Somber scenes in Kyiv mark Ukraine’s Independence Day and 18 months of war (2023)


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KYIV — The 6-year-old boy walked up to President Volodymyr Zelensky, his small hands outstretched to accept a medal on behalf of his father — a Ukrainian soldier killed in action last year.

It was a quiet moment that seemed to convey the grief of all of Ukraine as the country marked 32 years of independence on Thursday with a somber morning ceremony outside one of Kyiv’s most famous cathedrals. Thursday also marked the 18-month anniversary of the war, and the mood in the capital felt more subdued than celebratory, as soldiers and civilians reflected on the loss and violence that have defined their world since Russia invaded in February 2022.

Zelensky spoke of unity and insisted the country “will not let Ukrainian independence slip out of Ukrainian hands.” People walked through the streets dressed in vyshyvankas — traditional embroidered shirts — and visited a new display of seized Russian military hardware. Spirits were lifted slightly by news that Ukrainian forces had raised a flag in the contested southern village of Robotyne on Wednesday and landed in Russian-occupied Crimea early Thursday, where they carried out a special operation and also flew the Ukrainian flag.


But as always, the undertones of suffering were unavoidable.

A 34-year-old soldier who goes by the call sign “Jackson” attended the morning ceremony in support of his commander, who was among those receiving medals from Zelensky for their courage on the front line.

They are serving in the country’s east — the same region where a 2015 mine blast in a Russian-backed separatist war left Jackson with 24 pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body. Even now, almost a decade later, his close-shaved hair reveals a large scar running down the right side of his head. The titanium plate doctors placed inside “is the price I paid for liberty,” he said.

His injury could have made him exempt from serving again. But he signed up to fight last year anyway. Since then, he has hardly seen his two daughters, 9 and 3, but he is serving, he said, to ensure they grow up free.


“I don’t want them to have this same experience,” he said. “If we don’t finish this war now, they will have to.”

As soon as the ceremony was over, he said, he would be driving his commander back to the front.

Anna Bondaruk, 25, mother of Maksym, the 6-year-old in the ceremony, said it was a “hard day.”

“He knows everything about the war,” she said as she held Maksym — dressed in a traditional blue-and-white Ukrainian shirt — on her lap. “He knows what happened to his father.”

His grandmother, Maria, 45, said the ceremony was a chance for him “to remember that his father did a great thing.”

Oleksii Chechyn, a 24-year-old farmer, said his visit to Kyiv to receive a medal made him “feel free” after months of occupation and hospital visits. He was shot in the leg by Russian troops at close range last year as he embarked on a secretive resistance mission in the southern region of Mykolaiv. On Thursday, he moved toward Zelensky without using his crutch — the first time he had walked on his own since he was shot 11 months ago. “My doctor said I would understand when I was ready. Today, I understood it was this moment,” he said, beaming.


But Lyubov Konovalenko, 26, a senior medic in the Aydar Battalion who also received a medal Thursday and is currently stationed just outside Bakhmut, said she felt uncomfortable attending festivities in Kyiv when her fellow soldiers were still under fire on the front line.

She is originally from the southern city of Berdyansk, which is now under Russian occupation.

“We know we are fighting for this reason, so people can live here,” she said of Kyiv. But sometimes, she said, it feels as if “people in cities like this forget there is a war.”

Even for those whose lives may appear untouched, the pain is often lurking just below the surface.

Newlyweds Daryna and Yevgen Herasymenko, 23 and 25, walked joyfully hand-in-hand through the streets of central Kyiv on Thursday — she in a wedding gown and veil, he in a tan suit. They were married last month but had only just taken their wedding photos, and the occasion felt bittersweet.


Ten days ago, they had buried Daryna’s 26-year-old brother, Oleksii, who was killed fighting in Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the southern Zaporizhzhia region.

Yevgen gently wiped tears from his bride’s face as she described how they learned on the final day of their honeymoon that Oleksii had died. He had disappeared in early July, but they had held out hope he might still be alive — until his body was returned by Russian troops in a swap this month. That experience “makes you believe you need to live your life to the fullest and not feel like you missed out on anything,” Yevgen said.

A few blocks away, hundreds of people wandered through the display of seized Russian equipment on one of the capital’s main thruways.

Among them were Yana Zadorozhna and her husband, Ivan Zadorozhniy, who are expecting a baby boy on Sept. 20. Zadorozhna wore a traditional Ukrainian dress and her husband a T-shirt depicting a HIMARS, the long-range artillery system supplied to Ukraine last year by the United States. Their Jack Russell terrier, Cocos, wore a custom-made vyshyvanka. Despite pleas by Zadorozhna’s mother to consider going abroad to have the baby, they plan to deliver in Kyiv.


“It was a conscious decision to give birth in Ukraine and not somewhere else,” Zadorozhna said. “We love our country deeply.”

Nearby, psychologist Yana Gorbunova strolled through the display with her daughters Amira, 17, and Katya, 4.

The younger one, she said, already talks incessantly about joining the army when she grows up. “I don’t think it should be like this at 4½ years old,” she said. “She knows what an alarm is, she knows why they’re running to a shelter.”

The war, she said, is everywhere they look.

Soon after, an air-raid siren wailed, signaling a potential strike on Kyiv. Police biked through the streets, urging civilians to find hard cover. The same crowds that had just joyfully posed for selfies rushed to hide.

Heidi Levine contributed to this report.

What to know about Ukraine’s counteroffensive

The latest: The Ukrainian military has launched a long-anticipated counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces, opening a crucial phase in the war aimed at restoring Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and preserving Western support in its fight against Moscow.

The fight: Ukrainian troops have intensified their attacks on the front line in the southeast region, according to multiple individuals in the country’s armed forces, in a significant push toward Russian-occupied territory.

The front line: The Washington Post has mapped out the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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