ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — It began, as many modern love stories now do, with a swipe on a dating app. It ended, a little over a year later, in a roar of exploding glass and concrete from a Russian missile strike.
Six months into Russia’s invasion, Danylo Kovalenko, 22, and Diana Haidukova, 19, were looking for a shred of normality, a distraction — anything to take their minds off the war and the petrifying bombardments of their city, Zaporizhzhia.
Diana messaged first. She said Danylo, with his long blonde hair and angular jaw line, reminded her of an anime character she liked. They met for a walk, then went to dinner and, hours later, back to his place.
The next months were a blur. The couple quickly became inseparable — beautiful, ambitious and creative, madly in love in a country under daily attack. Their relationship was intense from the get-go, and they didn’t want to waste a second.
“They were drowning in each other,” said Liza Yakymova, 20, Diana’s best friend. “I’d never seen her love someone this much. … He knew what she liked and didn’t like. He cooked her food when she came home from work. Whatever her imperfections, he loved every part of her.”
Diana soon moved in with Danylo and his parents in their spacious, four-room apartment in one of the city’s striking historic buildings. One night, as the Russian bombs fell and they took cover in the basement shelter, Danylo proposed.
Without telling anyone, less than four months after their first date, they got married at a registry office. They had the word “croutons” engraved on the inside of their wedding rings, enshrining the moment they simultaneously said the word aloud while shopping for groceries. A shared, quirky sense of humor was part of what bonded them.
Later, Diana posted a photo to Instagram of herself wrapped in Danylo’s arms. “I quickly and frivolously married this funny clown,” she wrote. “But it will be over soon because all women are the same, right?” A video showed her kissing him while singing, “I got married at 19 years old, despite the war!”
Some of their friends were shocked — worried that they were moving too fast. But this was an unusual time — and the couple were determined to spend every moment of it together.
“They felt a missile could hit at any moment. The explosions were always hitting close to our home,” said Artem, Danylo’s friend who lived across the street from the couple and who asked to be identified only by his first name for security reasons. “They complemented each other very well. Danylo was a bit crazy, and so was she.”
“In a sense,” Artem added, “they were prepared for what came next.”
But could anyone ever be prepared for this?
Danylo and Diana’s story is emblematic of the gut-wrenching, unthinkable personal loss that countless Ukrainians are grappling with as Russia’s war grinds toward the end of its second year. Every day, Russian attacks obliterate innocent lives — ending dreams, erasing futures.
Interviews with the couples’ friends and relatives also revealed how war trauma is becoming the norm, especially for young Ukrainians with friends fighting on the front lines. One of Danylo’s friends had attended two funerals in the past month, for a classmate and the girlfriend of a friend.
At least once a week, Russia attacks Zaporizhzhia — often with S-300 missiles, which are imprecise and impossible to intercept given their speed and the city’s proximity to the front, about 20 miles south. Air raid sirens have become a barely noticed soundtrack to daily life, ringing a dozen or more times a day. Often, residents get no warning at all.
After more than a year of full-scale war, Danylo, Diana and their friends would catch themselves imagining bombs falling on the horizon or themselves getting hit by missiles. It felt as if they had a target on their backs. Their favorite hangout spots — the city’s river port and an oak grove — were hit by strikes and began to sow anxiety rather than comfort.
Danylo, described by his friends as sensitive, began to avoid the news. Slowly, the friends grew accustomed to the danger. Everyone in their group stayed in Zaporizhzhia, mostly out of obligation to family.
Danylo had always been the glue of the group, a band of 10 or so who met in high school.
“He was the joy and smile of the company,” said Oleksandr Kots, his hands shaking as he spoke about his friend. He described Danylo as eccentric with a dark sense of humor. “If it wasn’t for him, our friend group wouldn’t have smiled so much. He became the heart of our group.”
Danylo was a talented musician who dreamed of becoming famous. He wrote songs in Russian, occasionally in Ukrainian. He experimented with different genres and created alter egos to accompany his performances, which at times he put on for his friends. “Danylo put his entire soul into his music — every word in his songs had a meaning,” Oleksandr said.
