KYIV, Ukraine—Konstantin Bernatovich’s hands began to tremble. He leaned forward, breathing quickly. He tried to say something, but his English failed him and he pulled out his smartphone to type a Russian message into Google Translate: “Seeing you makes me feel very nervous. I have to go smoke a cigarette for a moment to calm down.”
This reporter had spent eight days embedded with Bernatovich’s unit on the front lines in Pisky, just outside Donetsk. As he sat down for coffee at a café along the Obolon boardwalk in north Kyiv, Bernatovich was reminded of the war.
“He has changed,” his wife Zhanna said while Bernatovich smoked his cigarette. “He shows more emotion when he’s home, but when he calls from the front there is no joking.”
“I don’t understand how the soldiers can live out there,” she added.
Bernatovich left the war for six days to go home for his twin sons’ 13th birthday. It was supposed to be a four-day trip, but the 33-year-old arrived two days early to surprise his wife.
Some friends were in on the surprise and convinced Zhanna to go on a late-night walk—as she turned a corner she saw her husband for the first time in more than three months.
“I didn’t believe it was real,” she said on Bernatovich’s last day at home, only hours before he left to go back to the front lines. “I kept asking my friends if it was really him, if he had really come back.”
On the broad Obolon boardwalk, life uninterrupted by the war went on. A street performer played guitar and sang Santana songs as a mother and young daughter danced hand-in-hand.
Groups of twentysomethings strolled by with beers in their hands. Out on the Dnieper River, boats pulled water-skiers and kayakers paddled. Beachgoers sunbathed and shirtless young men exercising on pull-up and dip bars posed and postured for passersby.
“I don’t understand people,” Bernatovich said as he walked past a string of waterfront townhomes, mostly owned by politicians and oligarchs, which go for about $3 million apiece.
“How can they be laughing and smiling when there is a war going on?” he said. “It’s like I’m in another world, or I’m in a dream and tomorrow I’ll wake up and be back in Pisky.”
A Quarantined War
Outside of the conflict areas, life seemingly goes on uninterrupted. The direct effects of combat are quarantined to the approximately 200-mile-long front line in the East. This coexistence of peace and war inside Ukraine, coupled with the untreated psychological trauma many soldiers suffer in combat, leaves many veterans and returning troops feeling out of place and unable to reintegrate into the lives they left behind.
“It’s hard to return to normal life,” said Vitaliy Dorokhin, 39, a lawyer from Dnipropetrovsk and a combat veteran who served last year in operations near Mariupol and in Pisky. “And it’s impossible to explain what war is like.”
On a warm summer day in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, 800 miles from the front lines, tourists fill the narrow Galician streets and outdoor cafes. Women wearing traditional Ukrainian dresses hand out flowers, and wedding parties wander the streets snapping photos. Street performers play “Por una Cabeza” on violins and strum American rock songs on acoustic guitars. Life goes on, appears normal, and feels festive.
There are plans in Lviv for a jazz and art festival this summer, and a vintage car show. There was a doughnut festival in January, about a week before heavy shelling began in Debaltseve.
In Kyiv, 420 miles from the front lines, young actors in panda and bunny costumes pose with tourists on the Maidan. University students drink beer and make out on park benches at night in Shevchenko Park. Oligarchs and their families (the golden children) zip through the streets with techno music pumping through the tinted windows of their Porsche Cayennes or glossy black Land Rovers while the proletariat bumbles along in their creaking Ladas.
In Kharkiv, 160 miles from the front lines, the city zoo is packed with families on the weekends. At night, teenagers do tricks on their BMX bikes in the concrete plaza in front of the Kharkiv Theater of Opera and Ballet.
Hints of the war are woven into normal life like an off-colored thread.
Soldiers home on leave wear their uniforms around town. Recruiting booths for the regular army and different volunteer battalions are common sights in parks and town squares. At the Lviv train station, families and friends gather on the platform to cheer those returning from the front. Two soldiers who step off the train together smile awkwardly to the adoring crowd and then turn to each other, nod and silently shake hands goodbye.
Other reminders of the war are both subtle and ubiquitous, mainly reflecting Ukraine’s newfound patriotism instead of a shared sense of suffering or sacrifice.
Bars and restaurants across the country offer discounts to soldiers and veterans. Yellow and blue Ukrainian flags and the red and black Ukrainian partisan flags hang from apartment balconies and from the rearview mirrors in taxis. Many women have yellow and blue ribbons tied to the straps of their purses. Street vendors sell rolls of toilet paper adorned with Vladimir Putin’s likeness.
On Ukrainian TV, there is a commercial—reminiscent of a Budweiser commercial that aired in the U.S.—of Ukrainian soldiers walking through a train station. The civilians in the hall begin, one by one, to stand and clap. At the end of the spot, one soldier looks back, forces an embarrassed smile and nods.
“Many soldiers feel lost when they come home, and it doesn’t help that they’re put on a pedestal,” said Roman Torgovitsky, a Harvard-trained biomedical scientist and the founder and president of Wounded Warrior Ukraine. “Hero can be a dangerous word because it prevents people from connecting.”
Torgovitsky created Wounded Warrior Ukraine in February 2015 to train a corps of military medics, psychologists and civilians in how to treat combat-induced psychological shock and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The organization is set to graduate its first 20 participants, and plans to educate 500 in its first year.
A Warrior Class
Despite Ukraine’s patriotism, which many say is something new after the 2014 revolution, many men and women who have experienced the war firsthand struggle to find their footing when they return to civilian life.
