Long Days of Gravediggers Tell Story of Ukraine’s War Dead
The graves are dug in the morning. Four plots, each two meters deep in the section of a cemetery in a central Ukrainian city devoted to the nation’s fallen soldiers.
The day begins for Oleh Itsenko, 29, and Andrii Kuznetsov, 23, shortly after dawn, when the two diggers report for the grueling work. A day in their lives tells the story of Ukraine’s mounting war dead. They won’t be finished until sunset.
With a tractor equipped with an earth auger, they bore into the ground. Armed with shovels, they go about carving out perfect rectangles with precision, the final resting place for the country’s soldiers killed in fierce battles on Ukraine’s eastern front.
There will be four funerals today in the main cemetery of Kryvyi Rih, an iron-mining city 400 kilometers from the capital, Kyiv.
“It’s hard,” says Itsenko, a former metal worker. “But someone’s got to do it.”
In Ukraine, even the business of death has become routine as funerals are held for soldiers across the country almost every day, at times multiple times a day. The war’s death toll is kept a closely guarded secret by government and military officials, but it can be measured in other ways: through the long, working hours of the two young men, the repetitive rhythm of shovels and spades scooping up soil, the daily processions of weeping mourners.
Western officials estimate there have been at least 100,000 Ukrainians soldiers killed or wounded since Russia’s full-scale invasion began last year. Estimates for Moscow’s war dead and wounded are double that as Ukrainian military officials report Russia is using wave tactics to exhaust resources and deplete their morale.
Many soldiers have died fighting in Bakhmut, in what has become the war’s longest battle, and among the deadliest. Ukrainian forces in the city are surrounded from three directions by advancing Russian invaders and are determined to hold on to the city to deprive Moscow of any territorial victories. In the process, many Ukrainian servicemen have died.
At 11 a.m., when the first coffin arrives, the two men lean back, exhausted, under the late morning sun. Shovels to the side, they peer from under baseball caps as the familiar scene, now a routine, unfolds.
The family of Andrii Vorobiov, 51, weep as they enter the premises. Dozens more mourners arrive in buses. The deceased’s fellow servicemen weep as the coffin, draped in the yellow and blue of the national flag, is placed on the gravel. Vorobiov died in an aerial bomb attack in Bakmut, leaving behind three children.
When the priest is done reciting the funeral rites, Vorobiov’s wife throws her hands over his coffin and wails. His daughter holds his medals, won for acts of bravery in the battlefield.
“I won’t see you again,” she screams. “You won’t come to breakfast. I can’t bear it!”
Between tears and screams, Itsenko and Kuznetsov wait for the last handful of dirt to be tossed onto the lowered coffin. Then they can begin the work of filling Vorobiov’s grave.
The outpouring of grief is normal, Kuznetsov said. He isn’t affected most of the time because they are strangers.
But once, he was asked to help carry the coffin because there weren’t enough pallbearers. He couldn’t hold back his anguish in the middle of that crowd.
He didn’t even know the guy, he reflected.
Kuznetsov never imagined he would be a gravedigger. He has a university degree in technology. A good degree, he was told by his teachers.
“If it’s so good, then why am I doing this?” he asked, panting as he shoveled dirt into Vorobiov’s grave.
There were no jobs, and he needed the money, he said finally.
Itsenko lost his job when the war broke out, and learned the local cemetery needed diggers. Without any options, he didn’t need to think twice.
It is 1:30 p.m. While the two young men are still working to fill the first grave, another funeral is starting.
The family of Andrii Romanenko, 31, erects a tent to protect the coffin from the afternoon sun. The priest reads the rites, and the wailing starts again.
Romanenko died when he was hit by a mortar defending the city of Bakhmut. A fellow serviceman, Valery, says they had served together in Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk but parted ways in December.
“He went too soon,” says Valery, sighing deeply. He speaks on the condition his last name be withheld, citing Ukrainian military protocols for active soldiers.
As mourners bid their last farewell and toss earth into Romanenko’s grave, Itsenko and Kuznetsov still have not finished filling the first.
“Got to hurry,” says Itsenko, wiping the sweat from his brow.
There will be two more funerals in the next hour. And tomorrow, there will be another three funerals. Neither man can afford to stop.
“What we are doing is for the greater good,” Itsenko says. “Our heroes deserve a proper resting place.”
But he, his family’s only breadwinner, wouldn’t want to be fighting alongside them.
“It’s better here,” he says, patting Vorobiov’s grave with his shovel. Kuznetsov plunges the cross into the earth, the last step before the flowers are laid.
One done, three more to go.