POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Around 50 mourners escorted two caskets draped in satin through a leafy cemetery in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region Thursday, family members of two soldiers killed last week on the nearby front.
One casket was opened to reveal the military fatigues-clad body of 48-year-old Oleh Panchenko, which bore visible face injuries.
“Our hero, I will be proud of you forever,” Panchenko's mother, Lilia, said through fits of uncontrolled sobbing as she leant over her son, kissing his forehead. “God, why are you taking our boys from us?”
The funeral in Pokrovsk brought to 20 the number of Ukrainian soldiers buried there, in a newer section of the cemetery dedicated to military fatalities.
Nearly all of them were killed since Russia's invasion began on Feb. 24, though others fell during the last eight years of fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists over control of the eastern Donbas region.
As Russian forces continue to make slow gains in the Donetsk province, which makes up half of Donbas, Ukraine's government is providing funeral services for soldiers killed in the fighting, and benefits for family members left behind.
One such soldier, 26-year-old Serhiy Marchenko, was fighting in an artillery squad in the Donetsk region when he was killed on July 28.
At the cemetery in Pokrovsk, a small group of his relatives stood by his closed coffin, draped in a Ukrainian flag, as a priest in a blue vestment wafted the smoke of incense from a golden censer — part of an Orthodox funeral rite.
The grieving family members jumped as gunshots rang out in the cemetery — from three Ukrainian soldiers performing a three-volley salute in honor of the dead.
As the priest finished the rites, Lilia, Panchenko's mother, brushed flies off her son’s face with an embroidered handkerchief until it was time to cover his body and lower the coffin into the grave.
“Wait, just wait!” she cried as family members pulled her away, before the coffin was finally closed.
Panchenko's daughter, Ruslana, said he was an experienced soldier and squad commander who volunteered for the front line after hearing of alleged Russian atrocities in Irpin and Bucha, suburbs of the capital Kyiv.
He was killed on July 27 after serving nearly five months on the front, she said, and was the only survivor in his unit after heavy fighting in Zolote in the Luhansk region.
“He said it's time to kick (the Russians) out,” she said. “He didn't want to sit still. He wanted to defend and he was not afraid.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Justin Spike, The Associated Press