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When war with Russia broke out, Dmytro Klymenko rejoined the military while his wife, Ludmila, and their children escaped. A year later, they long for peace

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Ludmila Klymenko lives in Poland with her children, Valeria and Daniel. Her husband, Lieutenant-Colonel Dmytro Klymenko, is serving with the Ukrainian army near Kharkiv.Anna Liminowicz and Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Ludmila Klymenko can still vividly recall the roar of the fighter jet that woke her up just after 5 a.m. on Feb. 24, 2022.

Petrified, she roused her husband, Dmytro, a military veteran who knew instinctively that Russia’s invasion had begun. He told his wife and two children – 19-year-old Valeria and five-year-old Daniel – to pack whatever they could and be ready to leave in 15 minutes. The family’s ninth-floor apartment in Zhytomyr wasn’t far from the military base outside the city in northern Ukraine, and he knew it wasn’t safe.

They headed to the centre of town to stay with Ms. Klymenko’s mother. On March 2, Ms. Klymenko and the children drove with a friend to western Ukraine and on to Krakow, Poland, before finally settling in Warsaw. Dmytro Klymenko rejoined the military and is now serving as a lieutenant-colonel near Kharkiv.

Like millions of Ukrainian families, the Klymenkos have been living apart for the past year, keeping in touch through phone calls and texts, not knowing when they’ll be reunited for good. While both parents have tried to offer reassurances and hope to their children, the stress, the worry and the longing never go away. “Each morning I check for a message to know if he is alive or dead,” Ms. Klymenko said. “Every mother, every wife dreams that their family will be together again.”

Daniel feels the absence of his father intensely, she added. “When Daniel goes to bed every night he asks me: ‘Is our dad safe? Will the bombs not hit him?’ I tell him, ‘Our dad is strong and he stays safe.’”

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Being apart from Daniel and his family is difficult for Lt.-Col. Klymenko, but he felt the war left him no option but to stay and fight.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

In the first few days of the war, Lt.-Col. Klymenko couldn’t sleep because he was so worried for his family. He spent his nights crouched by an open window, listening for any sounds of approaching trouble. But he also felt an obligation to report for military service.

He’d been in the army for 25 years as a sapper – a combat engineer – following in the footsteps of his grandfather, whom he idolized. He met Ms. Klymenko at a birthday party 17 years ago, on a rare night off from active duty.

A series of concussions forced him to retire from the military three years ago, and he went to work for a logistics business in Zhytomyr. Before the war he had dreams of opening a customs clearing centre. Everything changed when the first missiles struck last year.

“I couldn’t leave my family alone. But I also know that I have the skills to protect the whole country, and making the right choice – for me, it was so hard,” he said.

Once he knew his family was in Poland, he felt ready to fight. “I’m safe in my thoughts because they are abroad and nothing can happen to them. So I can put all my attention on the military,” he said.

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The Klymenkos live in a two-bedroom apartment in Lomianki, where Daniel has made a few friends and is studying at a local school. His sister is finishing her postsecondary studies online; his mother works as a hairdresser.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Within days of reporting for duty, Lt.-Col. Klymenko and his unit were sent toward the front line in northern Ukraine, where they built new fortifications to slow the initial Russian advance on Kyiv.

After Russia’s sudden withdrawal from the capital region last spring, he and his fellow sappers helped clear the newly liberated region of mines and booby traps. His work in Kharkiv this week involved building a new defence line along the northeastern border with Russia.

In Warsaw, Ms. Klymenko has tried to provide some stability for the children. She found a two-room apartment and got a job as a hairdresser. Daniel has been enrolled at the local school, plays soccer and has made a few friends. Valeria is finishing her degree in English and Spanish philology online and works occasionally as a cleaner. She hopes to be a translator one day.

In December, Lt.-Col. Klymenko managed to make a five-day visit to the tiny flat. “Daniel was crying, Momma was crying, everyone was crying,” Valeria recalled with a smile. “I said to Mom, ‘Now it’s not only Daniel in our flat, it’s two men in our flat.’”

Daniel wouldn’t let his father out of his sight, even after he fell ill and had to miss a couple of days of school. The father and son spent hours together, watching cartoons, playing with Daniel’s toys and just trying to be a family.

“I tried with all my thoughts to take his illness on to me,” Lt.-Col. Klymenko said.

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Ms. Klymenko has often asked her husband when she, Daniel and Valeria can safely return to Ukraine. The reply stays the same: Wait a while longer.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Daniel’s birthday is on Feb. 25. He’s not sure he’ll have a party but he dreams of sharing a cake with his father. “I miss him,” the boy said shyly as he thought about plans for the big day.

During their phone calls, Lt.-Col. Klymenko tries to offer his son encouragement and support. “You must understand, you are the man of the house now,” he tells him. “You should be brave. You should be strong.”

Ms. Klymenko asks her husband over and over: When will it be safe to return to Ukraine? The answer is always the same: not yet. “I tell them, ‘Don’t be in a hurry to come back to Ukraine. It’s not the right time right now.’ Because I have seen a little bit more than they have,” he said.

But Ms. Klymenko is worried about Daniel. He’s nervous sometimes and cries for his father. He’s also losing touch with his homeland and the language. Valeria tries to speak with him in Ukrainian as much as possible and reads Ukrainian books with him. But it’s hard when the boy spends most of his day speaking Polish at school and with friends. Ms. Klymenko is also more comfortable with Russian, although she is trying to speak the language less.

When they left Zhytomyr last March, she never imagined the family would still be separated almost a year later. She knows far too many Ukrainian women are in the same situation. “This year the wives and mothers, inside they feel older, wiser,” she said. “The most important thing in life is life.”

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