Death in Ukraine: ‘It is better to be the widow of a hero than the wife of a coward’

Journalist Viktor Dudar could have worked as a military spokesman from the safety of an office, but he wanted to fight invading Russians

A trumpet sounds. A drum rolls. Scattered snowflakes fall on Lychakiv cemetery.

A Greek Catholic priest sprinkles holy water on caskets in parallel graves. A woman wails. Volleys of gunfire sound in tribute to fallen paratroopers. The priest proclaims: "Glory to Ukraine. Glory to our heroes".

The terrible crunch of spades driving into fresh earth. The eerie duet of shovelling and the priest’s chants. “Mournful Mother”, about Mary weeping at the cross, is so well known that the crowd joins in. “Oh, my son, why? Why?” they murmur in unison.

The graves are filled, packed hard with the backs of spades. Soldiers lay sprays of yellow and blue flowers on the mounds. Sunshine bursts momentarily through the glowering sky, followed by icy gusts. An allegory for life, for these lives, for Ukraine.

Oksana Dudar, age 47, and her only child, Sophia, age 21, have just witnessed the burial of their husband and father Viktor, shot dead by invading Russians near Mykolaiv, southern  Ukraine, in early March.

Forty-four-year-old Viktor was crime correspondent for Expres, Ukraine’s best-selling weekly newspaper, with 200,000 subscribers, until he volunteered for the 2014-15 war in Donbas.

When he came back from the war, Dudar asked to be the paper’s defence correspondent. His articles were among those most read, so editors agreed. His widow and daughter are journalists too. Oksana and Sophia both cover local news in Lviv for the Dyvys (“Look”) news website.

Viktor Dudar was the second Ukrainian journalist to die since the war started on February 24th. The first was cameraman Evgeny Sakin, killed in a missile attack on a Kyiv television tower on March 1st.

Russian forces have wounded a reporter from Sky News and two Danish reporters from Ekstra-Bladet newspaper. They fired on a team from Al-Araby TV, and on two Czech reporters. All were travelling in vehicles marked Press.

At Mykolaiv, where Dudar was killed, Russians fired on a Swiss photographer, dragged him out of his car and stole his equipment and €3,000.

Dudar died not as a journalist, though he loved journalism, but as a paratrooper.

“He volunteered twice,” his widow told me, standing beside his grave, her eyes ringed with grief. When the Donbas war started in 2014, Dudar was frustrated because the army kept him waiting for six months because he lacked military experience. He fought in eastern Ukraine for one year, during which he was only slightly injured.

Recruitment station

On February 24th, Oksana said, “I woke him up at 5.30 in the morning. I told him, ‘Get up. The war has started’. He hugged me tightly and said everything would be okay. He packed his bag, called a few friends and went to the recruitment office.”

Dudar's charisma shines through the photographs of him online. In his black and white Facebook page photo, he has a Sean Connery allure, with a shaven head and salt-and-pepper beard. In another, he makes a peace sign, sitting in camouflage togs on what appears to be an anti-aircraft artillery piece. In a third, he stares intently, in full combat gear, from a foxhole.

In his haste to join up when the war started, Dudar forgot his watch and the striped jersey he’d worn for luck during the 2014-15 war. Oksana took them to him at the recruitment station, along with a religious medal.

“We laughed and hugged as if I was not sending him off to war,” she said. “But his goodbye sounded as if he really meant it . . . My heart told me not to let him go, but I knew I couldn’t change his mind. I told him it is better to be the widow of a hero than the wife of a coward. He was very proud of me for saying that.”

Sophia Dudar was too overwhelmed with grief to speak to me at her father's funeral.

“My world has fallen silent,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “I have lost not just a father but my best friend. I have no words to describe the pain of this loss. I am glad that my last words to him were ‘I love you’. I am sorry that I have heard those words from him for the last time . . . Sometimes I got annoyed when he stayed up late watching television in the living room. Now I would give anything in the world for him to sit in his favourite armchair again.”

Dudar’s friends and colleagues also posted heartbreaking tributes on social media.

“When Viktor came into the office, the atmosphere grew suddenly warmer,” wrote Iryna Sokolovska from Dyvys website. “He always had jokes in his pocket. He was a great storyteller.”

Pilya Pilishchuk of Expres kept the letter that Dudar sent to her from the front when her son was born in 2014. “When you went to war, I gave you a little cross. But I did not pray enough. I am sorry.”

Oksana Stusyak, also from Expres, told how she and a friend called Yula had intended to record a video of themselves singing "No Muscovite Here," one of Dudar's favourite songs, to make him laugh while he was fighting.

“We didn’t do it in time,” she wrote. “You were always funny, always eager to share a meal. You are a true hero, and heroes don’t die. I promise you there will be no Muscovites in our land. Rest in peace.”

Roman Onyshkevych, the editor of an online newspaper, was Dudar's smoking and drinking buddy.

“We will finally finish the beer we opened late that night in [Dudar’s home town of] Zhovkva to make our wives angry,” he writes. “Is it true that angels wings are blue and yellow? Are you still smoking like crazy in heaven? Can you drink wine there as well? Dry your tears or your weapon will rust . . . Goodbye, my friend. It is not in vain. We will not give up our land.”

Dudar did not have to go to the front, Uliana Vityuk, the editor of Expres, told me in a telephone interview.

“He was offered a high-paying job as a spokesman for the military,” she said. “He could have been safe in an office, but he chose to go to war.

“Viktor believed that if you are a worthy citizen of Ukraine you must defend this country,” Vityuk continued. “He was in the reserves and he knew he would be called up right away. He said he fell in love twice in his life, once with his woman and once with Ukraine.”

Fun-loving

Dudar’s family and friends describe him as a sociable, fun-loving, energetic man whose nickname was Lambada, after a dance. But he had no patience for civilians who moaned about being tired of war, Vityuk said.

“Usually they were people who sat at home and never went to war. He often recalled how he and another soldier held the line at Siverskyi-Donetsk for two days in the last war. They were very tired so they did ten minute shifts on the river bank. He never complained of fatigue. He was always ready to fight. He pleaded with people not to give up.”

Vityuk refused to put a black sash on the photograph they chose of Dudar for the front page of his own newspaper, Expres, “because for us he is still alive”.

Oleh Volskyi, the mayor of Dudar's home town of Zhovkva, an hour north of Lviv, declared three days of mourning for the journalist.

“He was the first man from our town to die in the recent war,” Volskyi said, distinguishing the present war from the 2014-15 conflict. “Yesterday we received sad news that another young man from Zhovkva died in Luhansk. He will be buried in Zhovkva. Viktor wanted to be buried in Lviv, with paratroopers from the famous 80th brigade”. The brigade’s motto is “Always first”.

The Ukrainian government releases estimates of Russian dead, but not of its own casualties. Twenty-four-year-old Ivan Koverznev was buried alongside Viktor Dudar this week. Three other freshly-dug graves gaped open in the same plot, like evil omens. With its women and children fleeing in their millions and its men fighting to the death, what future can Ukraine possibly hope for?

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