Essays On War

Yevgenia Zavaliy. Love Always Wins

Love Always Wins

The war started on a Thursday, and yet on Tuesday, my friend and I had plans to attend first aid training, pack our bug-out bags, and arrange a meet-up point for evacuation to the west of Ukraine in case of an emergency. However, our training session was canceled, and instead of packing, I simply grabbed two passports and placed them in my bag. As it turned out, we never had to leave.

Reflecting on those days, it feels like I’m watching a movie. I remember walking down the city’s empty streets on that Saturday with a can of natural coffee that needed to be brewed in a cezve since there were no other options available. The shops were closed, and a fierce storm blew in from the sea. While I walked, I was texting with a friend from the Naval Forces, pondering how many landing ships Russia had, how many soldiers they could carry, and whether we could defend against them. I even asked my friend to let me know when the conflict would start, but he merely replied that I would hear it myself when it happened.

Later, I brought the coffee to the soldiers staying in my friend’s apartment. The apartment was beautifully decorated, with white furniture and floral curtains offering a stunning sea view.

The soldiers appeared as if they hadn’t slept in days, and a metallic scent permeated the air in the apartment. As I surveyed the room, I was drawn to the numerous weapons present, enough to cause severe damage to half the city but insufficient to prevent an amphibious landing. Among the arsenal sat a stunning porcelain plate filled with grenades, not pomegranates. Meanwhile, a pot of borsch bubbled away on the stove. When I handed over the keys on the 24th, I didn’t bother asking for the brigade number, names, or callsigns. Though we were not acquainted then, the volunteers and I would later refer to each other as „relatives“ in our correspondence, keeping our relationship secret. We would break bread together on Easter, share news from the front, and celebrate our victories. Eventually, on a summer day, I would stand alone in the empty apartment clutching the keys, knowing that my city was now secure, Snake Island had been returned, and the Russian fleet was all but destroyed. However, until that moment, there was still much to endure.

„Do you like green tea?“ one soldier asked me. For a second I remembered that I should have been somewhere near Lviv, and not waiting for the amphibious landing on the Odesa coast and having social conversations with strangers in uniform. Walkie-talkies came to life, equipment flashed, I heard someone on the phone giving instructions to relatives who had already fallen under the occupation: „Go bury my uniform and medals.“ They asked me what was happening in the city. „How don’t you know that?“. 

„We are here for the first time, we were sent to stop the landing party.“ I understood that one mustn’t ask unnecessary questions, I knew that there, outside the window, a line of defense was being built, albeit chaotically and hastily, but we were not surrendering, and would not be given up, as we had thought before the war. They protected us and were ready to die for us. From that moment on, I forgot that I was going somewhere. „The military needs the support of civilians, someone has to stay,“ I thought.

During one of the war’s early, endless nights, intelligence warned that the landing party would strike somewhere close to us. My relatives left a message that they would leave the key in the lock for their dog. „When will you return?“ I inquired. „It’s unlikely anyone will make it back,“ they replied. „Hardly anyone will survive,“ I thought. That night, I remained awake, fully dressed and packed, waiting. As dawn broke, the landing party had yet to make their move. A text message arrived: „We’re staying put for now.“

It wasn’t until much later, after Bucha and the liberation of the Kyiv region, that it hit us — we in Odesa had narrowly escaped disaster. If the landing party had come ashore during those early days before the coast was mined, territorial defenses had been established, weapons were distributed, or the authorities had chosen sides, when small groups of marines and civilians were the only ones defending the coast… If Mykolayiv hadn’t put up a fight… If the weather had been more favorable… So many ifs. Now, we know for certain that not all of us would have survived under occupation.

Initially, the situation felt unreal, like some game of war played out to the sound of air sirens. But the war was real, and missiles, drones, and aircraft flew overhead daily. We heard explosions from land, sea, and air until we grew accustomed to them. Eventually, those who remained accepted the reality of living in historical times, witnessing history unfold from their windows.

The military taught me to be patient, wait for the right moment, believe in victory, and channel my anger into something productive. I discovered the importance of persevering through seemingly hopeless situations. One day, while helping people escape Kherson, one of our relatives coined the slogan for this war: „Help someone within your reach, and they will help someone else tomorrow. This chain of aid will never be broken, and in the end, we will emerge victorious.“ Throughout these months, I witnessed incredible acts of courage and resilience: refugees escaping, prisoners returning despite the odds, soldiers breaking free from encirclement, and wounded individuals making a full recovery. However, I also bore witness to immense sorrow, more than I had ever seen in my peaceful life. Do you remember when the world wrote off our nation, giving us only three days? Then, I began keeping a war diary, counting the days: fourth, fifth, sixth… Miraculously, we withstood the first onslaught, and while wounded and exhausted, we remained resilient. „We’re withstanding,“ I found myself repeating often.

When we speak of war, we are really speaking of love. Every action taken since February 24 has been motivated by love for our land, our people, and everything Ukrainian — from the delicate letter „ї“ to our favorite rock anthems. Love takes the form of filling parcels with sweets and coffee for those on the front lines. It involves making regular donations to both the Armed Forces and refugees. It is hugging strangers simply because they are fellow Ukrainians. Love is carrying out our daily work with honesty and integrity, shedding tears of both pain and joy with one another. It is watching the faces of those released from captivity on video. Nine months of war is equal to nine months of love. As I write these words, my relatives are liberating Kherson. They call once a week or leave voicemails, assuring me that everything is under control. Tears well up in my eyes as I watch the liberation of our people from occupation, seeing them unearth hidden Ukrainian flags, cook borscht and stuffed buns, and run to embrace the military. Love will always emerge victorious.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan