In Ukraine, these gifts of love and sorrow on the graves of soldiers

There is no solemn silence here, typical of civilian burial sites

In Ukraine, these gifts of love and sorrow on the graves of soldiers

There is no solemn silence here, typical of civilian burial sites. Lviv Military Cemetery is lively and highly decorated. There are stuffed animals, cigarettes, cups of coffee... Small signs of love and sorrow.

Wrinkled face, Valeriï Pouchko sits in front of the grave of his son Viktor, a lit cigarette in each hand. One for him, the other for his missing child whose portrait hangs on a cross planted in the ground.

"I smoke with my son. Before, we always took cigarette breaks together," says this man with salt-and-pepper hair. "It's a bad habit but it relieves me. I talk to him, I think," he continues.

"A lot of people do it. Women also smoke with their husbands or their sons" buried in this cemetery reserved for soldiers killed in the war with Russia, adds Mr Pouchko.

Located in a district southeast of Lviv, a large city in western Ukraine some 1,000 kilometers from the front line but sporadically affected by Russian strikes, the historic Lychakiv military cemetery housed thousands of graves dating back to of the First and Second World Wars.

Shortly after the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022, city authorities began burying soldiers killed at the front there. The site nicknamed Champ de Mars has about 350 recent graves and new funerals are held there almost every day.

Last year, another part of this cemetery initially used for military burials "was quickly saturated", told AFP Oleg Pidpysetsky, an official of the town hall in charge of the file.

At first, "some thought it would end in a month or two or six. But the war unfortunately was only spreading," he added.

Today, the tide of blue and yellow national flags and red and black nationalist ones float above the graves on which are placed bouquets and candles.

There are also more unusual objects: children's drawings, a bottle of beer, a glass of whiskey, a stuffed animal in the shape of an airplane, rock vinyls, a golf ball...

"These people gave their lives for us, they didn't live them to the end. That's why their loved ones try to give them what they didn't fully receive during their lifetime," said Oleg, 55, who visits a friend with the same name, killed at 45.

"Unfortunately, nothing can be changed. Thousands of Russkofs will not replace my only Oleg. These are irreparable losses," he said in a broken voice.

Ukraine does not reveal the number of its soldiers killed during the invasion, but Westerners estimate the number of soldiers dead and wounded at more than 100,000.

For Olga, seated in front of her brother-in-law's grave, these small gifts are "all that remains for loved ones, the only link" with the missing.

"It's the only place where they can be together with their heroes. The only way to feel their presence," she adds, tears in her eyes.

Black jacket and small beard, Viatcheslav Sabelnikov, an ex-infantry soldier who became disabled after a serious injury, has several comrades who rest on this site.

He places a candle in front of the portrait of a friend whose birthday it is "to show that we remember these people and their achievements" as another funeral ceremony takes place nearby.

Anna Mikheïeva, a 44-year-old social worker, is at the grave of her son Mykhailo. He was serving in the 80th Parachute Brigade and was killed last year at the age of 25.

She says she often brings him things "he liked": coca-cola, sweet treats, cigarettes .... "If I come in the morning, I buy coffee for me and for him", adds this plump brunette.

For Ms. Mikheïeva, this cemetery is "different" from civilian burial sites where most of the graves belong to elderly people "who must not be disturbed".

"Here, I am among my own. There are only young people, they are all for me my sons or my brothers. I already recognize them by their photos or by their names", she says. "When I arrive I always greet them: hello, guys. And I always, always thank them."

25/03/2023 05:35:16 - Lviv (Ukraine) (AFP) - © 2023 AFP