Thousands of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have died in the battle for Bakhmut
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, fighting has killed thousands of soldiers on both sides. Loved ones have fallen. Ukrainians say they're hoping that a spring counteroffensive will push out the Russians. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Six months ago, 39-year-old Oleksandr Onyshchenko died defending Bakhmut.
TAMARA ONYSHCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).
KAKISSIS: His mother, Tamara Onyshchenko often visits his grave at one of three cemeteries in Kyiv that allows military burials. This past Sunday, on an Orthodox Christian day of remembrance, when Ukrainians honor the dead with flowers and food, she brought him a Tupperware of his favorite, cabbage dumplings.
ONYSHCHENKO: (Through interpreter) We steamed the dumplings just the way he likes them. Though we are the ones eating, I believe he is able to enjoy it.
KAKISSIS: She does not notice she's speaking about him in the present tense until she shows me his photo.
I can see that he's your son. He has the same nice smile and eyes.
KAKISSIS: Mav - had the same smile, she says, and she hides her face. She's crying.
ONYSHCHENKO: (Through interpreter) We really, really want to believe that all of those who have died have not died in vain because if there is no victory, then all of those people who are buried here died for no reason.
KAKISSIS: Not far away, a tall, bearded soldier named Viktor Shepelia is wiping away his own tears as he talks to the grave of his friend and fellow soldier Vasiliy. He lights a cigarette and sticks it in the sand on the grave, as if offering it to Vasiliy to smoke. He also fills up a small paper cup with scotch and sets it next to the cigarette.
VIKTOR SHEPELIA: It's my brother - not by blood, but by spirit.
KAKISSIS: By spirit - were you together in the battalion?
KAKISSIS: Yeah. Shepelia broke his back and shattered his leg fighting in Bakhmut, and he's still recovering in Kyiv. He's from a village in Ukraine's east in the Donetsk region, which Russian proxies took over in 2014. He says he's tired of Russian propagandists calling him and other Ukrainian soldiers Nazis.
SHEPELIA: So they think that we are total nationalist, totally fascist.
KAKISSIS: Ironic because, he says...
SHEPELIA: I'm Russian-speaking Jewish from Donetsk.
KAKISSIS: He says he does not regret fighting in Bakhmut, even though it is clearly exhausting his fellow soldiers and the country in general. A few miles away in central Kyiv, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's office, says Ukraine's nine-month defense of Bakhmut has also cost the Russians dearly.
MYKHAILO PODOLYAK: (Through interpreter) Defending Bakhmut proves what Ukraine is about, that it will defend every inch of its land. And it's not just to prove this to ourselves. We also want to show our Western partners that this is who we are and why we will stand to the end.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KAKISSIS: Back at the cemetery, musician Serhiy Sukhomlyn is playing a stringed instrument called the bandura to honor the dead. He says he's lost several friends in Bakhmut. And even though Russia's invasion has united most Ukrainians, he worries a long war could wear down that resolve.
SERHIY SUKHOMLYN: (Through interpreter) There are a lot of people who think, who are we without Russia? They are quiet now, but they could start raising their heads again.
KAKISSIS: Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.