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They are why Ukraine stands. Remembering fallen Ukrainian soldiers
Editor’s Note: The Kyiv Independent is paying tribute to the Ukrainian soldiers who have been killed defending their country in the six months since the start of Russia's all-out invasion on Feb. 24.
We don’t know how many have been killed, since the government doesn’t disclose the losses. We don’t have all of their names. With this tribute, we want to honor their sacrifice and highlight how little we know about the people who are the reason Ukraine still stands.
When the first Russian missiles hit Ukrainian cities early in the morning of Feb. 24, it was the Ukrainian military that stepped up to defend the people and future of Ukraine – in other words, to save its independence.
Thousands won’t be returning home.
The government hasn’t been disclosing Ukraine’s military losses. But there are bits of information that allow one to presume they are high.
In June, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine was losing up to 100 soldiers daily in combat. That number reportedly went down in July, when Ukraine started using high-precision Western artillery. On Aug. 22, Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi unexpectedly said that Ukraine has lost “almost 9,000 heroes.”
These figures don't include the 4,619 Ukrainian soldiers killed in Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine in 2014-2022.
Every new death is not simply a number in a spreadsheet, it’s a world-crashing event for a parent, a child, a spouse, a friend.
"All of our soldiers are heroes. They will stand until the end," says Illia Melnyk, whose 50-year-old father Taras Melnyk was killed in fighting near Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast, in August.
Melnyk is a soldier himself. The 20-year-old man from the western Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast served in the Armed Forces in Zaporizhzhia Oblast when the full-scale war broke out in February. When his father realized his son would go to the front lines, he joined the military, too.
Even though Illia tried to convince his father that his three daughters and grandson needed him at home, Taras wouldn't listen.
"He was a patriot. He wanted Ukraine to thrive," the son says.
In early spring, Taras Melnyk went to defend Kyiv Oblast from Russians invading from the north, and was severely injured. His ribs were broken, he had a concussion and couldn’t breathe normally. That didn't stop Taras from returning to the front line.
On his father's birthday, June 4, Illia Melnyk himself got badly injured by Russian shelling. He was hospitalized with an open fracture of his leg bone and a torn-off palm and fingers.
But even at the hospital, enduring severe pain, all Illia could think of was his father: "I worried about him a lot."
Taras called one day to tell his family he wouldn't have phone service for several days due to a combat mission and would be back in touch in a week. It was the last time Illia heard his father's voice.
Russian shelling killed Taras Melnyk near Bakhmut on Aug. 14.
"My father… He was a hero. He volunteered to go defend Ukraine," he says. "He fought and died for us, for all of us. He defended our country and our freedom."
Another fallen soldier was a Dnipro native Denys Kotenko.
His fight for Ukraine started back in 2014 when he joined the Azov Regiment and took part in military operations in Donbas, including the battle for Shyrokyne in Donetsk Oblast.
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February, Kotenko worked at the Veterans’ Affairs Ministry, and was on assignment in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast.
He rushed back to Kyiv to take his wife and little son to a safer place. After that, Kotenko joined the military and went to fight Russian troops in Kyiv Oblast.
In late March, Kotenko stopped responding to his wife's messages.
"I knew something had happened to him," Anastasia says.
Kotenko was killed by a Russian tank in Lukianivka, a village in Kyiv Oblast, on March 24. He was 25. His little son Roman was less than two years old when he lost his father.
She says her husband was a "fearless warrior" who never doubted risking his life for his country's freedom.
"He died for the independence of Ukraine,” Anastasia says.
Russia's brutal full-scale invasion also killed 23-year-old soldier Stanyslav Dzhura-Sokolovskyi.
The young soldier did not hesitate to sign up to fight for Ukraine when the all-out invasion started, even though he could have stayed at his job at the railway station in his native Zhmerynka in Vinnytsia Oblast.
He went to Mariupol, where he joined the Azov Regiment.
Dzhura-Sokolovskyi spent more than a month fighting off the Russian siege of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine’s last stronghold in the city.
His mother Olha says that during his time there, he was at times starving, losing a lot of weight, and his hair had started to turn gray from the horrors he had witnessed.
Later, she had to identify the remains of his body in a morgue refrigerator in Kyiv. Dzhura-Sokolovskyi was killed in combat in Mariupol on April 8.
"When my son was going to war, he said: 'I'm doing this for you. I don't want Russians to go any further," his mother recalls.
"Just like the thousands of other Ukrainian soldiers, my son went to the war so that we could live in peace," she says. "Thanks to the soldiers like him, Ukraine is standing strong."