​Love on the Battlefield of Eastern Ukraine

Ruslan and Oxana met first as soldiers in the same unit, when both joined the Donetsk People's Republic military at the beginning of the region's violent secession from Ukraine.

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May 8 2015, 1:55pm

"I have killed 24," Oxana Gimranova boasted, cradling a rifle almost as tall as she is. Her husband, Ruslan, showed off pictures on his phone of Oxana holding her young son—a similar pose, a similar tenderness. The photos were from a year ago, back before the war, before Oxana had ever touched a gun. She had been a tax collector then, in what was once Horlivka, Ukraine. The city belongs to the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) now, the breakaway, pro-Russian government for which Oxana is fighting. She wears the word "Cнайпер" (sniper) in fresh ink on the skin of her chest—she's the best marksman in the company, according to her comrades. The tattoo hides beneath a black pullover imprinted with skull-and-crossbones dice.

We sat on sandbags in an abandoned coal-processing plant near the front lines of Horlivka; their company has turned the administration building into a barracks. Ruslan continued to flip through his phone until he came to a picture of his wedding last August. In it, the 22-year-old Ruslan stands clutching a Christian icon beside his 27-year-old bride in a white dress.

The war accelerated everything. Ruslan and Oxana met first as soldiers in the same unit. Both had joined the DPR military at the beginning of the region's violent secession from Ukraine. The courtship started when Ruslan was shot in the chest during a firefight. Without even knowing his surname, Oxana tracked him down in a local hospital and held his hand as he struggled for life. "The doctors only gave him a one percent chance of survival," Oxana remembered, "but after several days, he was OK."

For weeks, the pair met in secret, afraid that their commanders would disapprove. When they announced their wedding plans, however, the officers—along with the entire battalion—helped pay for Oxana's dress. Their honeymoon consisted of an afternoon drive around Horlivka before they returned to the front to fight that evening.

It was Ruslan's first marriage, and Oxana's second. Her first had been at the age of 12 to a man in his 30s. They had two sons together, Oxana explained, but the man was abusive, and she eventually fled with her boys. "I never loved him," she insisted. An aunt is currently raising the two children in a nearby city. "We visit as often as we can," Ruslan said. "They call me Papa now. I love them as though they were my own."

Related: Russia's Ghost Army

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has been going on for more than a year now. It began with a popular uprising by Europe-aligned protesters in Kiev against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych had refused to sign an association treaty with the EU, preferring instead to establish closer ties with Moscow. After Yanukovych was unseated, some citizens in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk joined a once-fringe separatist movement, which quickly led to war between the Western-supported Kiev government and the pro-Russian rebels, who were joined not-so-covertly by troops from the regular Russian army.

In September, a ceasefire agreement called the Minsk Protocol was signed, but according to Aleksandr Shumakov, a local businessman turned commander, "There hasn't been a day of ceasefire here." Another ceasefire struck in February helped de-escalate fighting in some sectors, but the war has continued unabated in others. I heard and saw shelling every single day I was there, and when I visited with Shumakov and soldiers like Ruslan and Oksana last month, they suggested the battle will not end until they achieve a stable independence from the government in Kiev.

"They speak Ukrainian," Shumakov asserted. "We speak Russian."

Artillery exploded in the adjacent hills as Oxana climbed onto a truck full of grim soldiers outfitted for a mission. "Enough of this," the sniper crowed, "there are Ukrainians waiting to be killed!" She flashed a quick victory sign and stuck out her tongue. The men around her laughed and tousled her hair as the vehicle pulled off in the direction of the shelling.

Ruslan scrolled through several more pictures of his wife playing with her sons. "She's a great mother," he insisted. "Very kind. Very loving."

I asked how someone like that could kill 24 people.

He paused a moment, and looked away. "Actually," he replied, his eyes wider now, "she is sorry about that. It is hard to kill a person. When I killed my first person, I couldn't sleep for three days. He wasn't very close. He was forty meters away from me, but I saw how he died. It was really hard."

I told him that I was collecting dreams, and asked about his. "I always see the fighting," he recalled. "Oxana also sees such dreams. Often, she speaks in her sleep. She dreams that she's injured, and she dreams of the shelling and the shooting. Oxana wraps her arms around herself and curls up. She pushes into me, trying to get as close as she can. We both dream of our friends who were killed by Ukrainians. In our dreams, they are still fighting alongside of us."

Follow Roc's project collecting dreams from around the globe at World Dream Atlas.

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