“You can’t understand the soldiers unless you’ve been there,” Torgovitsky said.
“You come back, but you don’t come back,” said Ditte Marcher, a therapist who developed a program to treat Danish soldiers returning from Afghanistan and is head of training for Wounded Warrior Ukraine. “You see people doing normal things and you wonder how others can feel any joy.”
While he was home, Bernatovich tried to rejoin the life he had left behind. He took his sons out to play Frisbee and for bike rides. He said his sons weren’t overtly emotional when they first saw him. But they wouldn’t let go of his hand while walking together, Bernatovich said, which is something they didn’t do before he left.
“For me it is still very difficult to be a good soldier and a good papa,” he said. “I know I’m different now.”
The war was always there while he was home, and random reminders of it returned his mind to the hell of artillery, snipers and tanks from which he had a six-day reprieve.
The family went to a waterpark, and as Bernatovich went down a slide, the rhythm of his body going over the plastic seams sounded like artillery explosions. He was back in the war, and he had a panic attack.
“Too much adrenaline,” he said later, shaking two clinched fists for emphasis.
In Pisky, Bernatovich slept on a mattress next to a half dozen other soldiers in the main room of the dank cellar in which they sheltered from artillery and tank fire. At night he would flip through family pictures on his old laptop.
Combined Russian-separatist forces routinely send reconnaissance squads across lines at night to kill and abduct Ukrainian soldiers. And so Konstantin kept his Kalashnikov assault rifle by his bed.
In bed with his wife in Kyiv, he would instinctively reach for his rifle in the night. “It’s very hard to sleep without my AK,” he said. “The AK saved my life, and now I don’t feel safe without it.”
The tandem existence of war and peace in Ukraine, sometimes only separated by a 10-minute car ride, leaves soldiers’ heads spinning. To some returning soldiers, people outside of the conflict areas seem ambivalent or unaware that the war is going on.
“They can see that the civilians don’t get them,” Torgovitsky said.
“It’s not the same with my civilian friends,” Bernatovich said. “They don’t understand what it’s like.”
While the coexistence of peace and war can strain soldiers’ relationships with friends and family on their return, some argue that the continuance of peacetime habits by those at home is necessary to both win the war and rehabilitate returning soldiers.
Roman Kulik, 23, is a journalist who recently volunteered for the Ukrainian army. He requested to be sent to Pisky with the 93rd Brigade. “There is war, and now if I call myself a man I must show it,” he said. “I must go and defend my home, my family and my country.”
“But it’s natural that civilians live their lives normally,” Kulik added. “Putin wants the Ukrainian people to live in fear, so I think it’s great that people go on and live their lives and help build our society to be better.”
For Torgovitsky, the coexistence of peace and war is essential for soldiers’ long-term psychological recovery, even though it can initially leave soldiers feeling out of place.
“There is no war here in Kyiv, and the fact that there is peace here provides an environment where the soldiers can regenerate themselves,” Torgovitsky said.
“But sometimes the soldiers get sick of the peaceful environment,” he added. “There is a lot of attraction in war. The soldiers have much closer relationships with friends, and there is a brotherhood. They find some meaning in war. And then you go back to Kyiv and people are more or less for themselves.”
While at home, some soldiers are consumed by thoughts of their comrades still in danger, making it difficult to reintegrate into life at home. “I like it at home,” Konstantin said. “But I’m always thinking about the guys. And when I think about them, my heart is filled with adrenaline, and I panic.”
Kulik said the war has affected his friends who have served in different ways. “Some of my friends say it’s hard to be a civilian now,” he said.
Kulik described one friend who served with the Kyivska Rus Battalion in the Debaltseve battle, in which retreating Ukrainian forces suffered heavy losses.
“When he came back, he was a bit angry toward people here in Kyiv who don’t want to be part of the war and who don’t want to give money to the army or read news from the front line,” Kulik said. “He saw many people die, and he saw many dead people. And it was difficult for him.”
Ukraine recently announced that it has 60,000 soldiers actively serving in the conflict areas, the highest at any point in the conflict, which has killed more than 7,000 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians and displaced about 1.3 million people.
There is no reliable data on the rates of PTSD among Ukrainian soldiers or on suicide rates, but those familiar with these issues say that anecdotal evidence points to high rates of psychological trauma. And with a lack of dedicated mental health professionals available to evaluate, treat and rehabilitate affected soldiers, the first line of treatment is often the family.
“When Ukrainian soldiers come home all they have are their families,” Kulik said.
One focus of Wounded Warrior Ukraine, Torgovitsky explained, is teaching families how to communicate with soldiers about their experiences.
“Working with families is essential, they have to learn how to relate to soldiers,” Torgovitsky said.
“It’s not only about telling somebody not to bug the soldier with questions,” he added. “It’s a different way of communicating and connecting. The families think the soldiers are the same, but they are no longer the same. And the family starts to bug them to know what happened and understand what the soldier went through. But soldiers are not ready to share their experiences right away.”
“I’m strong, but it’s very hard,” Zhanna Bernatovich said as she walked along the Obolon boardwalk. The conversation stopped as the group passed a volunteer battalion recruitment tent. Young men in shorts and T-shirts were talking with soldiers in uniform. There was a display of expended ordnance spread on the ground, and children were looking at it.
There was silence. After a few moments, Zhanna spoke. “There’s nothing romantic about war,” she said.