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"When an enemy comes to your city, to your country, and wants to kill your family, you have no choice but to go and defend them"

The mother of Danylo Sychev, who was killed in Donetsk region, talks about who her son was, what he fought for, and the dream that helps her come back to life today

He wrote poetry and was fond of photography. He received a law degree and worked as a barista. He loved to treat his family and friends to delicious coffee and give others moments of pleasure. He helped those in need. He loved people, he loved this world. He dreamed of opening his own coffee shop. But when on February 24, 2022, the first explosions of Russian bombs and missiles were heard in his native Mariupol, he did not hesitate to defend his city and country. He gave his life for Ukraine. On September 12, 2023, Danylo Sychev was killed in the battle of Andriivka in the Donetsk region. He was only 23 years old...

Only in November, the family was able to give the warrior a final send-off. His final resting place is at the military cemetery in Zhytomyr - next to his comrades who died defending the freedom and independence of Ukraine.

... A lamp is burning on Danylo's grave. It is lit by his mother. Mrs. Tetiana comes to her son every day. She shares her thoughts with him and feels his invisible support. She knows that her Danya continues to live in the hearts of those he loved. And that our Victory, which he dreamed of, believed in and so selflessly brought closer, will certainly come.

–  I am originally from the Zhytomyr region. After finishing school, I went to study in Kharkiv, then lived and worked in Mariupol for 42 years. It was there that I met my future husband. We got married and had 5 children - three wonderful sons and two daughters. We have five grandchildren," says Tetiana. "We were a happy family, living peacefully in our city until the war came.

My eldest son, Ihor, has devoted himself to serving people in need - the poor, orphans, and the homeless – since childhood. He read a story about Francis of Assisi and decided to become his follower. He studied at the seminary and was ordained a Catholic priest. During his studies, he had a break for four years - when the war in Donbas broke out, he volunteered and fought in the ATO. He said to me: "Mom, there is a war in our house. Someone has to leave our family to defend Ukraine."

The middle son, Volodymyr, loves to take care of someone. He dreamed of having a big family. But when he got married, God did not give him and his wife children for 12 years. They took care of orphans and worked at a Christian school. And then they became foster parents for 8 children in a family-type orphanage. The ninth child, a girl, was adopted a long time ago. She is an orphan, her mother died when Oksana was 4 years old, and her father was killed during the first shelling of Zhytomyr in February 2022.

Our eldest daughter now lives in Slovakia - she left there with her children at the beginning of the Russian invasion. The younger one, Lyuda, also went to Poland, together with her daughter Lizochka, but they returned. Now they live with us here in Zhytomyr.

And our youngest son, Daniel, defended his homeland from the first hours of the war.

How do you remember those first hours of the war in Mariupol?

– How can I put it into words when a rocket comes flying, falls literally a hundred meters away, and you see houses burning through the window? The dawn of February 24 suddenly turned into hell... We lived near the Azovstal plant, and the military unit of the Azov regiment was nearby. Everything around was exploding and burning. It was very scary. Events were developing too fast. We were hiding from the shelling in the cellar, in a concrete pit that had once been used to store potatoes. A guy with a disability, Danya, lived with us. He could not walk, he was a bedridden man. He was tall and stocky. We couldn't carry him back and forth, so we stayed together in that cold pit for 10 days. The windows in the house were blown out, there were bomb craters all around, the ground was shaking from the explosions. But God protected us... A priest we knew helped us move to the basement of a church in the center of Mariupol.

We saw everything... Bombs falling and destroying entire entrances... Burnt bodies... People came to our basement and told us how Russian planes were constantly dropping bombs on their houses, and there was simply no way to extinguish the fires... Yes, the Lord saved us. Everything burned down, only a small part of the house remained, under which was our basement. We survived 50 days of occupation in Mariupol. We survived by a miracle. We went through filtration: it was terrible. Dirt, sick people on mattresses who couldn't move... Disabled people, cripples... Young boys who were being tested for "loyalty" by the occupiers were being abused in the basement. All this happened before our eyes. We could talk about it for a long time, write whole novels. It was unbearable. Our city no longer exists.

