‘The best of the best is dying’: Ukraine’s year of war, air sirens and loss

Mourner outside funeral for soldier at military church in Lviv, Ukraine, January 16, 2023.
Click to play video: '‘We are tired from funerals’: Daily burials in Lviv after a year of war in Ukraine'
‘We are tired from funerals’: Daily burials in Lviv after a year of war in Ukraine
Jeff Semple reports from Lviv – Feb 23, 2023

LVIV, Ukraine — The mourners who gathered outside Lviv’s military church to send off Roman Skalskyi held blue and yellow flowers.

Skalskyi was an entrepreneur with big dreams. He was starting his own business in Lviv, selling office climate control systems, when Russia invaded Ukraine.

On Jan. 5, a mortar ended his life in a trench near Kreminna, a city in eastern Ukraine that President Vladimir Putin wants for Russia.

The Lviv armed forces cemetery reached capacity long ago, so Skalskyi’s was allotted a grave plot on a grassy slope nearby.

It, too, is filling up.

Roman Skalskyi, a Lviv entrepreneur, died in a trench in eastern Ukraine on Jan. 5, 2023. Handout

“The best of the best is dying,” said his cousin Tatiana Odnorih as she stood on the cobblestone outside the church, waiting for his casket to arrive.

A black mourning scarf over her blonde hair, she swiped at her phone until she found a photo of Skalskyi in his winter army uniform.

His eyes were pale blue, cheeks red from the cold. His blood type, Rh+, was velcroed to his camouflage. He was 26.

“Victory will be upon us,” she said.

Military band for three fallen soldiers, Lviv, Ukraine, Jan. 16, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

Military funerals are almost daily events at this church in West Ukraine. They are so frequent that several services are often held at once.

On this overcast day in mid-January, three fallen soldiers received their last rites together, their caskets carried on the shoulders of their compatriots.

Flags and crosses. Uniforms and candles. The brass band played a requiem in a minor key. The hearses idled outside, doors open.

“Glory to Ukraine,” the priest said.

“Glory to the heroes,” the mourners responded.

Damage, Displacement and Death

A year after Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, launching Europe’s most significant war since 1945, the losses have been devastating.

Ukraine has been heavily damaged by Russian attacks on civilian, government and industrial buildings. The country hasn’t even begun to clean up and rebuild.

A woman cycles past a war-damaged building in Posad-Pokrovske, Ukraine, Jan. 21, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

The electrical grid has been a favourite Russian target, causing widespread power outages in winter and making the hum of generators part of the soundscape.

According to the World Health Organization, almost 700 Ukrainian healthcare facilities have been attacked, as well as 98 ambulances, resulting in 101 deaths.

More than 100 churches, 19 monuments, 18 museums and 12 libraries have been damaged, according to UNESCO.

Fourteen million have been displaced from their homes, including eight million who have fled and are now refugees.

The economic impacts have been enormous. Ukraine’s economy has shrunk by a third, and poverty jumped to 25 per cent in 2022 from 5.5 per cent in 2021.

Supply chain disruptions have driven up the cost of food worldwide, and according to the OECD, the war could cost the global economy $2.3 trillion by the end of this year.

A funeral for a fallen soldier near Lviv, Ukraine, March 9, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

Meanwhile, Russians have watched their country grow increasingly isolated, paranoid and intolerant, with over 2,400 arrested for protesting Putin’s war.

Pass any cemetery in Ukraine, and there are new graves. Ukraine and Russia have each suffered an estimated 100,000 military casualties, according to the U.S. As many as 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died as of December.

But for many Ukrainians, the war has been very personal: the heartbreak of losing loved ones in incomprehensible acts of violence, committed for reasons that Russia cannot even coherently explain.

At least 8,006 Ukrainian civilians have lost their lives, mostly due to artillery shelling, multi-launch rocket systems, missiles and air strikes, according to the UN. Another 13,287 have been injured. Almost 500 of the dead are children.


Missiles and Defiance

Standing in front of a gap in the Dnipro skyline that was once an apartment building, an Orthodox priest listed off the dead: a doctor, a boxer, a teacher.

“It’s a big loss for every one of us,” the priest told mourners who gathered at the site a week after the Jan. 14 missile strike that killed 46 people in their homes.

“They didn’t die in battle, but this rocket took their life,” he said. “May they rest in peace.”

Orthodox priests at the site of a Jan. 14 missile attack on an apartment building in Dnipro, Ukraine. Stewart Bell/Global News

A couple wept on the sidewalk while a violinist played Adagio in G minor. Their son was in his apartment on the fifth floor when the Russian Kh-22 anti-ship missile hit the building at about 3:30 p.m.

“They didn’t find him yet, no body, nothing,” the father said.

“We don’t have words.”

“He smiled all the time,” his mother added. “A golden kid.”

His wife joined them. She said her parents also died in the attack.

