Death and sacrifice: How Ukrainians on the front line deal with loss


(KYIV, Ukraine) — Six-year-old Sasha Pylypets watched, impassively, with a type of curious stare, as people threw handfuls of earth into her dad’s grave.

Days later, in another Ukrainian region, Tetyana Taranukha sobbed uncontrollably as she arched her grief-stricken body over her son’s flag-draped coffin.

She pressed her face down onto the wooden casket, hugging it with both arms, caressing the flag’s yellow-and-blue fabric with her neatly manicured hand.

Sasha’s dad, Oleksandr Pylypets, was 30. Tetyana’s son, Yuriy Taranukha, was 25.

Both men served in the Ukrainian army. They were both killed defending Ukraine against Russia’s invading army in a war which has now entered its 15th month.

It is unclear how many Ukrainian soldiers have died since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February of last year.

The Ukrainian government has never released figures and a suggestion by a top U.S. official last November that around 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been wounded or killed was denied by Ukrainian officials.

Over the past five months, Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbas region have largely been on the back foot.

Russia has, very slowly, taken land around the city of Bakhmut in a grinding, costly and, to date, unsuccessful offensive which Western officials say has “stalled.”

Ukrainian and Western officials consistently stress that Russia has lost many more men in the battle for Bakhmut. Moscow has denied a recent claim by U.S. officials that, in just the last five months of the war around 100,000 Russian troops have been killed or injured.

What can be said with certainty is that the fighting in the Donbas in recent months has been incredibly costly for both sides.

And accounts from Ukrainian soldiers provide us with insights into the scale of the loss.

Oleksiy Storozhez serves in an air reconnaissance unit in the northeastern Kharkiv region.

We met him on March 31, the day of the funeral of his friend, Yuriy Taranukha. The two men had worked construction together before the war in their local town of Zmiiv.

Storozhez said “a lot” of people who he knew in his local town had been killed in recent fighting, mainly in the area of Bakhmut, a city which Russia has been trying to capture for more than six months.

“There are funerals every day. Two or three people I know die every day,” Storozhez told ABC News.

Another soldier, Andriy Sheremet, who said he had been serving on the frontlines near to Bakhmut for around eight months said losses had sometimes been “notable,” however he added that Russian losses he had witnessed had been “much bigger.”

Visits to Ukrainian cemeteries also speak of the scale of sacrifice being made.

From one visit to the next, the long lines of blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags, each one marking the grave of a fallen soldier, grow longer. Freshly-dug graves, ready for the dead to be brought in, can often be spotted.

In one central cemetery in the western city of Lviv, ABC News counted around a hundred graves belonging to soldiers who were killed in the first three months of this year.

Oleg Rydvan was killed in Bakhmut in February. He was reportedly hit by shrapnel in the head after trying to rescue comrades who were surrounded by Russian forces.

In an interview with ABC News, his sister, Liudmyla Polio, described her brother as “a hero” who was killed while trying to save comrades who had become surrounded by Russian forces.

Liudmyla said her brother died for a cause, and, against the odds, helped Ukraine. The country’s forces have, so far, been able to hold onto Bakhmut in a battle that’s been bloody for both sides.

“We see coffins coming and coming,” Liudmyla said. “They are young men who are 30, 31. They had their whole life ahead of them.”

Liudmyla’s remaining brother, Slava, is still serving in the military and has vowed to take revenge against Russia for the death of his brother.

In the bitter and bloody battles in the trenches of eastern Ukraine, a soldier’s own mortality is unescapable.

Soldier Andriy Sheremet was a professional online poker player before Russia’s full-scale invasion and had no prior military experience. He said the only way to manage his intense fear was to “fully accept the possibility” he may die.

ABC News interviewed Andriy at a military rehabilitation center in the eastern Donbas.

Battle weary troops are sent there for two or three days to decompress, before they then return to ducking-down into the mud, out of the line of snipers and the constant thud of artillery and spray of shrapnel at their frontline positions.

The soldiers play table tennis, say prayers, are well fed, and are given trauma and meditation sessions before going back to what a military priest, Father Mykhailo, described as “hell on earth.”

For the soldiers serving in such hellish conditions there is also fear of a crude and simple concept; that to survive they almost certainly will have to kill, or be killed.

For many men, the ability to kill the enemy on the frontlines is automatic, explained Maryna Berko, a military psychologist at the rehabilitation center.

However, she said men with no previous military background can panic that life can begin to seem so fragile that they fear being dehumanized to such an extent that “they will not be able to return over the edge which they have crossed”.

Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion however means Ukrainians, perhaps understandably, rarely spare much thought for the enemy.

In order to cope with his fear of his own death, Andriy Sheremet said he isolated himself from bad thoughts and remained focused “on achieving victory.”

He says, he will, in the future, try and comprehend the current phase of his life.

When on the frontlines, soldier Oleksiy Storozhez said he “begs and prays” to come home “alive and unscathed.”

His biggest fear of being killed is the pain it would cause to his family. However protecting his daughter and wife from invading Russian forces is one of his main motivations to fight.

“I am fighting for my daughter, for her future”, Oleksiy said. “So she does not see, what we see on the front lines.”

Andriy Sheremet said he is partly driven by his desire to return to his former life and “the happiness from a simple walk in the park” or “drinking coffee in the morning with his wife.”

As Ukraine promises a major new offensive, it is almost certain that many more Ukrainian soldiers will be killed.

The inevitable apprehension about what the future months will bring is mixed with that trademark Ukrainian defiance.

Serhiy Pylypets fought back tears after burying his son at his funeral near Kyiv.

“No-one should have any doubt,” he said.

“Ukraine will win, but we will celebrate with tears in our eyes.”

ABC News’ Sohel Uddin, Natalya Kushnir, Yulia Drozd, Natalya Popova, Joe Sheffer and Bruno Roeber contributed to this report.

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