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The making of a young Hero of Ukraine

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Image source, BBC/ Quentin Sommerville

This is a war where Ukrainian fathers and sons serve on the same frontlines. And this was how it was for 22-year-old Eugene Gromadskyi – at least at the very beginning.

On the first day of the invasion, he stood shoulder to shoulder with his father Oleg on the outskirts of Kharkiv, as column after column of Russian men and armoured vehicles sought to capture their city.

In those crucial first hours he was in command of a unit, which, outnumbered and outgunned, attacked and destroyed Russian vehicle columns and captured prisoners. For this, Eugene would earn the country’s highest military honour. His father would face a different fate.

Eugene has been in the thick of it for almost the entire war. He started out as a lieutenant in the National Guard, now he’s a senior lieutenant in the army’s 92nd Mechanized Brigade, which is named after Ivan Sirko, a 17th Century Cossack military leader. The intelligence platoon Eugene commands describe themselves as Sirko’s Rowdy Boys – their motto is “Revenge for all”. “They are my family,” he tells me

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It is a December morning in Kupyiansk, some 120km (75 miles) south-east of Kharkiv, and the temperature is -7C, even before the howling wind hits you and finds its way into every inch of loose clothing or exposed skin. It is mostly open ground – there is no cover from the wind, nor from the Russians who in places are within rifle range. Lines of trees, which in the summer provided camouflage, are now stark and bare. There is nowhere to hide.

But Eugene glows with vitality. He explains that the early days of the war were frustrating. Ukrainian forces took back a village or two, there was little momentum. They were on the defensive and under-prepared, then a summer stalemate set in. But in September, a coordinated counter-offensive began, starting from Balakliya and going all the way down to Kupyiansk.

Eugene was awarded the country's top military honour by President Zelensky

Ukraine’s growing military confidence, and Eugene’s are inseparable.

I first met him in early March. He had recently graduated from university and was full of courage but fresh to conflict and on the defensive. What he didn’t tell me at the time was how he and his comrades under his command had captured the Russian prisoners. His bravery a matter for record, he was later awarded the country’s top military honour, Hero of Ukraine, Order of the Gold Star.

Eugene has countless missions under his belt, and like the landscape around him, bears the scarred lessons of conflict.

War toughens the heart, and death is its companion. Eugene has lost many men close to him, so I ask, given the high casualty rate – Ukraine says 13,000 of its soldiers have been killed so far in the war – does he fear death?

“Death is one of [war’s] problems. Death loves brave ones. And courage must be used cleverly. There is no need to be afraid of death,” he says. But he reconsiders for a moment, and continues: “The person who is not afraid is already dead… I don’t think about mortality, I think only about life, about life of my comrades and the life of my unit.”

We ride inside one of his platoon’s armoured personnel carriers (APC). The noise is deafening, even before its 30mm cannon opens fire on some farm buildings where they suspect Russians are hiding. Condensation drips from the metal roof, two dim lights emit a pale-green glow, and the vehicle’s eight, sturdy wheels slip and slide through the mud, swaying us from side to side. I feel as if I’m in a submarine.

Eugene stands in front of the APC

Image source, BBC/ QUENTIN SOMMERVILLE

Above the din, Eugene explains why the September operation was key: “It was really important for the boys that we were able to accomplish a counter-offensive. Everyone was very motivated, they were taking back their own territory, taking back homes of their own families. It was really needed.” As if to underscore this point, in the front seat of the APC is Sasha. He only recently joined the platoon after his village was liberated from the Russians.

A black-and-white targeting screen offers the only view of the road ahead. It is a quagmire – there are few obstacles as fiendish, or varied, as Ukrainian mud. One moment it’s a deep, sucking soup, the next a thick putty clogging machinery, weighing down boots, and gumming up everything. We drive past one soldier who is hammering frozen chunks of it off his stranded truck with a mallet.

Small wonder, then, that in these conditions, and in the face of stiff resistance from enemy forces, the counter-offensive is bogged down here. And so are we – the APC can go no further. It doesn’t pay to be trapped out here in open ground, so we turn around. Days later another Ukrainian vehicle would become stuck at the same spot. A Russian helicopter attacked, causing significant casualties.

Inside the APC, despite the din, Eugene falls into a deep sleep. He had only two hours rest the night before, and he remains sound asleep until the vehicle makes it back to base and the heavy steel handle by his ear clunks open.

The unit, which has its own Instagram page, is crammed into a few rooms in an abandoned house. A huge pot filled with potatoes and pork sits atop a wood-burning stove. Eugene eats standing.

Map of the Ukraine

The counter-offensive has taken its toll on Ukrainian equipment and men along this front. A punishing winter lies ahead. But Eugene, as ever, is optimistic.

“I think it will be very difficult, but we will manage,” he says. “Our reserves of troops are growing, the ones who were getting trained abroad. They will be additional reserves, additional forces who will help us with further offensives. For now, there are difficulties especially with the weather. But it doesn’t stop us because we are taking back our land step by step, corner by corner.”

Short presentational grey line

Ukraine’s defence had an improvised and precarious feel at the start. The country was underprepared. Before the invasion President Zelensky had dismissed talk of war, saying that the country should keep calm, it would celebrate Easter in April and come May, the country would be occupied with sun, holidays and BBQs, not war.

A week into the war Kharkiv was still in turmoil. At a marshalling point on the city’s eastern edge, busloads of reinforcements arrived then quickly disappeared again, pushed forward to halt the Russians who were still trying to force their way into the city. It was freezing cold, but the air was electric with a desperate, hurried energy. But the lieutenant was coolheaded, “Call me Eugene,” he said, in English, with a smile.

