All Daniel Klymenko wanted for his seventh birthday on Saturday was to see his father.
Daniel knew it was a lot to hope for. His dad, Dmytro Klymenko, is serving with the Ukrainian army outside Kharkiv in the eastern part of the country as a lieutenant-colonel, leading a battle-hardened group of combat engineers. Daniel lives more than 1,300 kilometres away in a Warsaw suburb with his mother, Ludmila, and his 20-year-old sister, Valeria.
The family has been separated since the early days of Russia’s invasion. They had to flee their ninth-floor apartment in Zhytomyr, a city in northern Ukraine, when the first bombs struck on Feb. 24, 2022. Lt.-Col Klymenko helped his family get to safety in Poland and then rejoined his unit. Since then, Daniel had only seen his father once, when he made a five-day visit last December.
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Ms. Klymenko wasn’t sure her husband would be able to get a temporary leave again so soon – not with Russian forces intensifying their attacks along the front line and Ukrainian soldiers digging in for a potential major offensive. She knew Lt.-Col Klymenko had asked to travel to Poland to be with Daniel on his birthday, but she didn’t want to get her son’s hopes up.
And yet somehow, Daniel got his wish.
Last week Lt.-Col Klymenko’s commanding officer approved his request for a week-long visit. He jumped on a bus and made the 17-hour journey from Kharkiv to Warsaw, arriving at the family’s two-room apartment late Thursday afternoon.
“I could see him jumping up and down from the window when the taxi pulled up,” Lt.-Col Klymenko, 44, recalled Saturday, as the family shared birthday cake. “It’s amazing to be here. I can’t believe it.”
Ms. Klymenko, 42, said Daniel and his father have shared one room together, and for the first time in months the boy slept soundly.
“He wasn’t nervous or scared about the war, he just went to sleep,” she said with a smile.
They haven’t made a lot of plans for the few days they have together. Daniel wants to go to a local trampoline centre, and Valeria is eager to go to a restaurant for dinner. Ms. Klymenko is content just to enjoy each other’s company.
“Each minute we spend together is happiness,” Lt.-Col Klymenko said.
While he’s overjoyed to be with his wife and children, Lt.-Col Klymenko can’t leave the battlefield fully behind. He checks his phone constantly for updates from his battalion, and he fretted when a message came through that indicated there could be a problem.
“I called and they said ‘Everything is fine. Be with your son.’ … But I still find it hard to adjust to civilian life.”
He’s been a career soldier for 25 years, following the footsteps of his grandfather whom he idolized. He retired three years ago after a series of concussions and got into the logistics business. Before Russia’s invasion, he had plans to open a customs clearance centre in Zhytomyr. But the outbreak of full-scale war compelled him to return to active service.
He hopes the war will end this year with a Ukrainian victory and that he’ll be able to quit the army for good.
“I will become a civilian again and pack up all my military career in a box,” he said. And then he and the family will take a long holiday on a tropical island somewhere “and put all this behind us.”
For the next few days, though, they will be a family again. He’ll joke with his daughter about who speaks better English and listen to her dreams of becoming a photographer, and her request for a camera. He’ll play-box with Daniel, watch him ride his Spider-Man skateboard and spend hours going head-to-head on a small foosball game he got for his birthday. And he’ll hold Ms. Klymenko like never before.
“I am not crying,” he said, looking away briefly as tears welled up in his eyes. “I am smiling.”