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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A drone strike in Odesa shatters a family’s life

The grave of Anna Haidarzhy and her 4-month-old son, Tymofii, who were killed in a Russian drone attack on an apartment block in Odesa, Ukraine, March 19, 2024. A photograph taken by emergency workers of the mother and her son barely visible under a bloodstained blanket has been widely circulated in Ukraine and has been held up as a tragic symbol of the terrible toll exacted on civilians by Russia’s war. (Oksana Parafeniuk/The New York Times)

By Constant Méheut

In the photograph, Anna Haidarzhy and her 4-month-old son, Tymofii, are barely visible under the bloodstained blanket. They lie in the rubble, at the feet of rescue workers in black and fluorescent uniforms. Just two arms, one from the mother, 31, one from her son, can be seen sticking out of the blanket.

“It looked like they were saying goodbye,” one of the rescuers, Serhii Mudrenko, said of the image.

Their bodies were found in the smoking ruins of an apartment block hit in a Russian drone attack in March in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa that killed 12 people. The photograph, taken by Ukraine’s state emergency services, has circulated widely in Ukraine — and has been held up as a tragic symbol of the terrible toll exacted on civilians by Russia’s war.

Throughout the search, Serhii Haidarzhy, 32, Anna’s husband and Tymofii’s father, had stayed with the rescuers as they combed the debris. He had survived the strike with the couple’s 2-year-old daughter, Lizi, and was holding out for a miracle.

“I was hoping that Anichka would survive under the rubble,” Serhii Haidarzhy said, using her nickname.

The Haidarzhys had been married for more than three years. Friends and family said they were inseparable and acted like young lovers. He often brought his wife flowers, they said. He listed her number as “My love” on his cellphone. And when they could, the couple went on dates to enjoy sunsets along a nearby estuary.

“We savored every moment,” he said. “We were living life to the fullest.”

But now, standing near the destroyed building after hours of searching following the attack on March 2, he was realizing that this part of his life was over. Then a friend, who was also a rescuer, looked up at him from the rubble and took off his helmet. “I knew immediately,” Haidarzhy said.

His story is just one of the tragedies many Ukrainians have experienced since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022. Russian attacks have killed thousands of civilians, according to the United Nations — shattering dreams, devastating families, ending love stories.

An amateur photographer, he had extensively documented his family life on Instagram. The images now stand for what is lost: trips across Ukraine with his wife, family picnics on the Black Sea, watching Tymofii grow up.

He said he now had “to endure this loss, this grief” that countless other Ukrainians have grappled with, and the often unbearable questions that come with it: Why did the strike kill his wife and not him? How can he make Lizi understand that she will never see her mother and brother again?

“It’s very hard,” he said in an interview at his wife’s family home in the port city of Odesa, his eyes brimming with tears. “I still need some time to come to my senses.”

Haidarzhy met Anna at a Baptist summer camp in 2020 outside Odesa. She, the seventh child of a pastor with nine children, had a “zest for life” and a dazzling smile, he recalled.

“It’s love at first sight. You catch a glimpse of her, and you just know she’s the one,” he said. As the camp drew to a close, he sat down with her by a campfire and told her he liked her. “Next thing you know, we’re holding hands, just like that.”

Two weeks later, he proposed. Anna, a florist and decorator, designed the wedding ceremony, which took place in her father’s church in October 2020. They said “I do” under an arch of dried flowers, red roses and reeds she had picked herself. She had made her own dress.

“She could make something beautiful out of nothing,” said Nadiia Sidak, one of her sisters, and one of many in Odesa who described her as warm, generous and creative.

Lizi, a cheerful girl with curly blond hair, was born a year after the couple married. She has long struggled to fall asleep, her father said, and often asks him to stay by her side while she dozes off. Tymofii was born in October 2023.

By then, Russia’s war was well underway and Odesa, relatively unscathed at the start of the fighting, was under near-daily attack. Moscow was targeting the city’s port in an attempt to cut off sea exports, a lifeline for the Ukrainian economy.

The noise of Russia’s attack drones, which sound like flying lawn mowers, has become familiar to most Odesa residents.

On March 2, at around 1 a.m., a drone flew over the estuary, entered their neighborhood and crashed into their building, according to Lt. Col. Serhii Sudets, a member of the air defense units protecting Odesa.

That night, Lizi and her father had fallen asleep in her bedroom. Her mother was sleeping in the couple’s bedroom next door, holding Tymofii. That bedroom collapsed after the strike. But not Lizi’s.

“Out of nowhere, I hear this huge explosion,” Serhii Haidarzhy recalled. He woke up and rushed to the other bedroom. “I started shouting: ‘My love!’ But all I found was the door. Our bedroom was gone.”

Residents who survived the attack said they remembered seeing Haidarzhy pacing near the rubble and calling his wife’s phone, hoping for a miracle. Hours passed, but there was no sign of her.

Then, at 5:56 p.m., he received a notification from his cellphone company about the number he had been desperately trying to reach: “My love,” it read, “is back online.”

The rescuers had just uncovered her phone next to her body and Tymofii’s.

All of Haidarzhy’s attention is now focused on Lizi.

“Sometimes she asks where her mom and Tymosha are, and we tell her that they’re in heaven with Jesus,” he said, using a nickname for Tymofii. “Thank God she doesn’t understand, because it would be traumatic for the child.”

The deaths have stirred painful memories for Anna’s family. In 1968, during the Soviet Union’s repressive rule against religious groups, her grandfather, a Baptist pastor, was jailed for five years and then sent into exile in eastern Siberia. Her mother spent part of her childhood there.

Sitting around a table strewn with pastries and sandwiches on a recent afternoon, the family reflected on three generations oppressed or killed by Moscow. Mykola Sidak, Anna’s father, said the Kremlin was now trying to reassert its rule over Ukraine, “so that Russia can have everything from the USSR again.”

The family’s story and grief have resonated widely in Ukraine. On March 6, more than 700 people attended the funeral, which took place in the same church where the couple got married. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine was also expected to attend, the family said, but had to cancel after a Russian missile landed a few hundreds meters from him during a visit to Odesa that day, killing five people.

The sound of the missile explosion echoed through the funeral, startling the mourners.

Reflecting on his life during a separate memorial, Haidarzhy said, “Everything happened quickly for us.”

“I couldn’t believe I got married, had such a wonderful wife. Everybody asked me, ‘Can you believe it?’ I said ‘No.’ Then I couldn’t believe we had a child,” he said, referring to Tymofii. “And now, I can’t believe they’re no longer with us.”

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