The last thing that comes to mind when you look at the happy spouses – Roman and Yuliia – is that they had to go through more than a year of war, months of separation and anticipation. Probably, a narration about each of them is worthy of an individual report, but their story is inextricably intertwined. It is about unfailing love, understanding and mutual aid which kept Roman alive and helped Yulia to wait for his return. Today, they are building their own sustainable business and continue to help the army.
Musician and ATO veteran Roman Nabozhniak invites us into his flat on the fifteenth floor of a residential building in one of the residential districts in Kyiv. In the small but light kitchen we are greeted with a box of branded dessert Veterano Brauni – the brand which was founded by Roman and his wife after his return from the east of Ukraine.
“Yulia is on her way home, she will be here soon”, - he explains the absence of his sweetheart.
While Roman brews flavored coffee, he tells us about his life before the war and his reasons for becoming a serviceman.
“Before the war I was in the music industry, I was a vocalist and played the bass clarinet in the DVIZH PARIZH band. During my service in the Armed Forces of Ukraine the band stopped performing so I am currently looking for new musicians as I want to re-start the project. In addition, I worked for a computer enterprise, my salary was in dollars so I could afford a comfortable lifestyle”, – the guy tells us.
Roman was mobilized; he joined the war during the last wave of mobilization – the sixth one. Confessedly, several stages preceded this decision.
“When Maidan started, I was one of the participants of the student movement, we planned protest campaigns in one of the flats in Kyiv. I clearly remember when on the third day, deprived of sleep, I realized one thing – we would not be able to beat the regime if we were not ready to die for our beliefs. That’s when I honestly admitted to myself that I was not ready. This was the principal trigger why I did not join the first and second wave of mobilization. It all changed in August of 2014, when the Ilovaisk tragedy occurred. At that moment, I comprehended for the first time that the war would not end soon. A group of guys and I started combat training. In the course of these trainings I met active warriors of the “Aidar” battalion for the first time and I began supporting them financially. However, with time I understood that this was not enough. In the winter of 2015, in the course of Debaltsevo events, I woke up with a pressing awareness that I would not be able to remain here anymore”, - the ex-serviceman tells us.
Then came the training course of Pravyi sektor (Right sector) in Desna, a short course “Protection of Patriots” and driving school. Time passed, but I was still not part of an active combat unit.
“In July, through an acquaintance among the Aidar servicemen, I made an attempt to get into the Taifun unit of the 80th brigade. During service at the beginning of September of 2015 I found out that he was killed and although I did not know Volodymyr personally, the news came as a blow to me. It was my first close encounter with death during the war. Finally, in August of 2015 I joined the war as a gunner”, - the former serviceman says.
He served in one of the separate reconnaissance battalions in Donbas. The operations were carried out in the direction of Mariupol (on the Chermalyk-Shyrokino line) and in the direction of Luhansk (in the area of Stanytsia Luhanska). The ex-serviceman does not go into details - the 14 months of service on the specific position left a trace.
“I tried not to communicate with the local population. First of all, we often passed off as personnel of a maintenance unit, and we were even forbidden to wear chevrons, because we were reconnaissance men. The tasks varied: from everyday duties on the posts and digging trenches to conducting reconnaissance raids, fire attack as well as taking targets in “buffer zone” under control. However, our key task was to collect information”, – he says and adds that he is still alive thanks to his platoon leader, who did not send his personnel to meet death.
“Everything that we did was planned to the last detail and drilled to perfection – everyone received clear orders, maps, plan A, plan B”.
Roman remembers a particularly formidable task.
“I became aware of my fear only on the following day, when everything was over. It was a task in the “buffer zone” in the Mariupol direction. There was an operation which should have been very quiet and smooth. We had three days and nights to secure the area square by square and then enter the settlement. We carried out the operation for two days, and on the third day we came very close to the positions where the militants kept their defence line. We were discovered, and the enemy opened fire from machine-guns and automatic grenade launchers. We lay right in the middle of field and could not move until our overwatching team opened fire. We survived but the next day we were sitting together with the warriors and came to realize that we escaped death. That night, the militants entered the settlement - which had been our objective - on vehicles and started to entrench themselves immediately, to accommodate strong points”, - Roman recalls.
