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The faces of the war in Ukraine

Photo: Simona Supino Le Devoir Flags that people bring to commemorate war heroes.

Patrice Senécal

Published at 0:00

  • Europe

Sobs tear the silence, while the pit fills up, shovelful by shovelful. A mother, three sisters and a brother hug each other, inconsolable. On the esplanade below, the military orchestra has just concluded its funeral melody. The rest of the procession stands aside, silent. An officer in fatigues, kneeling on the ground, places a photo of a young man, with a soldier's helmet and beardless cheeks, on the mound of earth. Death, in Ukraine at war, has a new face, Thursday April 11, at the military square of the Lychakiv cemetery, in Lviv: “Serhii Zelinskyi, 05.12.2002 – 06.11.2023”.

The funeral closes. The grave of the young deceased is quickly drowned in flowers. “We went to school together, he always smiled, I never saw him sad,” confides Andriy, a childhood friend present at the funeral, with a face too serious for his 22 years. Serhii was killed on the Bakhmut front. “He was a good soldier, obedient,” recalls Yuri, 23, also a volunteer fighter, his voice flat.

The faces of the war in Ukraine

Photo: Simona Supino Le Devoir The funeral of Serhii Zelinskyi

Gusts sweep across the place, called Champ-de-Mars de Lviv, causing the Ukrainian flags to flap as far as the eye can see on the slope. We can see hundreds of tombs, all flanked by a wooden cross, on which flowers and stuffed animals are piled up. In Ukraine, in the towns behind it, the impression of a semblance of normal life sometimes prevails. But it is in the cemetery that the true face of the war is revealed, concentrated in pain and broken lives, from the east to the west of the country.

The president, Volodymyr Zelensky, revealed, at the end of February, the deaths of “31,000 soldiers” since the large-scale invasion, more than two years ago, which Moscow disguised as an operation of “denazification”. The Ukrainian authorities, out of concern to preserve the morale of the population, have until now refrained from communicating about their losses. The New York Times, in August 2023, estimated the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed at 70,000, and up to 120,000 injured. A carnage that echoes that of the First World War, on the Russian and Ukrainian sides, not to mention the civilians of the occupied territories, murdered by the tens of thousands, according to kyiv.

The massacre can be measured by the growing cemeteries throughout Ukraine, against a backdrop of a bogged-down war. He can be heard in the sound of the gravediggers' shovels, grave after grave. It also manifests itself in the reddened eyes of this mother or brother in arms, shattered in the burst of tears. But beyond the anonymous statistics, who were these fighters ? Walking the aisles, meeting loved ones meditating, is also painting the portrait of these fathers, brothers, husbands, friends, men for the immense majority, who paid for resistance with their blood.

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This text is published via our section Perspectives.

“I want to live”

The Berkivtsi military cemetery in kyiv is more discreet than that of Lviv, hidden behind a column of trees. But there again, Ukrainian standards in a row, a grid of graves, portraits of men with youthful or elderly features.

A woman stops, then places her watering can at the foot of the grave of a man named Henadii Hembarovskyi, whose portrait she kisses. “My son, I cry for him every day…” Her name is Nina, she is 64 years old and her eyes are flooded with tears. The mother is sparing with words, busy refreshing her grave.

The faces of the war in Ukraine

Photo: Simona Supino Le Devoir Around the portrait of Henadi Hembarovskyi, her sister Olha and her mother Nina

So, it is Olha, his daughter at his side, who makes it a point of honor to describe this brother as “attentive, valiant, patriotic”, “ready to do anything to be of service”. “He loved fishing, swimming, picking mushrooms, nature excursions. I am proud of him for what he did. » At 39 years old, the neo-soldier of the 54th brigade, an engineer before the war, had enlisted spontaneously, from the start of the invasion. He fought on the Bakhmut front before succumbing to his wounds on October 28, 2022, in hospital. “Her last words were: “I want to live,” confides the younger sister. The flowers of the nation are fading. In this cemetery, there are boys aged 20, but also many men aged 30-40…” That is the average age of Ukrainian soldiers.

Busy removing weeds, Nina suddenly raises her head. “There, we have two other friends buried.” And Olha continued, gravely: “I hope you, in the West, never feel what we are experiencing. The mourning is infinite, each family is grieving. My mother is depressed, my father was struck down by a heart attack. When you read books about the world wars, it can seem distant. But for us, not at all. »

Nina waters Henadii's grave one last time, now embellished with red carnations and yellow flowers. Mother and daughter will return there the next day, like almost every day for a year and a half.

