In Ukraine, a perilous journey to bury a 13-year-old girl

Mourners at the funeral of 13-year-old Sophia Raietska on May 13 in Svitlodarsk, Ukraine.
Mourners at the funeral of 13-year-old Sophia Raietska on May 13 in Svitlodarsk, Ukraine. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
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CHUHUIV, Ukraine — The coffin was covered in a pale pink fabric with a white frill trim — chosen for a young girl. The woman who sold it had questions. Who was this casket for? And how did she get here?

The man who was responsible for taking the girl to her final resting place didn’t have answers. He was a stranger who had volunteered for the task.

Even if Roman Kholodov had known her, he wouldn’t have been able to recognize her. The body was badly burned — and very little of it remained. This petite coffin was too big for her now, just one small lump under a cream-colored silk blanket. Kholodov asked the morgue attendant which end was her head so she could be placed inside properly.

He took a deep breath and lit a cigarette after what he’d just seen.

“Someone has to do it,” he said.

The story of how 13-year-old Sophia Raietska’s remains wound up here, near battles with Russia in northeastern Ukraine, and separated from any relatives is the story of a war that can reach any Ukrainian. There is the front line — and then there are the cities nowhere near it that can still be terrorized by Russian missiles. Escape one area of fighting and risk ending up near another.

Sophia and her family had fled bombardment. But where they thought would be a safe place was soon occupied by Russian soldiers. When they tried to leave on May 4, Russians fired on their vehicle, Ukrainian investigators say. Sophia was dead at the scene. Her mother and 6-month-old sister were taken to a hospital back in the occupied territory — with no way to get to Sophia.

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The only relatives who could give Sophia a proper burial were more than 125 miles away — along a different part of the front line. Sophia had been on her way to them when she was killed. Now Kholodov had volunteered to help her finish the journey.

“There are so many stories like this,” Kholodov said. “Too many.”

Home was the front line for most of Sophia’s life. She was 5 when war broke out between Ukraine’s government forces and Russian-led separatists. Novoluhanske, the village where she lived with her parents, aunt and uncle and grandparents, was less than a mile from the boundary that separated the armies.

But for most of her life, the conflict was a simmering one with only occasional skirmishes. The threat was always near, but it rarely became dangerous. She led a normal life — singing, drawing, embroidering with beads. She was in a theater group. She was learning English. She dreamed of working in the hotel business after university, said her aunt, Olena Salashnik.

“And her dad, Sasha, used to laugh and say: ‘I don’t have enough money to buy you a hotel,’” Salashnik said.

Then in February, shelling increased. It got uncomfortably close for Kateryna, Sophia’s mother. On Feb. 19, she decided to take her two daughters — Sophia and 6-month-old Varvara — and move to their late father’s hometown of Vovchansk, a village in the Kharkiv region right next to the Russian border.

Kateryna thought they’d be safer there. She wasn’t expecting Russia to wage a full-scale invasion. Five days after they arrived, Russian forces stormed across the border, and Vovchansk was one of the first areas they occupied.

For the first month, Salashnik communicated daily with Kateryna, the younger sister she called Katya. Then last month, the electricity in Vovchansk was cut off and many of the mobile phone networks were down. By early May, with the Ukrainian military launching counteroffensives in the region, the fighting had reached the village. And Kateryna and the girls wanted to return to Novoluhanske.

“Sophia would cry, threw tantrums that, ‘Mommy, I’ll be sitting in a basement but at home!’” Salashnik said. “It was an occupied territory by then and they wanted to be on Ukrainian territory, they wanted to go home.”

The last time Salashnik texted with her sister was May 3.

“We’re going,” Kateryna wrote.

The next day, the three left Vovchansk. Before Kateryna left, she deleted all the text messages between her and her sister — in case Russian soldiers searched her phone, as they typically did. Salashnik, too, said she deleted her text messages because she worried that Ukrainian soldiers would search her phone and notice that she was communicating with people inside Russian-occupied territory.

What happened next is murky. Ukrainian investigators said a convoy of five cars reached the village of Staryi Saltiv — then still contested area between the Ukrainians and Russians. It’s unclear whether the cars managed to pass through Russian military checkpoints — police said that was unlikely because the occupying soldiers weren’t letting people out — or if they tried to avoid them by traveling via back roads.

Investigators first suspected that a tank opened fire on the cars. One investigator later said he saw evidence of mortar shelling on the road. Fighting kept them from reaching the scene until two days after the attack. When they finally got there, the cars were burned-out shells. Inside were the remains of four people. Sophia was identified as one of the dead.

By then, Salashnik was scouring social media, Telegram channels and Facebook groups for any information. Soon she learned the outlines of what possibly happened. Eventually, through Facebook groups, locals in Vovchansk informed her that they had tracked down Kateryna and Varvara in the hospital. Salashnik began to communicate with her sister through the locals.

“I would text them and they would go and read it to her,” Salashnik said. “And she would say something and they would write it down for me and go out to find the mobile connection to pass it.”

Little Varvara is in good condition, Salashnik said. Kateryna is not. She badly injured her arm while trying to shield the baby. She has shrapnel wounds and has lost a lot of blood. Some bones are broken. She needs surgery, but isn’t strong enough yet.

“When she came to her senses in the hospital, she was saying that Sophia died,” Salashnik said. “And we didn't believe her. We thought she was delirious. We were hoping and looking for her. We hoped she was alive still.”

From the start of the war, Kholodov has driven his ambulance van through artillery exchanges to evacuate people, squeezing as many as 11 into the back. Once he got so close to the front line that he nearly drove into a Russian military checkpoint before hurriedly turning around. One woman had handed him her infant baby, barely alive, and begged him to get the child to a hospital.

