One minute two newlyweds were warming their hands over a campfire in an idyllic forest clearing as they celebrated their honeymoon.
The next they were at the centre of a bloodbath, as a buried WWI bomb roared back to life beneath the flames and exploded – landing the bride in hospital after shrapnel ripped at her body and killing her younger brother.
Just moments before the tragedy, Norbert Varga, 43, a keen photographer, had nipped back to the tent he was sharing with his new wife Lidiia Makarchuk, 31, to grab a camera, so he could capture an image of the Milky Way – clearly visible in the night sky.
Radio technician Norbert, of Bracknell, Berkshire, said: “I went to my tent around 9pm.
“While I was packing my equipment the sound of an explosion and screams broke the silence.
“I ran to the bonfire as fast as I could, screaming Lidiia’s name.”
The couple, who married in church in Binfield, Berkshire, in the summer, before spending their wedding weekend in Bath, Somerset, delayed their honeymoon until September so they could visit accountant Lidiia’s native Ukraine and celebrate with her family and friends.
The highlight was a trek along a well-signposted tourist route as part of a group of 12, including her brother Myroslav Makarchuk, 29, through the picturesque Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine, near the border with Hungary, before a night camping beneath the stars.
Building a fire on a spot which had been used before, so as not to damage the beautiful environment, the group sat around it telling stories as the light faded.
But at 9pm on Wednesday 15 September, as Norbert was fetching his camera, a whistling sound came from the fire, followed by an earth-shattering blast – hurling the campers apart as the hidden bomb – left behind by Austro-Hungarian troops over 100 years ago – exploded.
Lidiia, who moved to the UK in January 2017, lay for hours in the darkness with shrapnel wounds all over her face and limbs, waiting for medical help to arrive, as she listened to the dying gasps of her brother lying beside her – his brain visible through his skull, which had been torn open by shrapnel.
Speaking from the Ukrainian hospital where she is being treated, she said: “For one hour my brother was making this unearthly gurgling sound.
“My one regret is not calling out to him to tell him I loved him.”
After losing her father a week before their wedding on July 27, and following a year of Covid lockdowns, Lidiia had been delighted to see her Ukrainian family when she and Norbert arrived in the country on 4 September.
She especially could not wait for Norbert, who hails from Hungary but has lived in the UK since 2018, to bond with her brother during their camping trip.
“I hadn’t been back to Ukraine for years, so I had lots of appointments and people to see. After all that I just wanted to go to the mountains for a night to rest,” she said.
A childhood friend had put a group of six men, four women and two children together for the adventure – entailing a two-hour hike to the popular beauty spot, where they set up camp overlooking Mount Hoverla, the country’s tallest mountain.
Overjoyed to be joining them, her brother Myroslav was full of stories – with no idea that in a few hours he and another man in the group would be killed by the bomb blast, which also left several others injured.
“He was so happy to see us and I him. I will miss him so much,” said Lidiia.
Arriving at the viewpoint in the late afternoon, the outlook was spectacular.
“It was amazing. It was sunny. It was warm and you could see all the mountains. We were up there at 5pm and sunset was at 8pm. It was breathtaking,” she recalled.
Using a spot that had clearly been used by other tourists, so as not to damage the landscape, they built a fire, which became the focal point as they sipped tea.
Telling her friends how Norbert won her heart after complimenting her shoes in church back in 2019, Lidiia could not have felt happier.
“We were just sitting by the fire, drinking tea, chatting, taking photos,” she said. “The fire made a special atmosphere, and we had a lot to say. It had been such a long time since we’d all seen each other.”
But, at 9pm, with the two children aged two and five sleeping in a tent out of harm’s way, as Norbert fetched his camera and two other men collected more firewood, their lives changed in a moment.
As Lidiia sat by the fire with three female friends and Myroslav and another male friend to her right, the bomb exploded, killing both men.
“In one second, I felt like someone had taken a rock and thrown it in my face, in my nose especially, then I had a whistling in my ears followed by a silence where I could hear only myself,” she said.
“I turned away and covered my face with my hands and started praying for myself.
“Then I realised it wasn’t just me. Everyone was moaning, everyone was in pain.”
Hearing Norbert and the men who went for firewood screaming their names through the darkness, fortunately, she could not see the devastation around her.
Her brother’s brain was visible, and the other fatally injured man’s body had been torn apart.
“My eyes were damaged, and I couldn’t open them very well. I couldn’t see the whole picture and I’m happy about this because this protected my mental health,” she said.
“I could hear strange noises coming from the guy next to me and I knew he was dying.
“Norbert didn’t tell me the full story, but he did say, ‘Lidiia it’s very bad. The situation is very bad’.
“He told me he could see my brother and the other man’s brains, so I knew they were dying.”
Norbert and three other men who were not hurt did their best to help the injured people. Sadly, in the 90 minutes it took for the first emergency responders to arrive, both Myroslav and the other man were dead.
Finally, at 4am, Lidiia and the other injured people arrived at hospital – an agonising 7 hours after the blast.
She had sustained shrapnel injuries to her left eye and across her face. Her hands had been lacerated and the bone was visible, while her legs were also shredded, with some of the muscle missing.
The other women suffered similar injuries, with one friend needing a six-hour operation to stabilise her, during which skin was grafted on to her injured hands and shins.
Still in hospital, Lidiia missed her brother’s funeral – having also missed her father’s passing in Ukraine earlier in the year.
“If I could talk to Myroslav now I would tell him I love him,” she said.
“Maybe I didn’t say it often enough. He was my younger brother and often siblings argue.
“He was so happy to see us and I will try to remember him as he was then, when he was alive.”
In another blow to the honeymooners, Lidiia – still thinking of Ukraine as a second home – did not have travel insurance and healthcare in the country is not free. Norbert had taken insurance out for the trip but that did not help her.
Everyone who was injured faces vast medical bills, which her UK family have been raising money for using GoFundMe.
Although she is still in hospital, Lidiia is now walking but thinks it will be late November before she can travel to Hungary for additional eye treatment, after which she will come home to the UK.
Since the blast, Ukrainian police have revealed the beauty spot was a battlefield in both World Wars. They believe the bomb came from the time of the Brusilov Offensive, a campaign between the Russian Empire and the Austro Hungarians in 1917 – one of the bloodiest in world history, with more dead than the Somme.
Drone footage Norbert took of the camp before disaster struck gives a clear outline of a WWI trench metres away from where they pitched their tents, and what look like bomb craters peppering the hillside.
Recalling the terrible night, Nobert said: “I will never forget the sound of Myroslav’s mortal agony.
“I tried to bandage his head and place him in the recovery position, but it was too late. He was fighting for his life for two hours.
“When I found Lidiia, too, she was covered with blood. Shards of shrapnel had hit her face, hands and legs.
“I am still thinking, what could I have done more? Why not me? Why them?
“War movies are the closest thing to what I experienced that night, I will never forget it.”
To donate to the couple’s GoFundMe, click here