Warning: This story contains graphic images and descriptions that some readers may find disturbing.
Scrolling through photos from the mass burial site in Izium, Oksana Sova immediately recognized her husband's bracelet on a corpse's wrist.
"I immediately knew it was him," Sova, 37, told the Kyiv Independent.
It was that blue-and-yellow bracelet he always wore as a lucky charm – a gift their children gave him before he headed to the front line back in 2014.
Her husband, Serhiy, went missing in action in Kharkiv Oblast on April 19. On that day, they got to talk for two minutes before he had to go back to the front line. Sova has been trying to call her husband’s number day and night since then, but to no avail.
All this time, Sova had been clinging to the hope of seeing her husband alive. But with every passing day, it was becoming more difficult to brush off the looming reality.
On Sept. 16, sitting in heavily-shelled Nikopol in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Sova was glued to her phone, checking the news emerging from the liberated areas of Kharkiv Oblast.
Ten days earlier, Ukraine launched a sudden counteroffensive in the northeastern region, liberating the city of Izium by Sept. 10. Soon, a mass burial site containing 447 bodies was uncovered in the recently liberated city.
Immediately, a photo of a severely decomposed arm with a blue-and-yellow bracelet on it started circulating online.
"I was crying, screaming horribly, and couldn't control it," Sova said.
Seeing their mother lose control of herself for the first time, her children, aged 9 and 14, immediately understood what had happened. But still, Sova left some room for doubt until she found another photo of her husband, this time capturing the tattoos still visible on his body.
"It was as if it wasn't just my husband's life that ended, but my life ended," Sova said, bursting into tears. "I lost all meaning in life."
New Year's memories
The latest New Year's Eve is the last happy memory that Sova now holds on to.
Serhiy served in northern Chernihiv Oblast at the time, but his commander permitted him to make a quick trip back home to see his wife and two children.
Even though Serhiy only had two nights at home, the family made the best out of it. They had a barbecue and made plans for the year ahead.
"We just wanted to spend time at home, together with the whole family, and nothing else," Sova said with a hint of a smile.
Less than two months later, on Feb. 24, Russian forces began an all-out war. The northern Chernihiv Oblast, where Serhiy was stationed, immediately became the front line.
After successfully defeating the Russian army in Chernihiv Oblast, Serhiy's regiment was transferred to northeastern Kharkiv Oblast, where fierce battles were ongoing.
In one of his last phone calls, Serhiy talked about the increasing intensity of Russia's shelling.
"(My husband) didn't back down," Sova said. "He stayed and fulfilled his heroic duty till the end."
Soldier by birth
With her husband being a soldier during war, Sova had to get used to the agony of living with uncertainty.
Serhiy, a cynologist, was first drafted in 2014, where he served in the village of Pisky near the Donetsk Airport. His main task was supplying Ukrainian defenders holding the airport with arms.
Since then, he has spent most of his time on the battlefield, only occasionally returning home to be with his family.
Knowing the risks, Serhiy would sometimes sit down with his wife and try to prepare her for the worst possible outcome.
"He knew where he was going. He knew what he was fighting for," Sova said.
Every time Serhiy returned home, he felt a strong urge to go back to the front line, worrying that Moscow would escalate and launch an all-out war.
Despite being away, Serhiy was always a good father and husband. Sova said he would always hear her out and was "a shoulder to lean on."
"It hurts so much how I want to talk to him now, and I can't call him," she said.
Sova is now also struggling financially since it's nearly impossible to find a job in Nikopol, a city located just across the river from the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Enerhodar and shelled daily.
To officially confirm her husband's death, Sova traveled to Kharkiv Oblast to identify the body a few days after the exhumation started at the mass burial site.
The body was heavily decomposed, so she was asked to look at one of the tattoos to identify her husband. The body was then handed to the family for burial.
A total of 447 bodies have been exhumed from Izium's mass burial site, the State Emergency Service reported on Sept. 25. All but 22 bodies belonged to civilians. Kharkiv Oblast Governor Oleh Synyehubov said that most bodies contain "signs of violent death," and 30 of them having traces of torture.
A week after Serhiy's body was discovered, the family held a private funeral in Nikopol. Late on Sept. 24, President Volodymyr Zelensky awarded Serhiy the title of Hero of Ukraine posthumously.
Despite their hometown now being on the southern front line, shelled daily, Sova said she wouldn't leave their family house full of warm memories of their 15-year-long marriage.
"(15 years with Serhiy) was the best thing in my life," Sova said. "He was the best person in my life."
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