KHARKIV – In the early hours of Sept. 6, Vitaliy Zubenko left his bed to grab a glass of water when he heard an explosion. He didn’t immediately realize that a fragment of a Russian missile hit the roof of his house.
“It was an enormous explosion, very loud,” Zubenko told the Kyiv Independent. Living on the outskirts of Kharkiv, he is used to the sound of missile attacks.
The hit caused a fire on the second floor of his family house. Though firefighters tried to extinguish it for hours, the whole building burned down.
Having minutes to save himself, Zubenko grabbed only one thing, the most important for him: The posthumous state awards of his son, 22-year-old EuroMaidan Revolution activist Vladyslav Zubenko.
Vladyslav was killed during the protests against President Viktor Yanukovych in central Kyiv in February 2014.
“I grabbed his medals and got out barefoot,” the man recalled, as he showed the Kyiv Independent around the ruins of his house. “These are the most precious things for me. This is a remembrance of my son. I didn't even manage to take any documents.”
The father and son started building the two-story house together. When Vladyslav got killed protesting a pro-Russian president, his father finished it on his own. Eight years later, a Russian missile destroyed his family home, full of memories.
Keeping the memory of his heroic son alive had been Zubenko’s goal.
He had pushed officials to name a street in Kharkiv after his son. Then, the night train running from Kharkiv to Rakhiv in western Ukraine was named after Vladyslav, who was a train attendant. The school and the university he went to had also placed memorial plaques upon Zubenko’s request.
Vladyslav graduated from the local railway academy with honors. He was keen to continue his studies as a postgraduate but decided against it due to corruption he encountered at his university, according to his father.
That was a turning point, Zubenko said, that pushed his son to become an anti-graft activist. The EuroMaidan Revolution, which toppled Yanukovych’s corrupt government, was his last rally.
He arrived in Kyiv on Feb. 19, the day after several protesters were killed in clashes with riot police. Protesters were putting on whatever armor they could find. Vladyslav, who participated in historical reenactment, brought plates from his knight armor.
This armor didn’t stop the bullet that hit his stomach on the very next day, Feb. 20.
Vladyslav was shot when he was helping evacuate an injured protester on a stretcher, covering him with his shield. Wounded, Vladyslav was rushed to the hospital.
That morning, dozens of protesters were killed or injured. Feb. 20 became the most tragic day of the EuroMaidan Revolution. Over 100 protesters were killed in the revolution overall.
Doctors fought for Vladyslav’s life for over a week. After the first surgery, he regained consciousness, giving his father hope.
“I visited him and told him: ‘Vladyk, we won. Yanukovych fled’,” Zubenko recalled, saying to his son after the then-president hastily left Ukraine for Russia on Feb. 24.
“Vladyslav was very happy, he smiled and raised his hand as he couldn't speak,” he went on.
But after two surgeries and a week in the hospital, Vladyslav died on Feb. 28. On his gravestone, he is pictured as a knight wearing armor and holding a sword.
“This guy, who did not live to the age of 23, was a knight. Not because of the body armor, not by birth, but by way of thinking,” Boris Moroz, one of Vladyslav's acquaintances, wrote of him in 2017.
Vladyslav, along with other EuroMaidan activists killed during protests, known in Ukraine as the Heavenly Hundred, was posthumously awarded the country’s highest civilian award, the Hero of Ukraine. The very medal Zubenko saved from their burning family home, hit by a Russian missile in early September.
The fight goes on
Earlier, Russian shelling destroyed Zubenko’s second house in Chuhuiv, some 38 kilometers east of Kharkiv.
“It looks like Putin has launched a hunt for me,” he said, half-jokingly.
Left with no roof above his head, Zubenko first lived at his neighbors’, then at a temporary house provided by volunteers.
When the full-out war broke out on Feb. 24, Zubenko lost his job as a stoker in Kharkiv. Now he is both jobless and homeless.
Zubenko doesn’t seek help from authorities. He believes Russia ruined too many lives in Ukraine and the government can’t help each and every victim.
He does not lose hope and waits for Ukraine's victory in the war. For him, it is directly related to his son’s sacrifice during the EuroMaidan Revolution.
Zubenko believes the full-out invasion didn’t start in 2014 thanks to the efforts of the EuroMaidan activists, including his son.
“Russia wanted to annex Ukraine politically (in 2014),” he said.
“The Heavenly Hundred are the people who were the first who sacrificed their lives for Ukraine to prevent the full-out war. They didn’t succeed in preventing it, but they gave Ukraine a few years to gain power, boost the army, which can now effectively combat Russia.”
for an independent Ukraine