A drone attack in Odessa, Ukraine shatters a family's life

In the photograph, Anna Haidarzhy and her 4-month-old son, Tymofii, are barely visible under the blood-stained blanket. They lay among the rubble, at the feet of rescuers in black and fluorescent uniforms. Only two arms can be seen, one of the mother, 31 years old, and one of the son, protruding from 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 building hit by a Russian drone attack in March in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa that killed 12 people. THE photographytaken by Ukraine's state emergency services, it circulated widely in Ukraine and was seen as a tragic symbol of the terrible toll taken on civilians by the war in Russia.

Throughout the search, Serhii Haidarzhy, 32, Anna's husband and Tymofii's father, remained with rescuers as they cleared away the debris. He had survived the strike with the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Lizi, and was waiting for a miracle.

“I hoped that Anichka would survive under the rubble,” Mr. Haidarzhy said, using his nickname.

The Haidarzhys had been married for more than three years. Friends and relatives said they were inseparable and acted like young lovers. He often brought his wife flowers, they said. He listed his number as “My Love” on his cell phone. And when they could, the couple went out together 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 March 2 attack, he was realizing that part of his life was over. Then a friend, also a rescuer, looked at him from the rubble and took his helmet off. “I knew it right away,” Mr. Haidarzhy said.

His story is just one of the tragedies many Ukrainians have experienced since Russia's full-scale invasion began in February 2022. According to the United Nations, Russian attacks have killed thousands of civilians, shattered dreams, devastated families , putting an end to love stories.

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

He said he now has to “endure this loss, this pain” that countless other Ukrainians are grappling 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 difficult,” he said in an interview at his wife's family home in the port city of Odessa, his eyes filling with tears. “I still need some time to come to my senses.”

Mr Haidarzhy met Anna at a Baptist summer camp in 2020 outside Odessa. She, the seventh daughter of a pastor with nine children, had a “joie de vivre” and a bright smile, he recalled.

“It's love at first sight. You see a glimpse of her and you know she's the one,” he said. As camp drew to a close, he sat with her by a campfire and told her he liked her. “The next thing you know, we're holding hands, just Like this.”

Two weeks later, he proposed. Anna, a florist and decorator, created the wedding ceremony, which took place in her father's church in October 2020. They said “yes” under an arch of dried flowers, red roses and canes that she had collected herself. She had made her dress.

“She could create something beautiful out of nothing,” said Nadiia Sidak, one of her sisters, and one of many in Odessa who describe her as loving, generous and creative.

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

By then, the war with Russia was well underway, and Odessa, relatively unscathed when the fighting began, was under almost daily attack. Moscow was targeting the city's port in a bid to cut maritime exports, a lifeline for the Ukrainian economy.

The noise of Russian attack drones, which sound like flying lawnmowers, has become familiar to most Odessa residents.

However, the couple “tried to continue living the same way, enjoying life just like we always have,” Haidarzhy said. As the head of a company that produces airbags, he usually left for work early in the morning, but tried to return in the early afternoon to help his wife with the children, often with a bouquet of flowers in hand.

Whenever possible, they left Lizi and Tymofii with their family so they could walk together along an estuary near their home in northern Odessa.

On March 2, 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 Odessa .

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 in her arms. That room collapsed after the strike. But not Lizi's.

“Out of nowhere, I heard this huge explosion,” Mr. Haidarzhy recalled. He woke up and ran into the other bedroom. “I started screaming, 'My love!' But all I found was the door. Our bedroom was gone.”

With the building on fire, he and Lizi fled what was left of the apartment and descended onto the rubble. Rescuers arrived quickly and began the search in the pitch black nightcutting and removing concrete slabs with chainsaws and excavators.

All nine floors of the building had partially collapsed, crushing some of its inhabitants. Mr Haidarzhy recalled one injured woman whose “screams were simply heartbreaking”.

Residents who survived the attack said they remembered seeing Mr Haidarzhy pacing through the rubble and calling his wife's phone, hoping for a miracle. Hours passed, but no trace of her.

Then, at 5.56pm, she received a notification from her cell phone company about the number she was desperately trying to reach: “My love,” it read, “is online again.”

Rescuers had just discovered his phone next to his and Tymofii's body.

All Mr. Haidarzhy's attention is now focused on Lizi.

“Sometimes she asks where her mother and Tymosha are, and we tell her they are 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 sparked painful memories in Anna's family. In 1968, during the Soviet Union's crackdown on 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 pain have had wide resonance in Ukraine. On March 6, more than 700 people attended the funeral, which took place in the same church where the couple got married. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was also supposed to attend, his family said, but had to cancel after a Russian missile landed a few hundred meters away from him during a visit to Odessa that day, killing five people.

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

Reflecting on his life at a separate commemoration, Mr Haidarzhy said: “For us everything happened quickly.”

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

Daria Mitiuk contributed to the reporting.

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