But I was not afraid for myself. My biggest worries at that time were for my son, for our Danya.

Ms. Tetyana, you told us that Danylo went to the military registration and enlistment office on the first day of the war...

– Yes, for the last few months before the Russian invasion, Danya worked at Azovstal. He was on the night shift. He called me at dawn: "Mom, pack my things in Ihor's backpack, and have Dad bring it to the checkpoint. I'm going to the military enlistment office. - How? Why, son? - The war, mom.

He has never been registered for military service, never held a weapon in his hands. He has only shot at a shooting range once, and it was accurate. But this is a youthful hobby, like most boys. I cried and asked him, "Son, why are you leaving, stay, you're not a soldier. He left. But you know... When my son died, I started reading his correspondence on my phone. I don't think he was offended by me. Moreover, this correspondence was friendly, businesslike, and he didn't have a girlfriend. And here I am reading his conversation with a friend. He is also Daniel, 5 years younger, an orphan. My Danya took care of him, helped him get out of Mariupol and then move to Germany and settle there, and wanted to move his parents there as well, but it didn't work out... And this younger Danya writes to my son, who has just joined the 3rd Assault Brigade: "You are so brave, you will probably despise us now that we have left, that we are not fighting. But you understand that everyone has the right to choose, not everyone can fight..." 

And I was amazed when I read my son's answer: "You know, Danya... You can choose your friends, your girlfriend, you can decide whether to get married or not, to create your own family or not. In the end, everyone chooses whether to believe in God or not. But when your enemies come to your city to destroy it, to kill your family, you have no choice. I had to leave to protect them."

It is very difficult to read these lines...

I recognize my child in a new way now. When I re-read his poems, essays, and look at his photography, I discover my son.

What was he like?

– Danya was born when I was 40 years old. I had a difficult pregnancy and a difficult delivery. He was a hyperactive child. He was such a "motor", you know. Our neighbor used to tell me, laughing, that your boy had three constantly charged batteries. He didn't walk, he ran. He didn't ride a bike, he raced on it. He always had scratches, and we were constantly going with him to the pediatric surgery department to sew something up after his injuries. He was very, very mobile. When the teacher asked him to help hang the curtains on the windows in class, he did not jump down from the windowsill after finishing the job - he had to do a flip. He was very fond of making friends. With his older brother, Ihor, they were two soul mates who found each other. He shared his childhood secrets and poems with him. Dania was very vulnerable. He did not like evil. When I was reading him a fairy tale about Kolobok, he would ask: "Stop, don't say that! Kolobok is good, it's the evil fox, chase her away!" I was surprised, because I had read this fairy tale to many children, and no one reacted to the story like that.

When he grew a little older, he and Ihor read Tolkien's works together. And Danya would say the same thing: stop, don't continue, I don't believe it can be like this. Good people must live. He was very worried and cried bitterly for every positive character who died.

Sometimes I thought that he was looking for the wrong kind of friends. And then I realized that this is how he helps people who no one in this world needs: the abandoned, those who have no parents. This was revealed to me when Dani was 21 years old. And when I read his correspondence now, I am amazed at how much good my child has done in his short life. It's hard to talk about this, but... After his death, we found a handwritten note in which he asked us to take care of his friends. "If you are reading this, it means that I am dead. Please, do not forget to help them, I command you to remember this child..."  Some of them were sick, some were very young and lonely, and he thought about them even after his death.

When he found out that his friends' parents had not been evacuated from Mariupol and were in great need, he found channels through which he transferred his own money to them so that they could buy food. But he always asked them to say that the money was from their grandson or granddaughter...

I am reading my son's life story. And it amazes me. I come to his grave and say: son, I didn't know you, what you were like, I didn't know the depth of your heart, the depth of your thoughts that were in your writings, and the love you shared with people.