“Regardless of any obstacles he faced,” Oleksandr added, “he continued smiling and being himself.”
While Danylo was content with his unstructured, slow pace of life, Diana was driven. She studied to work in hospitality, had a job at a cafe, drew digital art and hoped to become a graphic designer. She was always balancing multiple projects. “Unlike Danylo, Diana had this internal force that made her see everything through,” Oleksandr said.
Until she met Danylo, Diana was more secluded, living in a village outside the city with her mother. She valued a few close friendships. As teens, Diana and her cousin, Anastasia Haidukova, went to concerts in Zaporizhzhia’s K-pop scene.
Anastasia said Diana was kind, cheerful and always laughing — especially at her own jokes.
“When we met the last time, we spoke for a long time, and I felt so warm inside,” said Anastasia, who moved to western Ukraine after Russia invaded. “I was going through a difficult time in my life, but I felt joyous being with Diana,” she said. “She was like an angel, pushing away all the clouds.”
Liza, Diana’s best friend, said her positive energy was infectious and if she had an idea, she was unstoppable. “We weren’t just friends, we were family,” Liza said. “We were always there for each other. She would pick me up every day when I studied at music school. … She was a home for my soul.”
On the night of Oct. 16, Russia launched another vicious strike on Zaporizhzhia. After a volley of explosions hit close to the family’s apartment, shaking the ground, they decided to move into the corridor. At the last moment, Diana turned back to grab a few belongings. Danylo ran after her. They never returned.
A blast tore through the building from the fifth to third floors, ripping away the room where Diana and Danylo slept, leaving just the door. Danylo’s father rushed to his son’s lifeless body, thrown back by the blast, and began performing CPR. Diana’s crushed body was dug from the rubble the next day.
After hearing the building was hit, the couple’s friends scrambled for news.
From western Ukraine, Anastasia called the police and filed a missing-person report. She messaged Diana frantically on Instagram, staring in dismay at her status: “last seen” the evening before.
After the blast, Artem ran across the street and saw the gash in the building. “I registered it was their window but hoped that they had still made it,” he said. “I ran to their floor. … I saw his father, and he told me Danylo was gone.”
“We didn’t believe it until the very end,” Oleksandr said.
Since their deaths, Oleksandr chain-smokes. Liza said she often can’t stop crying. “I feel like the walking dead,” she said.
“Every time I exit my house, I have to look at that hole in his building,” Artem said.
The young friends said it is hard to envision a future. Russian attacks continue and are expected to increase in winter.
“Frankly, I always feel death,” Artem said. “I feel like I’ll either join the army and die, or a missile will hit me,” Oleksandr interjected: “How can you plan a future when you don’t know what tomorrow brings? We have desires and dreams, but it’s difficult when you have a target on your back.”
Mostly, they feel exhausted. “As all the fighting occurs on our territory, we get tired — not as much as the military but still tired,” Artem said. “Russia just doesn’t care. I don’t wish all Russians to experience what we’re going through. I just want them to leave us alone.”
Anastasia still writes to Diana on Instagram, hoping to reach her somehow. She recently had a dream in which Diana introduced her to Danylo, whom she never met. “It was a beautiful dream,” she said.
Anastasia said she misses Zaporizhzhia but is scared to return. “People always think it’s not going to be them,” she said. “Tragedy came to my dear ones. I’m afraid I could meet the same fate there.”
On Nov. 16, Diana and Danylo would have celebrated their first wedding anniversary. Instead, there was a funeral last month, and their bodies were cremated. Friends say their ashes may be mixed and scattered somewhere meaningful to them in Zaporizhzhia.
“I’m so sad we will never be able to see this couple grow old,” Anastasia said. “They would have been the best couple in the world.”
Serhiy Morgunov in Kyiv and Kostiantyn Khudov in Kremenets, Ukraine, contributed to this report.