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A chance meeting in war-torn Ukraine helps reconnect friends half a world away

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Every journalist can probably tell you that when they're out reporting, there are certain moments, certain people they meet who they think about long after they left. For NPR's Kat Lonsdorf, one of those people was a woman named Ludmilla Boiko. Kat met her in Ukraine back in April, when she was there with a team for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. They interviewed Ludmilla in the recently liberated town of Borodyanka.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Ludmilla was sitting next to a crumpled apartment building as workers sifted through the rubble, waiting to see if the bodies of her sister and nephew would be pulled out. They had been killed in a missile strike weeks earlier.

LUDMILLA BOIKO: (Through interpreter) I was so close with them that I don't even know - how should I live now? How should I live in this place?

CHANG: It was a grim scene, but there was a moment of joy when, through sheer coincidence, they realized that Ludmilla knew Kat's childhood neighbors in Wisconsin and had stayed with them years ago.

BOIKO: Mother Kathy - three daughter.

LONSDORF: Yes.

BOIKO: Very nice.

LONSDORF: Kathy...

BOIKO: Yes. Oh, wow (laughter).

CHANG: Kat and Ludmilla hugged. They took a picture together, and then, they parted ways.

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

But Kat kept thinking about Ludmilla. She'll take it from here.

LONSDORF: To understand just how remarkable it was that Ludmilla knew my neighbors, you have to first know that there are only six houses on my street. I grew up in the country, in a tiny town called Verona, just outside of Madison. Most people from my town have never been on my street. I wanted to know more about why Ludmilla was here, so last time I was home, I walked over to my neighbor, Kathy Pielage's house. She's the one Ludmilla mentioned.

KATHY PIELAGE: Would you like a cup of tea or a glass of wine?

LONSDORF: Kathy lives at one end of the street with her husband, Phil, and they have three now-grown daughters. These days, a Ukrainian flag flaps in their front yard. After I met Ludmilla back in April, I texted my mom the picture we took together, and she texted it to Kathy.

PIELAGE: I just cried.

LONSDORF: Kathy hadn't heard from Ludmilla in weeks at that point.

PIELAGE: To see that she's alive was just, like, unbelievable.

LONSDORF: Ludmilla first stayed with Kathy and her family more than 20 years ago. Kathy pulls out some scrapbooks.

PIELAGE: Here are the - all the kids that came that year. Here's Ludmilla, and...

LONSDORF: Ludmilla came as essentially a chaperone for a group of Ukrainian kids visiting Wisconsin. Borodyanka is north of Kyiv, not too far from Chernobyl. When the nuclear disaster happened in 1986, the wind blew radioactive material for miles, and Borodyanka was in that path. People continued living there, but there were health concerns, of course. So after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Bethel Lutheran Church here in Madison decided to partner with a community center in Borodyanka that was opened specifically to help in the aftermath of Chernobyl. Kathy and her family were members of that church. Ludmilla ran that community center.

PIELAGE: There was this belief that if we could get them out of the contaminated soil, we could, like, improve their health, right? Now, you know, the professors of nuclear medicine in Madison have clearly said this is not true.

LONSDORF: But the kids did need good dental care, so they focused on that. They called it Circle of Love. And Ludmilla eventually came to Wisconsin eight times over many years, bringing different groups of kids.

JACQUI SHONDA: Oh, she's the one I started working with in 1996.

LONSDORF: Jacqui Shonda ran the program and worked directly with Ludmilla. I met her at an outdoor mall in Madison. She says Ludmilla is great at finding and using resources. For example, when Ludmilla was here in Wisconsin, she started taking advantage of access to the university.

SHONDA: She spent time with a number of psychologists through the university, mostly.

LONSDORF: One thing Ludmilla does a lot at that community center in Borodyanka is counseling, and she wanted to learn more about trauma counseling. This was around 2014, and war had not yet touched Borodyanka. But there was fighting in eastern Ukraine. The town was starting to get displaced people - soldiers coming back from the frontlines. She wanted to help them. Jacqui says that when the full-scale invasion happened earlier this year, Ludmilla was preparing for more of that same scenario - refugees, war veterans. Jacqui sent her extra money in February, and Ludmilla invested in the community center.

SHONDA: This is the word I get from her - is - thank you, thank you, thank you. We have rooms set up with cots so they can sleep, and we have this kitchen because of the money you sent. And then three days later, I get the picture that it's gone.

LONSDORF: That was the last Jacqui heard from Ludmilla. Three days into the war, a Russian bomb completely destroyed the community center. It wasn't much longer until the entire town was occupied. Ludmilla's sister and nephew died in a missile strike, and we met five weeks after that, in April, after Ukrainian forces liberated the town, while Ludmilla looked for their bodies.

I went back to Borodyanka six months later. And in some ways, it looks completely different. Cars are back on the roads. Rubble is cleared. Kids are playing on playgrounds.

TONYA SOSHKA: Last month, these shops started working. We are so, so glad to see open doors, you know?

LONSDORF: Tonya Soshka is a colleague of Ludmilla's. She points out things that have been fixed up - roads, power lines, new shops. But right in the middle of it all, several high-rise apartment buildings are still crumpled, holes blasted through the middle. You can't forget what happened here, she says. It's literally right in front of you all the time.

SOSHKA: Now it's easier a bit, but not very easy.

LONSDORF: Everyone is dealing with grief, she says. Trauma is woven into everyday life.

(CROSSTALK)

LONSDORF: The community center has moved into one of the only buildings not destroyed in the fighting. There are five employees packed in a room, and residents are constantly flowing in and out. And in one corner, Ludmilla. As we come in, she gets up...

BOIKO: Hello.

LONSDORF: Hi.

...And gives me a big hug.

It's so good to see you.

SOSHKA: Take this situation under control because you know somebody will come and say, Ludmilla...

LONSDORF: Tonya points out, it's rare to find Ludmilla without an appointment. And it's true. She has two cellphones, both ringing constantly. We sit down to talk.

How are you?

BOIKO: (Through interpreter) I'm a little bit more tired than the last time when we saw each other.

LONSDORF: More tired than after weeks of occupation and the deaths in her family.

BOIKO: Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: Ludmilla says their counselling services are in high demand. Everyone needs help. She says even the most basic emotions are buried.

BOIKO: (Through interpreter) You know, when you are outside and you hear somebody laughing - (imitating laughter) - the first thing you think that's something wrong with the person because it's not typical now to hear laughter.

LONSDORF: And then, she gets quiet. Her eyes fill up with tears.

BOIKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: "It's terrible," she says.

BOIKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: She tells me she never found the bodies of her sister or nephew, despite a huge effort.

BOIKO: (Through interpreter) I'm not leaving my life right now. It's maybe some kind of coping mechanism. I don't know.

LONSDORF: It feels like I'm living in a movie, she says. She knows she'll have to start her own healing at some point, but right now, there are too many other people to help. Ludmilla's phone starts to ring again - another appointment. But before we leave, I hand over a gift I brought from Jacqui in Wisconsin. It's something they requested specifically.

(LAUGHTER)

LONSDORF: A big, brightly colored parachute, like the kind you use in gym class as a kid. It's basically a giant piece of fabric. They had one before, but it was lost in the bombing.

SOSHKA: Thank you, thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you.

LONSDORF: They unfurl it, waving it up and down like they will with the kids.

BOIKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: "See," Ludmilla says, a giant smile on her face, "these are the emotions we've been missing."

There is so much trauma here in Borodyanka, and it'll take years, maybe lifetimes to heal. But sometimes, something as simple as a gift from an old friend, even one halfway around the world, can remind you that you're not alone and make it all just a little more bearable.

Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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