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Two Ukrainian mothers struggle to stay in touch with their children on the front line

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, cities continue to be pummeled by Russian rockets, especially in the eastern part of the country. Even Ukrainians who aren't on the front lines often have family who are. NPR's Ryan Lucas spoke to some women whose children are either in the military or are students in hard-hit areas.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: When I first met Dana Luhanovych, Russia's war in Ukraine was only a few days old. She was among a group of women cooking mountains of food - pierogis, salads, chicken - to help feed the military and territorial defense forces stationed nearby - their contribution to the war effort. I returned this past week to the little two-room restaurant where they were cooking to see how Luhanovych was doing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Ukrainian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LUCAS: And I wanted to check up on her because her daughter is in the Ukrainian military, serving in some of the roughest spots of this war, including Donbas in the east, as well as the port city of Mariupol.

DANA LUHANOVYCH: (Through interpreter) My daughter is in - she's in a front. She doesn't say where they are exactly, so I cannot say where. They are located in places that they don't talk about where they are.

LUCAS: Mariupol has been under Russian siege for weeks. Residents say there's no heat, no power. People have been melting snow for drinking water. The city's dead are being buried in mass graves, all under the steady crash of Russian shelling. Luhanovych says her daughter knows that she's worried about her.

LUHANOVYCH: (Through interpreter) I write her on Viber maybe once a week. I'm crying and saying, like, where are you? How are you? She doesn't answer. And then after a while, she says, mom, I'm OK. And they don't talk to me much. They don't tell me what's going on because they know how hard it is for me to live through this.

LUCAS: For Luhanovych, the worry is twofold because her daughter's husband is also in the military. He's a colonel serving somewhere else in Donbas. The strain pulls at Luhanovych every day. And while talking to us on the empty patio of the restaurant, she alternates back and forth between tears and laughter. In a lighter moment, she recalls how her daughter and son-in-law met years ago when he was stationed at the nearby military base in the village.

LUHANOVYCH: (Through interpreter) He saw my daughter through the window, was standing on the balcony. And our apartment was on the fifth floor, and he falled in love for her right away. They got married. Then they were fighting. Then they got back together again. This is how they live.

LUCAS: The couple has a 12-year-old daughter who's staying with her paternal grandparents. Luhanovych pulls out her cellphone and shows us a photo of a little girl with chestnut hair in a red dress.

LUHANOVYCH: (Through interpreter) She's very sad and missing mom and dad and watching their picture every day crying and says wants them to come back.

LUCAS: The women here have finished their cooking for the day and join us in the sunlight on the patio. A little brown dog named Jessie ambles out to see what all the fuss is about.

Luhanovych is not the only one with a child to worry about. Two of the other women here have sons studying at a military university in Kharkiv, another city that's been pounded by Russian forces. One of the women, Tetiana Protsek, says her son, Nazar, is in his first year of school there. He's 18 years old.

TETIANA PROTSEK: (Through interpreter) He says, mom, don't worry. Everything will be fine. But I'm worried. Only a fool wouldn't worry. But I tell him, you're a rock. Be strong. You can do everything. You're a hero. I pray for him.

LUCAS: She says they text each other several times a day, usually just a few words. He doesn't tell her exactly where he is or what he's doing, but she says he's not fighting. Instead, he's helping unload railroad cars or guarding a military warehouse. She doesn't know for sure because they can't talk openly about it on the phone, but he's told her there isn't much to eat. There's no way to get a good night's sleep or wash. Really, they're just trying to survive.

PROTSEK: (Through interpreter) I just don't even want to think about it. The main thing is that he is alive and that he writes back.

LUCAS: She doesn't know whether she even wants to know more. Maybe yes; maybe no, she says. It's hard either way. Luhanovych is of the same mind. What she does know, though, is what she wants to tell her daughter when she gets the chance.

LUHANOVYCH: (Through interpreter) I would say that I love her very much and I want us to be together. And I only feel sorry that I started working here and wasn't able to go to Kyiv and my daughter was there. And then she had to move to the front, and I have - I didn't see her.

LUCAS: And with that, Luhanovych must now return to her real job. She works for the Ukrainian Postal Service. She walks down a little path to where her yellow bicycle was propped against the fence out front. She places a bag loaded with food in the basket and rides off to work. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Kalyniv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.