In peace and war, these Ukrainian brothers bonded. Then death came.

A portrait of brothers Ivan Lyakh (left, in military uniform), and Maksym Lyakh (right, in military uniform) with their parents and other relatives is on display at the family’s home in Tomakivka, Ukraine. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)TOMAKIVKA, Ukraine — Maksym and Ivan Lyakh, born four years apart, weren’t just brothers. They were best friends. So, when Russia invaded Ukraine and they wanted to fight for their country, they insisted on fighting together.

For Serhii Lyakh, 47, who owns a farming business in Tomakivka, and his wife, Lilya, 43, who has a women’s clothing boutique, it was their two sons — their only children — who left to fight for the country’s freedom.Maksym and Ivan’s initial attempts to join the armed forces were rebuffed by recruitment offices because of their youth and inexperience.

Maksym was furious that his little brother, call sign “Tokmak,” was sent to such a dangerous battle without him. But by the end of April, they were reunited in the besieged city.Maksym’s girlfriend, Sofia Kozyriatska, 21, was studying to become a dentist, struggling with the daily difficulties of the war and her boyfriend’s absence. Their text messages included news from the front and words of encouragement. “Tell me everything, so I know what to prepare for,” she pleaded in one text exchange.

Maksym and Ivan were not oblivious to the danger in Bakhmut. “We had an agreement,” Ivan said. “If one of us dies, the other will stay behind with our parents and take care of them.” “Heavy 300!” — military slang for heavily wounded — Maksym yelled into his radio. He pushed painkillers into Ivan’s mouth, but his brother, almost choking on blood, could not swallow. Half an hour later, two soldiers took Ivan to a basement-turned-command center only 650 feet away.

Around midnight, an evacuation unit got in and took Ivan to a hospital in Dnipro, where his mother and girlfriend, Diana, were already waiting. “I was so happy Ivan was wounded,” Lilya said. “At least he was alive.”

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