DULIBY, Ukraine — In a window of six days this month, Ahafiya Vyshyvana buried both of her sons, Vasyl and Kyrylo Vyshyvaniy, side-by-side, in plots that had been reserved for her and the boys’ father. The roses piled atop Vasyl’s grave had barely wilted before she put Kyrylo in the ground on Tuesday.
The entire village of Duliby, set in pastoral western Ukraine and home to 3,000 people, gathered to pay their respects to the older brother. Hands clasped in praying form, they lined the streets as pallbearers carried Kyrylo’s body inside a small wooden church. Priests chanted the hymn “The Suffering Mother,” spoke of Kyrylo’s bravery, and said he had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country and people. A choir sang funeral hymns. The lips of battled-hardened troops in uniform quivered. The sweet scent of incense hung in the air.
The mourners then moved in a solemn procession from the church to the village cemetery, passing people who stood and kneeled outside their homes. When they stopped at the gravesite, boyish soldiers in neatly pressed uniforms played horns and performed a customary gun salute, firing four shots into the air. The cracks of the rifles startled some of the war-weary people in the crowd. Many placed their hands over their hearts and sang the national anthem, which begins with the line, “The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished.”
Vasyl, a 28-year-old senior lieutenant and paratrooper who first joined Ukraine’s armed forces as a fresh-faced 20-year-old in 2014, was killed by Russian forces on the southern front in Mykolayiv on March 3. The fighting was so intense there that it took days for the army to recover his body and evacuate it to Duliby, said Josef, a longtime family friend with a Cossack-style haircut. Vasyl’s casket arrived sealed shut. He was buried in a similar ceremony on March 9.
On March 13, Kyrylo, 35, died amid a barrage of Russian missiles that struck the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security in Yavoriv, a town that sits 10 miles from the border with Poland and had hosted US troops until last month.
After three weeks of heavy fighting, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has intensified and spread across the country in recent days, with missiles and artillery pounding airports, military targets, and residential areas. There is almost no region, nor city, nor village, that remains untouched by Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, the largest in Europe since World War 2. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday that more than 1,300 of his soldiers have been killed so far.
While there is still no end in sight, Zelensky said early Wednesday that negotiations with Moscow were starting to “sound more realistic.”
“However, time is still needed for the decisions to be in Ukraine’s interests,” he added.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that some parts of a potential peace deal were close to being agreed with Kyiv after it said it would discuss “neutrality.”
The funeral for Kyrylo began Tuesday morning in Lviv, where his body and the bodies of three other soldiers — Oleh Yashchyshyn, Rostyslav Romanchuk, and Serhiy Melnyk — were brought in polished wooden caskets to the baroque Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church.
Hundreds of mourners who gathered there to pay their respects took turns approaching the caskets, touching them, and placing large bouquets of flowers atop them. Many made the sign of the cross, glanced upwards, and mumbled prayers under their breath. Mothers hugged the boxes holding their boys as priests doused them in holy water.
When air raid sirens and warnings to take shelter blared from Lviv’s city hall mid-funeral, the mourners defiantly stood their ground and continued to sing.
Yashchyshyn, Romanchuk, and Melnyk were laid to rest at Lviv’s historic Lychakiv Cemetery. But Kyrylo was loaded into the back of a hearse and driven 35 miles southwest to Duliby to be buried beside his younger brother.
After nearly two hours, the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag that had covered Kyrylo’s casket throughout the day was folded and given to Vyshyvana by a Ukrainian army officer.
“Accept this flag as a symbol of the state that your son served faithfully to the end,” the officer told Vyshyvana, who was too distraught to accept it and deferred to a family member.
It took a 10-man rotation 20 excruciating minutes to fill Kyrylo’s grave with dirt. Vyshyvana wept uncontrollably the entire time and at one point collapsed to her knees and tumbled onto the grave of Vasyl. “Why, God? Trade me for them! Please take me!” she cried out.
“We are so proud of you boys. The country is so proud of you,” she repeated until she was out of breath and the words faded into a chilling whisper.
Beside her, wearing a black head wrap, was Mariana Lopushanska, the girlfriend of Vasyl. Overwhelmed with emotion, she fainted and fell at the foot of his grave.
“God takes the very best ones,” Halyna, a neighbor, said of the Vyshyvaniy boys.
Vasyl loved playing soccer and was on the local team when he was younger, said Josef. Vasyl joined the military in 2014 and fought in eastern Ukraine, he said. Kyrylo, 35, supported the decision and in 2017 he also joined the armed forces.
“We grew up together. We were a very close family. He wasn’t just my brother. He was my friend as much as he was my brother,” Kyrylo told The New York Times after Vasyl’s funeral.
Natalia Bodnar, their older sister, told BuzzFeed News that she had helped raise her brothers and said the boys used to joke and laugh together. Bodnar said she had spoken with Kyrylo for the last time on Saturday. She said he was worried about their mother and her health. After Vasyl’s death, she was briefly hospitalized.
Kyrylo died the next morning, just before sunrise. He was one of 35 people killed in the attack on Yavoriv; 134 more were injured.
Captain Roman Bilyakovskiy told BuzzFeed News at Kyrylo’s funeral that he had last seen his friend inside a building at the training center as the attack unfolded. He said Kyrylo told him to run and seek safety while he stayed behind to help others. Moments later, the building took a direct missile hit and Kyrylo was buried under the rubble, Bilyakovskiy said. It would take the rest of the day to dig out his body.
Kyrylo is survived by his wife and infant daughter.
Bodnar said Kyrylo was solemn the last time they spoke and he told her matter-of-factly that he believed he would soon join Vasyl in the afterlife.
“He told me, ‘You can bury me beside Vasyl,’” she said.