The faces of the war in Ukraine

Photo: Simona Supino Le Devoir Various portraits of people who fell in battle

Decimated unit

An orange horizon creeps into the kyiv sky at the start of the evening. A few graves further on, Tetiana squatted on that of her husband, in silence. “The cemetery is my place of strength,” slips the thirty-year-old with long brown hair, dark circles under her eyes. There rests her husband, Andrii Patrynets, who died in the Luhansk region, in March 2023. The remains could be identified by DNA, however, no one knows anything about the circumstances: Andrii's entire unit was decimated.

Enlisting was a no-brainer for this 38-year-old man. Tetiana tried to dissuade him, anxious at the idea that their child, Aurika, would one day grow up without a father. “But if I don’t go, then who will ?” Andrii retorted. A programmer, he had never held a weapon in his life. “He wanted to change things for the country,” explains the widow. “For Aurika, and for all Ukrainians, he will remain a hero. My mission today is to tell my five-year-old daughter who her daddy was, so that she doesn't forget him. »

The faces of the war in Ukraine

Photo: Simona Supino Le Devoir Tetiana squats on the grave of her husband, Andrii Patrynets, in silence

Tetiana's soft voice breaks, talking about her relationship which no longer exists. “It was my first love, love at first sight…” Colleagues who became lovers, fifteen years ago. “Andrii and I worked hard to own our own house. Today it is empty. » Long silence, the distant song of birds echoes in the distance. Tetiana looks around the entire cemetery, her eyes moist, then says: “Here, there are about 500 people, a fragment of the tragedy in Ukraine. We always believe in victory. But the price we pay is enormous. I paid for it with Andrii. »


Return to the west, to the Champ-de-Mars of Lviv, where Elina Zaitseva visits Serhii, her husband who fell in combat. A birthday balloon is planted on his grave. “Two days ago, he would have been 31,” confides the 27-year-old widow, her hair tied in a bun. “He always said he didn’t want to die like an old man. Perhaps he knew what fate awaited him. » Captain in the Ukrainian National Guard, the soldier knew his path. “When he was very young, he was already preparing to be a soldier, by doing a lot of sport. And every time he returned from a mission, he never brought the war with him, we immediately started planning our next outing to the mountains. »

The faces of the war in Ukraine

Photo: Simona Supino Le Devoir Elina Zaitseva, next to a portrait of her husband Serhii Zaitsev, who died two months before his 30th birthday.

Elina takes out her phone, scrolls through photos of Serhii. There, hiking, on a peak, waving a Ukrainian flag; here, bare-chested, muscular, marinating meat – “he really liked doing barbecues” – one day in June 2023. “The next day, he went back to the front. We never saw each other again,” Elina whispers. On July 2, at four in the morning, a shell fell on Serhii Zaitsev. That day, no morning message, contrary to usual. Elina senses misfortune as she gets up. Hours pass, officials knock on his door. She has just lost her “brave and virile Serhii, who loved Ukraine enormously”.

Originally from the Dnipro region in the east of the country, the couple moved to Lviv seven years ago and planned to have a child. “People tell me that I'm young, that I'm going to get past it. Even if I meet another person, they will have to agree to share a part of my heart with Serhii, she sighs. When I come to his grave, I try not to cry. I look at his smile, telling myself that he wouldn't want to see me sad. » What to hold on to, when you have lost the man of your life ? “I have to stay strong, for my mother,” replies Elina, while a second family tragedy awaits: her father, hired as a volunteer, is missing for a month, in the Donetsk region.

“My father was my world”

With her hands in the ground, Natalia, 57, gently recounts the 32 years of life together with Volodymyr Yakivtsiv, her husband, her lifelong companion. “He was so nice, we never argued. Among the mourners in the cemetery, we say the same thing to each other: the pain does not go away. » Tulips invade the grave of the man who was an engineer, carpenter, amateur musician, with “a beautiful singing voice”.

