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The first of Ukraine's fallen soldiers are starting to come home

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Ukrainian military isn't releasing the number of soldiers they've lost in the fight with Russia. That's what they said when we asked. But a U.S. defense analyst estimates more than 1,500 were killed in just the first five days of this war. And across Ukraine, fallen soldiers are beginning to come home. Here in Lviv, at a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, hundreds gathered to receive the bodies of two men killed on the front lines in Russia's war on Ukraine. Outside the church, six soldiers lift one ornate, wooden coffin onto their shoulders. They carry Viktor Dudar, a journalist turned soldier. He was 44.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING)

FADEL: Another six men lift a second coffin, Ivan Koverznev, a 24-year-old lieutenant. Inside, everyone kneels. Men in uniform lead the procession with two crosses, one for Viktor, the other for Ivan. Coffins are carried in behind them, and then the families follow.

UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST #1: (Singing in non-English language).

FADEL: Holy God, Holy Mighty, a priest sings - Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. The mourners look on, flowers in their hands.

UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST #1: (Singing in non-English language).

FADEL: Four a priest perform the funeral service. And then one begins to speak of the slain men.

UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: After eight years of war, he says, they will join the army in heaven. Even there, those killed will continue to fight for their homeland. On each side of the coffins, the families of the men listen stoically, making the sign of the cross in unison with the hundreds who came to mourn with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CENSER JINGLING)

FADEL: One of the priests swings the censer above the two coffins, praying for their salvation. The smoke billows, infusing the air with the sweet smell of frankincense.

(SOUNDBITE OF CENSER JINGLING)

FADEL: Everyone follows the pallbearers out into the street...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: ...Where two vans are waiting to take the caskets to the cemetery.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: The procession continues at Lviv's historic cemetery, past the sculptures adorning the graves of Ukrainian cultural and political icons, down to a section where Ukrainian forces killed in conflict with Russia are buried. It continues to the two plots where the men will be laid to rest.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

FADEL: Soldiers deliver a 21-gun salute as the bodies are lowered into the ground. Relatives wail.

(CRYING)

FADEL: A woman cries out to God. Another sobs, my child.

(CRYING)

FADEL: Haltingly, the mourners sing Ukraine's national anthem.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in non-English language).

FADEL: It's the final goodbye.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Praying in non-English language).

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL DIGGING)

FADEL: A journalist colleague of Viktor's pulls me aside to share a video, Viktor's last toast in their newsroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIKTOR DUDAR: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: He says, believe in yourself. Be strong. And support the armed forces of Ukraine.

(CROSSTALK)

FADEL: Mykola Saveliev looks on in uniform. Eight days ago, he says, he was the editor of a newspaper called Town Hall (ph).

MYKOLA SAVELIEV: (Through interpreter) I'm your colleague.

FADEL: You're my colleague.

SAVELIEV: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: Viktor was his friend, a fellow journalist and his comrade in arms.

SAVELIEV: (Through interpreter) They let me go to visit this funeral of my friend, Viktor Dudar.

FADEL: His friend was killed in the Mykolaiv region in the south of Ukraine. He says the Russians were laying in wait when Viktor's unit arrived.

SAVELIEV: (Through interpreter) Viktor's group went forward. But my son-in-law got behind.

(Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

SAVELIEV: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He's saying that along with Viktor, dozens of soldiers died, too.

SAVELIEV: (Through interpreter) A lot of people are going to be buried in Lviv region.

FADEL: Soldiers aren't the only ones being slain. Russian forces have killed hundreds of civilians. Mykola calls it a war crime.

SAVELIEV: (Through interpreter) And I want to add that I'm not ready to die. But I'm ready to kill right now.

FADEL: Is Viktor the first friend that you've lost in this war?

He gestures to the graves behind him, fighters killed from 2014 on.

SAVELIEV: (Through interpreter) You can see all those crosses? Those people died. And every fifth person, I knew personally.

FADEL: At Viktor's graveside, his wife, Oksana, stands with their daughter. In Oksana's arms, she carries the folded flags that draped her husband's casket.

If you could just tell me about Viktor?

OKSANA: (Through interpreter) I met Viktor when we were students. And he was always kind.

FADEL: They were always together. And there was only one day in their lives He didn't call, the first time he fought against the Russians eight years ago.

And this time, did he volunteer to go back? And did you ask him not to?

OKSANA: (Through interpreter) Yes, he went as a volunteer. But I didn't say no to that because I knew that even if I would say that, you cannot really change his mind if he feels he would go. In order to support him, once I said it's better to be a widow of the hero than the wife of the person who is afraid.

FADEL: Yeah.

OKSANA: (Through interpreter) I was crying a lot before. But today, I was standing. And I was proud of this. And I know that he wanted because he was saying so many times, it's better to die in the fight.

FADEL: Wooden crosses stand in the soil where Viktor and Ivan are buried. Next to them, three open graves. Three more soldiers will be put to rest tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGUS MACRAE'S "CRY WOLF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.