He speaks about the war with a smile, trying not to focus on recollections. With the same smile Nabozhniak recalls his leaves – he spent each one with his girl-friend Yulia. She is the one who tried to keep him busy and to distract him from mental pain. Several days prior to New Year’s Eve, while being on leave at the top of the Carpathian mountains, Roman asked for Yulia’s hand in marriage.
“I felt that there was no point in lingering. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this woman, why wait?” – he explains. During one of the next leaves of the ATO warrior – in August of 2016 – the couple was married, and in October 15, 2016, Roman was demobilized.
“When I came back, I went through a medical examination; I had sessions with a psychologist. It was my decision too. In the early days we would sleep at home with the lights on, because if I fell asleep in the dark, I would wake up at 2.00 a. m. to take up duty.
I had tumultuous dreams. I still have dreams about the war, although they are less frequent now. I see shellings. Recently, I dreamed that I was kicking out somebody’s teeth”, – the guy says.
I ask him how he changed.
“My hair is becoming grey. After demobilization I decided that I would not risk my life without a good cause”, - Roman replies with a joke and adds: “You’d better ask Yulia about the internal changes that occurred”.
We hear a knock at the door and Yulia appears in the doorway. While Roman helps his wife with her coat she apologizes for arriving late and joins our conversation.
“A different man returned, I do not deny this. Grey haired, at the very least. But several key principles and views, which were important to me, remain the same. Of course, after the war you become abrupt, tough but these are not the scariest changes”, - Yulia shares her impressions with us.
She is a photojournalist and stage director. Her debut documental film “See you soon”, according to the author, is the result of inner turmoil, sublimation of anxiety about her significant other and it helped her to go through more than year of anticipation.
“I couldn’t describe my inner state with words. That is why I wanted to express it in a non-verbal manner, but the format of photo-history did not exactly depict everything that was going on in our lives. I decided to make a documental film – it became therapy, for that reason I perceived this film as a work project. For example, the video footage shows touching moments from our lives but, above all, it is a compilation of material which I had to work with”, - Yulia says.
Meanwhile, Roman is already making a meal in the kitchen as if guessing his wife’s wishes. In a few minutes, pieces of home-made Brauni with Georgian cobnut pieces appear on the table. A scoop of ice-cream is on top of the slightly warm dessert.
I ask the couple about the business they began after travelling to Nepal: it was there that they remembered their long-forgotten dream of setting up a private business. The idea of making Brauni emerged gradually. At first, Roman wanted to treat his friends to a tasty dish. Then one his friends suggested that they start selling desserts. It is interesting that in their business tandem Roman is fully involved in the manufacturing process and improvement of the flavors, he is engaged in the business-planning process and strategy of business development. Yulia is in charge of the project’s content, marketing and promo.
“I insisted that it was a story about Veterano (Veterano Group enterprise is a united chain of pizza places and coffee houses founded by ATO veterans – ed.). It was very important to demonstrate the importance of and capacity to adapt on my own example. Coming back from the war is not the end, perhaps it is the beginning of something new. I apprehended that having come back, I could not abstract my mind from the war. Nowadays, I am an integral part of the veteran association, I want to continue helping all those who are currently fighting, and those who have lost their relatives, because it is the story about mutual aid”, - Roman explains, meaning that among the conditions for joining the Veterano family are: the presence of a full-time psychologist in the enterprise and transferring 10 % of revenue to the families of perished in ATO servicemen.
Yulia notes: if it were not for the war, they would not be in this line of business, and it definitely would not be Veterano Brauni.
Meanwhile, the delicious desserts have been eaten and the pleasant conversation is coming to an end. I am wondering how the values of Roman and Yulia changed during the time of war.
“Many things lost meaning. I cease to understand why people row, what is the point of doing so”, - former serviceman says without hesitation.
“In my opinion, both Roman and I stopped fussing about things that don’t matter. There is life, there is death, and there are the both of us - two people who love each other. Everything else is merely circumstances that can be changed. We began to see everything in a positive light. We find it easier to let go of things that do not fit into our paradigm of values”, - Yulia continues her husband’s thought.
“We have a lot of plans. We paid a hefty price for me to be here. But we both understand that the war is not over yet”, - Roman summarizes and embraces his significant other.
The interview was conducted by: Tanya Gabedava
Photo: Olena Belous and from the archives of Yuliyia and Roman
“Come back alive” project