As Ukraine struggles to count war casualties, families bury the dead one by one

Oksana Shlonska and a family member at the funeral of her husband, Volodymyr Nezhenets, in the Church of the Holy Supreme Apostles Peter and Paul in Kyiv, Ukraine, a week after the invasion.
Oksana Shlonska and a family member at the funeral of her husband, Volodymyr Nezhenets, in the Church of the Holy Supreme Apostles Peter and Paul in Kyiv, Ukraine, a week after the invasion. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

KYIV, Ukraine — Even as the boom of outgoing artillery shells sounded every minute, Oksana Shlonska was determined to bury her husband. He was killed by gunfire last Sunday, but the war had prevented his final rites.

First, the autopsy took days due to the numerous corpses arriving at the morgue. Then, on Thursday, a Grad missile crashed near the gravesite in Kyiv, forcing the mourners to flee. “The Russians shelled even the cemetery,” said Shlonska, 52. “They fear even our dead.”

Volunteer fighter Volodymyr Nezhenets, 54, was fatally shot in a gun battle in Kyiv on Feb. 27. His widow, Oksana, was determined to give him a proper burial. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Lee Powell/The Washington Post, Photo: Heidi Levine for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

On Friday, despite the danger, she was going to try again to pay her last respects to her 54-year-old husband, Volodymyr Nezhenets, a child psychologist who signed up last week to fight against Russia and was fatally shot in a gun battle not too far from the cemetery.

“It is important for me to bury him today,” she said as she waited in the morning at the morgue to claim his remains. In her arms, she clutched a portrait of him.

As Ukraine’s war intensifies and spreads into multiple cities, the casualties are mounting. So are the obstacles to give proper send-offs to the dead. The precise numbers of both civilian and military deaths are murky and cannot be independently verified.

But that total means little to those Ukrainians who know one searing truth: Their loved ones had either sacrificed their lives for their family and country in battle or been killed in crossfire or bombings. Most Ukrainians and international officials expect the toll, and the challenges of burying the dead, to significantly rise as the conflict appears to be entering a more dangerous phase.

“The days to come are likely to be worse, with more death, more suffering, and more destruction, as the Russian armed forces bring in heavier weaponry and continue their attacks across the country,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels, after a meeting with the alliance’s foreign ministers.

The United Nations has recorded at least 752 civilian casualties so far across Ukraine, with 227 killed and 525 injured, including scores of children. Those figures, which were calculated up to the end of Monday, have likely grown significantly as the conflict has escalated in more cities and towns across the nation. Already, the civilian casualty numbers are greater than what the United Nations recorded in eastern Ukraine’s conflict zone between 2018 and 2021.

The Ukrainian State Emergency Service has reported that more than 2,000 civilians have been killed since the invasion began, but that number has not been independently verified. Ukraine’s army said Friday that more than 9,000 Russian soldiers have died in fighting, but Moscow has announced that 498 of its troops have died and 1,597 been injured.

Russia, in turn, claims 2,870 Ukrainian troops have been killed and more than 3,500 wounded. Ukraine disputes those numbers, providing the numbers of their casualties in the scores, with data provided by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in public statements. Ukraine’s military has been reticent to share figures on its own military casualties.

On Friday, the director of the state-run morgue declined to discuss with Washington Post journalists the numbers of bodies received since Russia began its attacks.

‘Morgues are full’

Shlonska’s effort to bury her husband is one measure of Ukraine’s war casualties and their toll. On Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded, Nezhenets gave up his practice. In 2014, the father of three was wounded fighting in eastern Ukraine and had left the military. Now, he enlisted again as a contractor, said his wife.

Three days later, Nezhenets was driving a white car in a convoy that included a bus carrying remnants of Russian weapons that Ukrainian officials believed could be used to make allegations of war crimes before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

He called his wife at close to 7:30 p.m. to say he’d be home soon, said Shlonska. At 10 p.m., she got a phone call from the Territorial Defense Forces. Her husband was dead.

“The column of cars and the bus came under fire,” said his son, Dmytro. The family was told that Russian “saboteurs” had infiltrated the capital and ambushed the convoy. When she heard the news, Shlonska went numb.

(Members of the Territorial Defense Forces gave a different explanation for the bloodshed that night. They said Ukrainian forces fired on each other, thinking the other side were Russian infiltrators. A senior military comrade of Nezhenets, who was at the funeral, said the incident was under investigation.)

“It seems like after that there was nothing,” Shlonska said. She then showed a photo on her cellphone of a badly damaged white Skoda that Nezhenets drove that night. “This is our Skoda,” said his wife. “It’s not a military car.”

They took her husband’s body to the morgue to get a death certificate. It took several days to do an autopsy and determine the cause of death. The results were available Thursday. “Police stations and morgues are overwhelmed,” said Shlonska, adding that her husband had died of “multiple gunshot wounds.”

“In wartime, some procedures take a bit longer than usual,” said Dmytro.

Vladimir Klymniuk, the director of the Berkovets Cemetery, one of the largest in Kyiv, said many of the capital’s residents feared burying their loved ones because of explosions. “I have heard of some who are keeping their dead relatives inside their houses,” he said, referring to those killed by the war and those who died of natural causes. “Others have left bodies in the morgue. They are too afraid.”

“At some point, there will be a lot of work for us,” he added. “We will have to bury a lot of people because the morgues are full.”

After getting her husband’s death certificate, Shlonska, her son, and family and friends went to the Berkovets Cemetery to prepare his burial. Then shelling began. The cemetery’s office began to shake, recalled Klymniuk.

“I ran out and tried to hide behind the tombstones,” he said. “The explosions were happening for two minutes. They were the loudest things I have heard in my life. Some tree branches were sliced off by the rockets.”

Mother and son also took cover by the tombstones. After the attack, the gravediggers were too afraid to continue. Nezhenets’s body was returned to the morgue and placed in a freezer.

‘Not going to leave’

On Friday morning, morgue workers placed Nezhenets’s body in a casket. It was carried to a large white van. Shlonska and her son followed in their black sedan.

About a mile from the Ukrainian Orthodox church where a service was scheduled, they passed a large purple bus riddled with bullet holes parked on the street. It was not far from several burned-out vehicles.

This was where Nezhenets was killed. The van stopped in front of the Church of the Holy Supreme Apostles Peter and Paul. Several military comrades of Nezhenets, including one tall soldier limping on crutches, were waiting to carry his coffin inside. The injured soldier was sitting in the passenger seat of Nezhenets’s car when the gunfire erupted.

That’s when the first of a series of outgoing artillery shells began. An air raid siren also went off. But no one was running for cover. Everyone wanted to pay their respects to Nezhenets.

The priest began the funeral under the ornately painted domed church ceiling. Dressed in a long cream robe, his melodic prayers echoed off the walls as the mourners held candles. The sounds of more shells vibrated through the walls. Shlonska clutched her husband’s portrait, tears welling in her eyes. Mourners kissed her husband’s forehead, one by one.

They carried out his coffin, placed it back in the van, and drove to the site of his grave. Near the gravesite were pieces of the rockets that had fallen the day before. As the coffin was placed inside the grave, mother and son stood together, trying to fight back the tears.

Shlonska now plans to volunteer at a hospital and help the wounded. Like her husband, she, too, is a psychologist. This will be her way, she said, of helping her homeland.

“I just can’t stay at home,” she said, as her son kissed the back of her head and held her. “I’m a Kyiv resident. Several generations of my family lived here and I’m not going to leave.”

After gravediggers covered up her husband’s grave, she placed his portrait on it. The booms of the outgoing shelling still reverberated across the cemetery.

Volodymyr Petrov contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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