“It’s inhuman. It’s like crazy people,” she said. “I hate them, all of them.”

“They want to scare us, but they won’t manage to achieve this because we are strong.”

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Russia, which has made disinformation a key part of its war, has denied attacking the apartment building.

People are Tired

Across the street from Lviv’s monument to nationalist poet Taras Shevchenko, the garrison church is a monument to Ukraine’s losses and a reminder they began long before 2022.

The photos of hundreds of soldiers killed in the war against Russia in eastern Ukraine are displayed inside. Many died in 2014, when Putin exploited a moment of political turmoil in Kyiv to seize Donetsk and Crimea.

Photos of fallen soldiers and a display of war debris in the garrison church in Lviv, Ukraine, Jan. 16, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

The full-scale Russian invasion launched a year ago didn’t go as planned, and Russia was forced to retreat from Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson, but the costs have been high, and it’s not over.

Yuriy Tsiupka, a military chaplain at Lviv’s garrison church, said he and his colleagues were holding services for the war dead “often, very often.”

“People are tired, tired of different things,” he said, assessing his worshippers after a year of ground war, air sirens and uncertainty.

The invasion has put lives on hold. Nobody can make plans; the future is too unpredictable. They can’t rest, and they are putting everything off until later.

They are exhausted by the grim cycle of news, habitually checking their phones to find out what the Russians have done now, he said.


To explain Ukraine’s predicament, he said to imagine that someone came into your house and took over one room and then another.

Unless you stand up to them, they will keep going. So you have to confront them, or they will have the whole house before long.

“We are also tired of funerals, but we understand it’s not possible to be another way during the war,” he said. “We believe in God, and we believe in truth.”

Burial at the Overflow Cemetery

Outside the church, Mykhailo Zinenko was waiting for the soldiers to carry Skalskyi’s coffin through the wooden doors for the service. He said:

“It’s too many funerals for one year.”

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They met on the frontline, he said, the invasion compelling them to put on uniforms. Skalskyi would talk about his small business plans, he added.

Roman Skalskyi and Lesia Skalska at their wedding in June 2022. Family Handout

Zinenko is from Melitopol, a southern city occupied by Russian troops. He was working for an American IT company a year ago.

He loved to travel and was a fan of history. He had read All Quiet on the Western Front, never imagining he would live it.

When Russia attacked, his parents fled to Kyiv. His grandfather was ill and couldn’t get the medical care he needed. When he died, Zinenko could not be there. It was too dangerous.

Now that the shock has worn off, the war has become “part of our life,” he said. Ukrainians are emotionally drained.

His friends have had enough, he said.

“They’re so tired of this.”

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Jan. 5 was “just a normal day,” he said. Then he was told Skalskyi was dead, killed by a mortar that landed in his trench in Luhansk.

Zinenko was disgusted. Skalskyi had just been promoted to leader of his army unit. “It’s awful,” he said. “He’s so young.”

Mourners stand over the grave of Roman Skalskyi, Lviv, Ukraine, Jan. 16, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

The sky was grey. The soldiers assembled beside the church. One was missing a leg. Down the block, a yellow streetcar passed, and life went on.

They carried the coffins inside and the priest said Skalskyi was born in Lviv and went to School #63, and then to Lviv Polytechnic National University.

“He loved Ukrainian music,” the priest said.

Skalskyi thought it was wrong to let others take Ukraine’s land, so he enlisted in the civil defence force in March, he said.

Uniformed women with ponytails and men with cropped hair bowed their heads. Some cried. They knelt as the coffins were carried back outside and hoisted into the waiting vehicles.

Roman Skalskyi and Lesia Skalska at their wedding in June 2022. Family Handout

At the makeshift cemetery, the soldiers draped Ukrainian flags over the caskets while older men dug three rectangular pits.


Flags, flowers and crosses stretched up the hill to the treeline. This is just one cemetery among many across a big country.

A woman played a video on her phone. It was recorded before Christmas and showed Skalskyi congratulating Ukrainians on the new year.

“We as the armed forces of Ukraine will try to give you the most pleasant gift,” he said. “But I would like to tell you, thank you for your support, we couldn’t have done it without you. Happy holidays, everyone.”

His wife Lesia Skalska is 24. They met through a dating app. “I am the first person he texted,” she said. “We were married in June last year.”

A slight 24-year-old, she arrived at the ceremony in a dress with bare shoulders. He wore khaki pants, a white shirt and a black belt. They posed for a photo holding the marriage certificate.

Roman Skalskyi and Lesia Skalska at their wedding in June 2022. Family Handout

Once the war was over, they would hold a big wedding reception, they told themselves. “But he didn’t manage to live through it,” his mother said.

Skalskyi was sent to the Donbas front in August. The last time he saw his wife was during a leave in November.

Before the war, she used to walk in this park. Then it became an appendage of the war cemetery, and she had to bury her husband there.

She said she just wanted it to end.