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‘She laid down her life’: Husband vows to continue wife’s rescue work in ‘this pointless war’

From the most dangerous areas around Kharkiv there is an almost constant exodus of people fleeing homes they cannot be sure they will ever see again.

Oleg Koval, 43, and his wife Yulia, 23, stayed behind to help those in need.

At first, they were just giving their friends a lift away from danger, but soon word spread and they found themselves assisting the evacuations of places most in need.

They drove people to Krasnograd, one of the refuges in the region – 75 miles (120km) southeast of Kharkiv.

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Oleg and Yulia were offered a safe place to stay until the invasion was over.

But Yulia was not convinced and insisted they return to help the people of their city.

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Oleg ran a successful fitness club before the war, and during a lull in the shelling of the northern suburb of Saltivka, they were waiting in their car nearby for some residents who were running late.

Oleg nipped out to get some chocolates from his office across the road.

It was at that moment a Russian missile struck.

“I was buried. But I crawled out from under the rubble,” Oleg told us.

Oleg's car was almost completely destroyed by falling concrete during the explosion
Image:
Oleg’s car was almost completely destroyed by falling concrete during the explosion

He was worried his wife would think he’d been killed.

Instead, when he came out, he saw his car wrecked by the explosion.

He showed us a video of the aftermath, the twisted metal of his car crushed from the weight of falling concrete.

“I saw two dead bodies behind the car, and an elderly woman lying in the road. But I couldn’t find Yulia. I thought maybe she was helping somewhere.”

Oleg started digging through the remains with his hands, but was pulled away just before another part of a building collapsed.

It took two days to finally recover Yulia’s body.

Oleg had to search for his wife for two days after the explosion
Image:
Oleg had to search for his wife for two days after the explosion
A missile struck a building while Oleg was going to get some chocolates from his office
Image:
A missile struck a building while Oleg was going to get some chocolates from his office

“There was constant shelling and nobody wanted to go there. But together with one brave man we did it. We got her out and took her to the morgue and formally identified her.

“Nobody is being being buried any more, but I’m lucky I have friends to help and now she is able to be laid to rest here.”

At her graveside there are giant teddy bears tied to her headstone, gifts Oleg promised to buy her just days before she died.

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We ask him what he thinks of the invaders.

“I just wish that everything Russian would die on the borders of Ukraine. And so, if you could call it their culture, it would not spread anymore, and would not infect this planet with their vileness and weakness of character.

“I don’t see anything strong about them. And they don’t know what true kindness is.”

Yulia Koval had given friends lifts away from danger
Image:
Yulia Koval had given friends lifts away from danger
Oleg is now a regular visitor to his wife's grave
Image:
Oleg is now a regular visitor to his wife’s grave

He says he will soon begin helping people evacuate their homes again.

“Because if my wife laid down her life for the sake of other people, in this pointless war, then I’ve got nothing else to do except continue what she started.”

One more story of appalling loss, in a city whose tragedy is far from over.

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