The faces of the war in Ukraine

Photo: Simona Supino Le Devoir Around the portrait of Volodymyr Yakivtsiv, his wife Natalia and his daughter Sofia

Natalia was opposed to him taking up arms. “He wanted to join the territorial defense so much that he couldn’t sleep,” says the white-haired widow. At 58, after an initial refusal from the general staff, Volodymyr persevered: in June 2022, he became a soldier. He first avoids danger in front of his loved ones, to better reassure them, and pretends to only play a supporting role, behind. However, Volodymyr is indeed there, deployed on the Eastern Front, as a gunner, while helping to build trenches. After his death, his family discovered him in a video, playing the harmonica in a hut, on an advanced position. “We realized, by consulting the military documents, that he had been everywhere: Bakhmout, Lyman, Kramatorsk…” says Natalia, nevertheless filled with pride in Volodymyr. “Because what he did was go and protect us. »

A young woman, in her late twenties, appeared at his side. Sofia, his daughter, Volodymyr's daughter, smiles for a brief moment. Then, in a heartfelt cry, waving her arms in the air, she asserts: “The world watches passively while we Ukrainians are killed. My father was my world. He's not here anymore, I miss him. »

It was in the lost village of Rozdolivka, not far from Bakhmout, that this loving father was cut down by a salvo of rockets, on June 13, 2023. “We took Volodymyr into the trench, he was suffering, then he died. Among the members of his unit, only one survived, it was he who was able to tell the story,” Natalia continues. The next day, at work, she received a phone call. “I was told that someone would come to meet me. I had already understood. » It’s his turn, then, to announce it to his daughter. “Sit down, we need to talk,” she told him, once she got home: “Daddy fell. » They hug, crying. “We must be strong, Sofia. And get through this, together. »

Brother in Arms

In Lviv, we also meet those who saw these soldiers who became close friends and family perish over the course of the war. His weathered face betraying the harshness of his forehead, Nazar Karvatskiy, an affable 37-year-old man, toasts a cigarette on the bench adjoining the grave of Maksym Lavrenko, who died on the cusp of his 26th birthday, in July 2023. “It’s was the commander of my mortar team, within the 63rd brigade. I had only known him for a year and a half, but he had become a brother. » Nazar stares at the portrait of the deceased, wearing a beard collar, a slight smile, fatigue hat on his head. Maksym was killed during a Russian assault on June 15, 2023, in the Serebriansky forest in Donbass, the scene of fierce fighting.

The faces of the war in Ukraine

Photo: Simona Supino Le Devoir Various portraits of people who fell in battle

In his tenderness, Nazar, a forest ranger before the invasion, avoids spilling tobacco ashes on the grave, dusting it with a rag. The only son of a mother who raised him alone, Maksym, “an honest and great guy”, worked a series of odd jobs, from cook to worker, until the attack on February 24, 2022. “He thought that war would end quickly. The situation has gotten worse since then. »

Nazar, originally from the Lviv region, is taking advantage of his last hours of leave due to injury. He immediately shows it off, on his chest: a long scar, “pieces of shrapnel still inside”. Staring into space, he philosophizes out loud, railing against this war that he never wanted: “I don’t feel anger, only sadness for Maksym, who had his life ahead of him. Last year, he married a woman, who already had a child. I promise him to be a good father, if I become one one day. » Around him, in the softness of the evening, the first candles flicker on the graves. Nazar gets up, before addressing a final prayer to his comrade. The next day, the man will return to his brigade in Donbass, a thousand kilometers away, and will plunge back into the hell of the front.

The impossible compromise with Moscow

The injunctions for a ceasefire, in return for territorial concessions, hammered out in certain Western capitals, irritate all the mourners who have confided in the Devoir. And this, like 84% of Ukrainian society, according to a study carried out a few months ago by the International Institute of Sociology in kyiv. “How can we negotiate with killers, when our whole country is covered in blood ? asks, exasperated, the Kievan Olha in front of the grave of her brother Henadii. Imagine how insulting it is for a warrior with a limb amputation to hear that one should become friends with the aggressor. » For Elina, there is no question of it either, even if the war certainly took Serhii from her. “If my husband were here, he would say the same thing, like all those buried here,” she assures. “Negotiating means letting go of our prisoners, those living under occupation, while giving the Russians time to reorganize, and then attack harder, because they will not stop in Donbass: they will come as far as here, in this cemetery, destroying everything in their path. »

With Iryna Sknar

This report was financed thanks to the Transat International Journalism Fund-Le Devoir.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116