Ukraine celebrates Independence Day and the passage of 18 months of war with ceremonies in Kiev

KIEV — The 6-year-old boy walked up to President Volodymyr Zelensky, his little 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 its 32nd year of independence on Thursday with a somber morning ceremony outside one of Kiev’s most famous cathedrals. Thursday also marks the 18-month anniversary of the war, and the general mood in the capital seemed more subdued than celebratory, as soldiers and civilians contemplated the loss and violence that has marked their world since the Russian invasion in February 2022.

Zelensky spoke of unity and insisted that the country “will not let Ukraine’s independence slip away from the Ukrainians.” People walked the streets wearing traditional embroidered shirts, and visited a fresh display of captured Russian military equipment. Morale improved slightly after news that Ukrainian forces raised the flag in the disputed southern village of Robotyn on Wednesday and landed early Thursday in Russian-occupied Crimea, where they carried out a special operation and also raised the Ukrainian flag.

But as always, the tones of suffering were inevitable.

A 34-year-old soldier with the call sign “Jackson” attended the morning ceremony to support his commander, who was among those awarded Zelensky’s medals for bravery on the front line.

They serve in the east of the country — the same area where in 2015 a landmine in a Russian-backed separatist war left Jackson with 24 shrapnel embedded in his body. Even now, nearly a decade later, his short hair reveals a large scar running across the right side of his head. The titanium plate doctors put inside, he said, “is the price I paid for freedom.”

His injury would have kept him from serving again. But he scored to fight last year anyway. Since then, he has rarely seen his daughters, ages 9 and 3, but serves, he says, to ensure they grow up free.

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

He said that as soon as the ceremony was over, he would lead his commander to the front.

Anna Bondaruk, 25, the mother of 6-year-old Maksim, who attended the party, said it had been a “difficult day”.

“He knows all about war,” she said, as she held Maxim – who was wearing the traditional Ukrainian blue and white shirt – on her lap. “He knows what happened to his father.”

His grandmother, Maria, 45, said the ceremony was an opportunity for him to “remember that his father did something great”.

Oleksey Chichen, a 24-year-old farmer, said his visit to Kiev to collect a medal made him “feel free” after months of occupation and hospital visits. And Russian forces shot him in the leg at close range last year while he was embarking on a covert resistance mission in the southern Mykolaiv region. On Thursday, he moved toward Zelensky without using his crutches — the first time he’d walked alone since he was shot 11 months ago. “My doctor said I would understand when I was ready. Today, I realized it was this moment,” he said beaming.

But Lyubov Konovalenko, 26, a senior medic in the Aidar battalion who also received a medal on Thursday and is now stationed outside Bakhmut, said she felt uncomfortable attending ceremonies in Kyiv when her fellow soldiers were still coming under fire on the front line.

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

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

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

Newlyweds Darina and Evgen Herasyimenko, 23 and 25, joyfully walked hand in hand through the streets of central Kiev on Thursday – she wore a wedding gown and veil, he donned a tan suit. They got married last month but they just took their wedding photos, and the occasion turned out to be bittersweet.

Ten days ago, they buried Darina’s 26-year-old brother, Oleksiy, who was killed in action in Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the southern region of Zaporizhia.

Yevgeny gently wiped the tears from his bride’s face as she described how, on the last day of their honeymoon, they learned of Oleksiy’s death. He had disappeared in early July, but they were hopeful he might still be alive, until Russian forces returned his body in an exchange this month. This experience, Yevgen said, “makes you think that you need to live your life to the fullest and not feel like you’ve missed out on anything.”

A few blocks away, hundreds of people paraded a display of seized Russian equipment on one of the capital’s main streets.

Among them was Yana Zadorozna and her husband, Ivan Zadorozny, who are expecting a baby boy on 20 September. Zadorozna wore a traditional Ukrainian dress while her husband wore a T-shirt depicting the HIMARS long-range artillery system, which was last supplied to Ukraine. year by the United States. Our Jack Russell terrier, Cocos, wore a custom-made jacket. Despite pleas from Zadorozhna’s mother to consider going abroad to have the baby, they plan to give birth in Kiev.

“It was a conscious decision to be born in Ukraine, not somewhere else,” Zadrojna said. “We love our country deeply.”

Nearby, psychologist Yana Gorbunova was strolling across the screen with her daughters Amira, 17, and Katya, 4.

She said the younger one constantly talks about joining the army when she’s older. “I don’t think it has to be like this when you’re 4 and a half years old,” she said. “She knows what the alarm is, and she knows why they ran to the shelter.”

She said war is everywhere they look.

Soon after, air raid sirens sounded, signaling a possible strike on Kiev. Police cycled the streets, urging civilians to take cover. And the same crowd that had joyfully snapped selfies ran into hiding.

Heidi Levine contributed to this report.

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