Eugene when the BBC first met him in March

Image source, BBC/ DARREN CONWAY

I saw a very young man – surely too young to be in command – who like his country was battling against the odds in a war with Russia. He lacked a winter uniform and army boots, instead he was wearing trainers. “I can move fast in these,” he joked.

We jumped into one of the few armoured vehicles around and headed to the front, a fur Russian army hat, from a captured soldier, swinging from the ceiling as we bumped along rutted, snow-covered roads.

The snows thawed, spring became summer, and Ukraine held on. Eugene and I kept in touch, and he would send videos of him and his men in battle. In one, he’s smiling broadly while riding atop a tank. We met again in late April on a warm afternoon in Kharkiv. There had been no holidays nor BBQs for him.

He was still fighting, though now well beyond the city limits. His uniform was filthy, and he stayed only a short while, before heading back to the front. A patch on his uniform read, “Stop: no touch, no talk, no eye contact”.

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He was in good spirits, grinning as ever. And despite the hardships of battle, he was clearly in his element. He still believed Ukraine could win. By then Russia’s military inadequacies had been exposed and western military aid was beginning to make a difference, though a large-scale push against the invading Russian forces still hadn’t happened. There were questions over whether it ever would.

Short presentational grey line

Eugene Gromadskyi needs little reminder of what Russian aggression has cost him – it’s there every time he looks in the mirror. On the left side of his face a deep red scar is still healing.

We had lost touch in May. It’s not unusual for soldiers to go offline, but 10 days went by and still he was out of reach. Eventually, he reappeared and sent a selfie as way of an explanation. He was in hospital, his face swollen and barely recognisable. It looks like he is trying to smile, but he can’t, so instead gives a defiant hand gesture.

At the Kupyiansk front, he told me what had happened. “Me and my comrade were on a combat mission,” he explains.

“We came under fire and a shell exploded near me and shrapnel hit my face, near my lip and apparently came out at my temple. [In hospital] an operation was performed, I was put back together, they didn’t need to use metal plates.”

Eugene's face is now scarred

Image source, BBC / DARREN CONWAY

He checked himself out of hospital after only 10 days and returned to the front with a broken jaw. “It wasn’t nice,” he says and smiles broadly.

But Eugene had suffered an even greater wound on the first day of the war.

In the early hours of 24 February, he had been commanding a small unit of National Guardsmen in the village of Pyatikhatky, when he was joined by his father, Oleg.

Oleg had been asleep in the family apartment on the edge of Kharkiv when he was awoken by his wife Natalia, who said she could hear Russian Grads nearby. The former army officer had trained hundreds of young recruits in battlefield care, so she knew her artillery.

Duty and service to their country runs through the veins and history of the family – seven generations have served in the Ukrainian and Soviet military. Ukraine was under attack, and Oleg, an army veteran who had retired at the rank of Colonel, would answer the call.

A photo of Eugene with his father

Image source, BBC / DARREN CONWAY

He posted a message on Facebook, rallying friends and former servicemen to gather weapons and equipment to defend the city, and went to join his son.

Some Russian forces had already made it into Kharkiv but were driven back. The fighting was intense – Oleg manned a machine gun, while his son gave support with an automatic grenade launcher. They were outgunned and had to retreat. Oleg stayed behind to gather weapons, and father and son planned to regroup further back. But as he left his position, Oleg’s car was caught in a rocket attack.

He was killed instantly.

Natalia had been sheltering in a city metro station, when she was told her husband had died. During breaks in the shelling, she headed to the area where she had been told Oleg had been killed. She discovered his body on the city’s outskirts.

Eugene's mother Natalia

Image source, BBC / DARREN CONWAY

“I picked up my husband and took him to morgue. It was just me and him. I said goodbye over there. I conducted a body examination to make sure it was him.”

Eugene was in the midst of battle when he learned of his father’s death. He would later return home and bury Oleg alone. But for the moment, he set aside grief and took charge of another combat unit of 20 men. Cut off from their command, they destroyed more Russian vehicles, killing and capturing enemy soldiers.

“To this day, [my father’s] friends and comrades who served with him write to me,” Eugene tells me. “They say, ‘We are proud we served with your father because he was a man of honour and as he said, so he did.’ He always kept his officer’s word.”

On 24 September, at a ceremony in Kyiv, President Zelensky, made Eugene a Hero of Ukraine, bestowing on him the country’s highest military order for bravery in the early defence of Kharkiv. His father’s close friend, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander in chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, looked on as he received his medals.

Eugene was so nervous he forgot his own name.

In this country of 44 million people, only 652 have received the medal since the honour was created in 1998.

Eugene’s medals now sit in a suitcase in the family apartment. Shortly after Oleg died, Natalia left Kharkiv as Russian attacks intensified. She returned in the early summer, but precious items remain packed, ready for her to leave again if necessary.

Natalia’s kitchen is full of home-made Christmas decorations, and an 11-year-old Pekingese Businka is at her feet. It is dark – there is no power, no water or light, because of Russia’s ongoing missile attacks.

She tells me how much she misses Oleg. “He was a patriot. He is a real patriot of our country. A Ukrainian. Fun, friendly, people loved him a lot,” she says. The couple were about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary when he was killed.

I ask Natalia if she ever imagined she would have to sacrifice so much. “I gave my husband; my son is there. And I devoted my youth to Ukraine as well – to my country.”

She makes me tea and serves homemade cookies, and tells me that I should visit again.

“When did you last see Eugene,” I ask. She looks towards the door, remembering – perhaps expecting. “A month ago,” she replies, “for two minutes at the door,” and she starts to cry.

The following day I am travelling back to the front, and so I ask Natalia if there is anything I could take to her son – even just a message.

She wipes away a tear, and says, “My son, you should know that I’m always waiting for you. Always. In any weather, any time, day or night.” She pauses, then insists she will wait, “until victory, only with victory”.

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