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Searching for a Lost Son in Ukraine

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Eight years ago, when Kyiv erupted in fiery anti-Russian demonstrations, the filmmakers Jason Blevins and Olena Lysenko walked a sprawling protest camp on Maidan Square interviewing students, activists, medics, and self-defense volunteers gathered there. Among them was Oleksii Shevliuha, a thirty-five-year-old security guard who seemed to know everyone. Wiry and compact, with a soldier’s upright bearing and the close-cropped hair of a Cossack, he became their guide and occasional protector. He introduced them around the encampment, lent them a hand—and the use of a pocket knife—when their camera stand broke. He gave an account of the history of the Ukrainian self-determination movement, which he had joined in his youth. “I am fighting for my country to finally start living in a new way,” he told them. “For the people to become the rulers in their own country.”

In February of 2014, Ukraine’s pro-Russia regime collapsed, but a separatist conflict, kindled by Moscow, continued in the country’s east. Shevliuha decided to sign up for active duty. He called his father, Oleksandr, at home in Karlivka, an industrial town east of Kyiv, to tell him about his plans, and was relieved when Oleksandr did not discourage him. After a few weeks of training, he deployed to Ilovaisk, in the separatist Donetsk region, as a bomb-defusing specialist. He was there in August of 2014, when heavy fighting was under way. Two days after he arrived at the front line, his phone went dead. Today, Shevliuha is one of some seven hundred and fifty Ukrainian fighters who remain missing since the first phase of the Ukraine-Russia conflict. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, late last month, there’s no telling how high their number will grow.

The question of what happened to Shevliuha is the driving force behind Blevins and Lysenko’s short film “I Never Had Dreams of My Son.” It is a question that has consumed Oleksandr for the past eight years, and that reveals an even deeper, more confounding dilemma: How does one go on living when the once unimaginable—the loss of one’s child, one’s home, one’s freedom—becomes suddenly real? In some ways, at the time the documentary was filmed, in 2019, Oleksandr, a former engineer in his sixties, had the peaceful life of a retiree: in spring and summer, he would tend to a small plot of roses below his apartment’s window. But his son’s absence, and the aching impossibility of closure, had pushed him to reinvent himself as an online detective of sorts. Despairing of ever getting any real help from the government, he had taken to sitting in his son’s old room and scrolling through hundreds of online videos from the war, searching for a chance glimpse of him somewhere. One video, a grainy clip of captured Ukrainian soldiers being force-marched by pro-Russia separatists down a street in Donetsk on August 24, 2014, caught his eye. There was a blurry figure in the prisoner parade whose posture and manner of walking instantly looked familiar—it had to be him.

“I was stunned when, after we sat down with Oleksandr, he pulled out the printouts of these screenshots and presented them to us,” Blevins, the film’s director, told me. When he and Lysenko visited Oleksandr in Karlivka, it had been four years since Oleksandr had found the video and five since he had last heard from his son. The old man crumpled when Blevins asked him why he was so certain that the figure in the grainy footage was Oleksii. “Understand, it’s impossible for a father not to recognize your own child,” he said.

Hoping to help, the filmmakers shared the photographs with army veterans, only to discover that the man was not Shevliuha. A tip quickly led Blevins and Lysenko to a former prisoner of war, Vitalii Tepliakov, who had been captured around the time Shevliuha had disappeared, and was later freed in a prisoner exchange. Like Shevliuha, Tepliakov is wiry and compact, with an upright bearing and close-cropped hair. Tepliakov wears a look of forced composure in the film as he describes having to take part in what he calls “a parade of shame,” followed by four weeks in captivity. He is visibly upset at having to shatter Oleksandr’s hope. “It’s a pity, but the father was mistaken,” he says.

The exchange is a stark reminder that war is comprised of a million private devastations, each one echoing for years. Oleksandr still lives in Karlivka, which lies in the path of the Russian assault on Kyiv, and even in the midst of a new war he remains determined to locate his son. His sense is that Oleksii is still out there, waiting to be found.

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