POKROVSK – About 50 mourners escorted two satin-wrapped coffins through a leafy cemetery in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region on Thursday, family members of two soldiers killed on the nearby frontline last week.
A coffin was opened to reveal the body of 48-year-old Oleh Panchenko, clad in military fatigues and showing visible facial injuries.
“Our hero, I will forever be proud of you,” Panchenko’s mother, Lilia, said through uncontrolled sobs as she bent over her son and kissed his forehead. “God, why are you taking our boys away from us?”
The Pokrovsk burial brought the number of Ukrainian soldiers buried there to 20, in a newer section of the cemetery dedicated to the military casualties.
Almost all of them have been killed since the Russian invasion began on February 24, although others have fallen in the past eight years of fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists for control of the eastern Donbass region.
As Russian forces continue to slowly advance in Donetsk province, which covers half of Donbass, the Ukrainian government is offering burial services for soldiers killed in the fighting and benefits for family members left behind.
One of those soldiers, 26-year-old Serhiy Marchenko, was fighting in an artillery squad in the Donetsk region when he was killed on July 28.
At the Pokrovsk cemetery, a small group of his relatives stood next to his closed coffin, which was draped in a Ukrainian flag, while a priest in a blue robe wafted incense smoke from a gold censer – part of an Orthodox funeral rite.
The grieving family members winced as shots rang out in the cemetery – from three Ukrainian soldiers performing a three-volley salute in honor of the dead.
When the priest finished the rites, Lilia, Panchenko’s mother, used an embroidered handkerchief to wipe flies off her son’s face until it was time to cover his body and lower the coffin into the grave.
“Wait, just wait!” She cried as family members dragged her away before the coffin was finally closed.
Panchenko’s daughter Ruslana said he was a veteran soldier and squad commander who volunteered for the front after hearing about alleged Russian atrocities in Irpin and Bucha, suburbs of the capital Kyiv.
He was killed on July 27 after serving nearly five months at the front, she said, and was the sole survivor of his unit after heavy fighting in Solote, in the Luhansk region.
“He said it was time to kick[the Russians]out,” she said. “He didn’t want to sit still. He wanted to defend himself and wasn’t afraid.”
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