing? But each of us hopes for a burial. We canʼt sleep at night because of it. Loss is one thing, but we cannot even bury them: neither as people nor as heroes. They just lie there and rot. The hardest thing for me to accept is that I wonʼt be able to bury him.
Tamara wipes her tears and continues:
— I need to have a grave, where I can come, bring my child for dadʼs birthday, the day of his death, and all holidays. But on Heroesʼ Day, I have nowhere to go. On Farewell — I have nowhere to go. On the Green Holidays, everyone carries twigs — I have nowhere to carry them. I just want to come and cry and talk to him and I have nowhere to go.
— Every time I write that our families still havenʼt buried their boys, people are surprised, — says Tamara. — They think that we sit and receive money from the state.
The storage room was given to Tamara by the volunteers of the charity foundation "Volunteers of Podillia". Today itʼs hard to put a foot there, but tomorrow it will be more spacious — boxes from Italian volunteers will go to families. "My families", "my widows", as Tamara calls them now.
When Tamara was told that Olexiy had died, at first she could only cry. She regretted that Nazar would not remember his father, so she began to collect all his photos, videos, and correspondence from acquaintances. She explained to him that dad is in heaven and brings gifts while Nazar is sleeping or not at home. From morning to night, she blamed herself for not saving him; that she didnʼt write in her last messages how much she was grateful to him for everything; for not appreciating him enough, not loving him enough; donʼt kissing him to say goodbye. She continued to write to Oleksiy about how her day had passed, how their son is doing, what she had no time to say earlier. She reads the last messages and saw how he felt that he would not survive.
On her page in one of social networks, she wrote: "Everywhere I go, I carry your death with me, in my chest. I will wear it until I bury you. As for the grave, your death will be buried there, and I will always carry you with me in my heart." And then: "I have nothing what could be destroyed anymore. I am Mariupol: everything has been ransacked, burned down, only smoke is billowing somewhere."
On the 16th day, she laughed for the first time. On the 21st, she realized that life was catching up, no matter how unbearably painful it was.
Tamara turned her pages in social networks into a memory diary for Oleksiy — it was necessary to speak out. And on May 2, she wrote on “Facebook” that she was starting to help the families of the dead “Azov” men, she also announced this in the chat of the Patronage Service. On the first day, four families applied for help.
— I just realized that I have something to live for, I have a home, because Iʼm from Khmelnytskyi, — recalls Tamara, shifting the boxes. ― And these widows are immigrants from the Donetsk oblast, from Kherson, they have nothing. What kind of money do they need to live here if there are no payments from the state for several months? And not everyone can go to work — some have an illness or disability, some have small children, and kindergartens are closed, and there are few vacancies only.
Tamara began directing benefactors to families with specific requests: food, hygiene products, summer clothes for herself and children, shoes, towels, spoons, diapers, bedding, books, contact lenses, tranquilizers, etc. Her sister handed over a whole bunch of household chemicals from Dobrochyn residents from Ternopil, so Tamara had to create a warehouse. She began creating relief kits to send once a month to each family, which soon became 17.
Tamara was joined by a friend, and later two widows of the “Azov” people and the sister of the deceased, who were forced to leave for Khmelnytskyi — Tamara helps them with the documents, because they all need the same ones.
Local business helps with clothes, shoes, stationery, money. Sometimes itʼs easier to put money on the card so that the woman decides what to spend it on. Tamara does not count how much she helps each month. Some packages are sent by mail, others are delivered by volunteers.
— The best thing we can do for those who gave their lives for our freedom is to take care of their families as they would themselves, — says Tamara. ― It is not a fact that I would ever communicate with all of these people, but if I start to choose someone who I like, I would not help anyone. I just absolutely love them all. In this way I thank their husbands.
Tamara wants only the best for them — she does not accept old clothes or dirty books. And to individual complaints in the comments that they are asking for everything new, he answers: "They are not beggars, they are the families of fallen heroes." She seems to have stepped out of her role as a traditional wife and mother on maternity leave and wants to become a collective dad.
— I canʼt live without a sense of family, — says Tamara. — I love what I do, I love these people, I worry about them. And I understand them like no one else.
In the evening, Tetyana walks with Nazar around Khmelnytskyi. The son knows: today he wants cars, a trampoline and ice cream. Tamara spares nothing for her son: she does not know if they will have a tomorrow, and she wants her son to remember a happy childhood.
Nazar is open and friendly to every man he meets. The further he goes, the more he becomes like Tamara, although at first he was a copy of Olexiy. She wants to pass on his memory to her son — shirts, books, cups, a sports uniform, an order. For Fatherʼs Day, Nazar draws his dad as a superhero and takes this card home. He knows that the Russians dropped a bomb on him, and he does not like anything Russian.
Despite everything that she and Oleksiy experienced, Tamara now remembers only good moments. She feels only gratitude and pride that she was his wife — this is stronger than pain. She says that he understands him only now, and adds: "Everything is now in my business for you, about you, in the name of your bright memory."
— There was a period when I took off the wedding ring, and now Iʼm wearing it again, — Tamara says and turns the thin ring on her finger. — I donʼt even know what to do with it and how to call myself. But I have not yet seen a single “Azov” soldierʼs widow who would take off her wedding ring.
Translated from Ukrainian by Ruslana Stolz and Anton Semyzhenko.