But the times Kholodov has transported the dead stand out for him — not because of the journey, but for the reception. He’d seen parents weep over the corpse of a child from which they had been separated weeks earlier. They would beg out loud for forgiveness for not putting the body to rest sooner.

“The longer the wait, the more difficult it is,” Kholodov said. “Helping people grieve can be just as important as helping them survive.”

Salashnik’s daughter was connected to Kholodov’s organization, which is affiliated with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, through another volunteer group. They agreed to transport Sophia, but it was complicated, as most things are in Ukraine now. There are fuel shortages, unpredictable checkpoints and the risk of shelling to contend with.

There are also mundane logistical challenges. A delay on paperwork picking up Sophia’s body in Chuhuiv meant Kholodov couldn’t safely reach Bakhmut, where the family was waiting, in one day. That meant he had to organize a different morgue to hold the body for another night.

With Sophia’s remains now in her pink coffin, a three-vehicle convoy, led by a police van and ambulance, left Dnipro on Friday morning for the final leg of her journey. The coffin rested inside the last vehicle — a large white van. Roughly 50 miles east, the convoy stopped at a gas station in the town of Pavlohrad.

Bishop Lavrentij Mygovich, a white-bearded cleric dressed in a long gray tunic with a wooden cross around his neck, stepped out of the police van and walked to the back of the vehicle containing the coffin. The Ukrainian Orthodox priest, flanked by five volunteers who stood and observed solemnly, began a melodic prayer.

By this Friday, Mygovich said, he had conducted 10, perhaps 15, such rituals — so many that he had lost count. It’s not uncommon, he said, for the dead to be transported hundreds of miles to reach their final resting place. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have fled their homes, seeking safety in other parts of the country that are now insecure. Those killed are being brought home, and Mygovich and his fellow priests are in place to deliver the final rites, working day and night.

In many cases, the priests can’t deliver the rites because of the fighting and shelling, so they seek opportunities whenever they can find them.

The bishop and the volunteers chose the gas station for Sophia’s final prayers because they knew her family lived closed to the front line, where artillery fire is constant. Given the danger, they didn’t know if her relatives could get a priest to the funeral, or even have a burial. Mygovich decided to conduct the final rites for Sophia just in case. The gas station was the safest place.

His prayers took four minutes. He and the other volunteers made the sign of the cross over their chests. They closed the van’s door. Sophia still had farther to go.

I always dreamed of visiting my ancestral home of Odessa. But not like this.

Mygovich returned to the police van and a volunteer helped him put on a bulletproof vest. The convoy was now heading to the town of Bakhmut, a four-hour drive away, toward the eastern front line, through the city of Kramatorsk, where last month a Russian missile hit the railway station, killing 59 civilians, including seven children.

“For the enemy, age doesn’t matter,” Mygovich said.

After winding through checkpoints and barriers of dirt piles and concrete blocks, the convoy arrived in Bakhmut. Sophia’s uncle, Viacheslav Salashnik, waited with a van to receive her remains. One of the funeral home employees wrapped a white and blue cloth around the bottom halves of the van’s side mirrors, a symbol of mourning.

The next stop was the town of Svitlodarsk, 20 miles southeast, where the cemetery was located. Sophia couldn’t be buried in her hometown of Novoluhanske because of shelling there. As the van drove down narrow country roads, it was forced to weave around increasing numbers of barriers designed to slow Russian tanks and armored vehicles.

The volunteers pulled into the cemetery and stopped at a freshly dug grave. This would be Sophia’s resting place, next to the grave of her father, Oleksander, who died of a heart attack on Dec. 22. Thirteen grieving family members gathered to pay their final respects to the girl.

A wooden cross and a loaf of bread in a plastic container were placed atop the coffin along with a framed portrait of Sophia, wearing eyeglasses and a yellow top, her long brown hair falling to her shoulders.

A youthful Ukrainian Orthodox priest in a black cassock, a black clerical headdress, and a white and gold brocaded vestment stood in front of the coffin. In his left hand, he carried an incense burner suspended from chains, from which rose sweetly scented puffs of smoke.

“She was just a child,” an old man said aloud, struggling to hold back his tears. He was Victor Savchenko, Sophia’s grandfather. Her other relatives, too, stood with tears in their eyes and lost looks on their faces.

Sophia Raietska’s grandfather breaks down as family members gather around the young girl’s coffin. (Video: Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post)

The priest started his prayers in a deep and melodic voice. For 10 minutes he spoke, sang and walked around her coffin, spreading incense smoke. The sky was gray, but the sun peeked from behind the clouds.

As the ritual ended, the dull thud of artillery could be heard in the distance. The sound seemed far away, and nobody in the funeral seemed frightened. The priest tried to console them.

After the service, Sophia’s relatives walked slowly to her coffin and stood beside it. They looked at her photo, touched her coffin, their handkerchiefs wet with tears. They hugged each other. Her grandfather broke down crying, taking heaving breaths. Others held him, gave him water and led him away.

Salashnik took a picture of the coffin and Sophia’s portrait atop it.

“For her mother,” she said.

Sophia’s coffin was lowered into her grave. Her relatives, one by one, tossed dirt onto it. Flowers and a white cross were placed afterward.

The sounds of the artillery shelling grew louder and more frequent.

At 4:02 p.m., the crash of a shell. Then another soon after.

At 4:24 p.m., a louder crash.

At 4:26 p.m., the sound of another shell.

This last one convinced Salashnik and the others to leave. They still had to travel two miles to Novoluhanske, where their homes lay some 700 yards from one front line — where the Russians were targeting their shells today.

It was a constant reminder of the war that had killed Sophia, the war that was never far away.

Raghavan reported from Svitlodarsk, Ukraine. Maria Avdeeva in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and Sergii Mukaieliants and Wojciech Grzedzinski in Svitlodarsk contributed to this report.

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