KHARKIV, Ukraine — Surrounded by hundreds of blue and gold flags fluttering in the military section of Cemetery 18 in Kharkiv, the soldiers toasted their young platoon commander with glasses of vodka, leaving a third glass, filled to the brim, atop his grave.
One of the soldiers, who declined to give his name, said that the commander, Balaban Oleksyi, 38, had saved his life, rescuing him when he was wounded in combat this summer.
The soldier was still recovering when the commander was killed in July along with 19 other soldiers during fighting near the Russian border in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region. Shrapnel from a tank shell tore through his body.
Now, supporting himself with a cane, the soldier staggered over soft, freshly dug earth toward the commander’s grave.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there to rescue you,” he said, wiping away tears.
That soldier and a comrade, with the nom de guerre Nazar, sat grieving for a few minutes under a gray sky, before piling into a car and pulling away.
Moments later, a dozen people gathered around the open coffin of Roman Vakulenko. He had joined the Ukrainian Army as a volunteer in August, and was killed by a Russian artillery strike on Oct. 25 after being deployed to Bakhmut, a city in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region that has experienced intense fighting.
His wife, Olena Kosenkova, 60, said she had begged him not to volunteer.
New York Times – November 5, 2022