His comrades-in-arms are all older. Everyone talked about him - my younger brother Danya. At first he served in the Mariupol battalion, then, along with most of his unit, he moved to the Bakhmut terrorist defense. He was loved by both battalions. He could penetrate other people's problems. He could call his comrade's wife when he saw a difficult situation and ask her to call her husband and talk to him. He could encourage his comrade with a word. He always knew when someone's birthday was. The military girls who served with Dania would find bouquets of flowers on their pillows. They tell me about it now. They say he was the soul of the company.

And did he dream of having his own coffee shop?

– Yes, that was his love. He worked in a coffee shop, first in Boyarka in the Kyiv region, when he was studying in Kyiv. And it was the first coffee shop I ever visited in my life. I wasn't used to it somehow... I was always busy with household chores, children, work. And Danya said to me, "Mom, come on, it's really nice there, you'll like it. He would always make me a cappuccino, put a heart on top or decorate it with a flower... And then, when he returned to Mariupol, he also started working as a barista. And once he shared with me that he would like to have his own coffee shop. Even then, I wanted to support my son. But I didn't have the money, his salary was low. That's why he went to work at the factory to earn money for his own business.

Now I think that we will definitely make our son's dream come true. I don't quite know how yet, but it will be a coffee shop - a cozy place where those who need support can meet. War veterans. Those who are looking for a kindred spirit. That was our son - he wanted to embrace everyone. I want his dream to come true and help others.

And I want to thank God for the hands that supported us. Here, in Zhytomyr, where we arrived after escaping from the hell of Mariupol, the kind Smirnov family provided us with their home, where we are still living, absolutely free of charge. I would also like to thank Caritas-Spes Ukraine and Caritas Poland for their help. The support we received from the Family to Family project was life-saving for us. We escaped from Mariupol with nothing. We left in what we were wearing. I said, "Son, how are we going to go, where? Naked, without clothes, without housing, without money.  But the Lord supported and protected us through good people. Because God always works through people...

It's been two years since the war has been going on, since Ukraine has been fighting for its right to independence at great cost. How do you feel?

– War is terrible. It destroys homes, cities, and human worlds. War destroys entire generations of unborn people. There, in the cemetery where my son is buried, there are boys of 17 and 18 years old. I calculated that almost 75 percent of the dead are under 30 years old. Children, young people left without having their own children... This is the generation that was supposed to build a new life. And as we see today, the best people are leaving. Perhaps they laid the foundation for our victory. And this is what sustains us now.

Danya was a good warrior. A brave warrior. In August 2023, in one of the battles, he was wounded, his uniform burned. He did not tell us anything about his injury. He just asked us to raise money for new military clothes. He usually helped everyone himself, but this was the case when he asked for help. And he was able to buy a new uniform shortly before the last assault near Andriivka... On September 10, he took a photo of himself in the new uniform and sent it to us. I look at this picture... And the hit was in the head. And most likely, he died instantly. I want to believe that he was not in pain, that he did not understand anything... We were able to take our son's body only on the 50th day after his death.

You know... I have always been a pacifist. My son taught me with his life, with his actions, that evil must be fought. I am a deeply religious person. I don't remember what day it was after Dani's death, but I went to St. Sophia Cathedral in Zhytomyr, lit candles, and prayed.

And then... I lit a candle for the soul of the person who killed my son. I thought I wouldn't be able to do it. It happened involuntarily. And when I did it, I felt very light. I prayed for that soul, that the Lord, if possible, would grant him repentance and forgive him. Then I bought another candle and lit it for the Russians so that they would repent, and asked God to end the war. Then I went to a photo studio and had a portrait of Dani printed, where he is smiling. I came home and donated a very large sum of money to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. She said mentally, addressing the enemies, "Guys, I pray for your souls. But if you don't want to leave us alone and return to your home in good faith, then I'm sorry... My son said at the beginning of the war: we will defend ourselves. And we will continue the work of our son, we will defend our land as long as we live.

23 February 2024
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