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In Lviv, Ukraine, Digging Up Old Graves to Bury Newly Fallen Soldiers

For close to 15 months, the bodies of fallen soldiers have steadily filled up a hillside military cemetery in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Now, the old, unmarked graves of those killed in past wars are being exhumed to make way for the seemingly endless stream of dead since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On Monday afternoon, half a dozen gravediggers took a break in the shade, waiting for the latest coffin to inter at the cemetery, called Lychakiv. Smoking cigarettes and shielding themselves from the sun, they lamented the devastation that Russia had wrought. And they said they were bracing for more deaths as the fighting grew more intense during Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

Fierce battles are playing out on the front line in the country’s east and south, with Ukraine reporting on Monday that it had recaptured eight settlements over two weeks of “offensive actions.” Hanna Malyar, a deputy defense minister, wrote on the Telegram messaging app that Ukrainian units had advanced about 4.3 miles and retaken an area around 44 square miles in the south. Among the settlements reclaimed, she said, was the village of Piatykhatky, confirming Russian reports over the weekend.

While the recapture of Piatykhatky, in the Zaporizhzhia region, is evidence that Ukraine’s forces continue to advance, it is not a significant military breakthrough. Like the other villages recaptured, this one is small — Piatykhatky translates to “five houses” — and claiming them has come at the cost of Ukrainian lives and advanced Western equipment.

“The situation in the east is difficult now,” Ms. Malyar wrote. “The enemy has raised its forces and is conducting an active offensive in the Lyman and Kupyan directions, trying to seize the initiative from us.” But she added, “Our troops act courageously in the face of the enemy’s superiority in forces and means and do not allow the enemy to advance.”

A British defense intelligence report said on Sunday that both armies were suffering significant casualties from the current fighting, and military experts have said that months of artillery duels and trench warfare most likely lie ahead.

Like the Ukrainians, the Russians have been secretive about the toll from the war. The Kremlin has not updated its official casualty count since September, when the defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, said nearly 6,000 Russians had been killed. Experts considered that number low at the time.

Leaked Pentagon documents published in April estimated that Ukraine had suffered 124,500 to 131,000 casualties, with up to 17,500 killed in action, while Russians had 189,500 to 223,000 casualties, including up to 43,000 killed in action.

A team of often-anonymous researchers inside and outside Russia, led by the Mediazona news organization and the BBC News Russian service, has compiled an independent tally of confirmed deaths that is updated every two weeks. Last week, the tally surpassed 25,000 victims, also considered an undercount. The team uses open-source materials like obituaries in local newspapers and cemetery visits for its count. Since the effort started last year, multiple regions in Russia have banned obituaries to try to camouflage the number.

The magnitude of the losses is being felt in communities like the one in Lviv, starkly visible in the growing number of military graves in cemeteries large and small around the country.

On Monday, two men who died hundreds of miles apart were buried next to each other. Bohdan Didukh, 34, was killed by a mine last week in the Zaporizhzhia region of southern Ukraine, where the first stages of Ukraine’s counteroffensive began. Three days later, Oleh Didukh, 52, died of a heart attack while serving in an air-defense unit in the country’s west.

The men, who shared a last name but never knew each other in life, were united in death. They were honored side by side in a joint funeral in Lviv. Their families were overcome with grief as gravediggers shoveled soil on top of their coffins.

At the funeral service in a Greek Catholic church in central Lviv, incense filled the air. The priest said he had assumed the two were father and son because of their names and ages. Their families were joined by their pain, he said.

After the church ceremony, the coffins were loaded into vans and driven to the central square, where a single trumpeter played. Then the cortege made its way to the graveyard.

Along the route, residents paused to pay their respects. A young girl stood next to her father, a small brown shopping bag in her hand, staring straight ahead as the coffins passed by. Some bystanders fell to their knees.

At the cemetery, Olena Didukh, Bohdan Didukh’s wife, fainted, overwhelmed by grief and the afternoon sun. Her sister steadied her, wrapping her arm around her back. Steps away, Oleh Didukh’s family arranged yellow and blue flowers, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, on his grave.

Funerals for fallen soldiers have taken on a grim routine in Lviv. Since last year, soldiers killed in battle have been laid to rest in seemingly countless funerals just like the one in Lviv, in every corner of the country.

And it’s not uncommon for several military funerals to be held simultaneously in Lviv. One of the harsh realities of Russia’s war is that even in a city far from the active fighting, soldiers killed on the front line are returned to their hometowns, sometimes in groups, and laid to rest at the same time. It is considered an efficient way when the dead keep coming.

Along this hillside on a bright afternoon, mourners tended the graves of relatives buried here for weeks, months or more than a year.

Mariia Kovalska’s son, Ivan, was killed nine months ago in Kramatorsk, in the eastern Donetsk region. He was 30 years old, and his round face and blue eyes resembled his mother’s, she proudly explained.

“What is it all for?” she asked, the pain clear in her voice. “The best of the best have died. He graduated from university. He had a diploma with honors. Why did he die?”

Kateryna Havrylenko, 50, who works for the city maintaining the graves, loaded soil onto a wheelbarrow. There are funerals here nearly every day, she said.

“With the counteroffensive, many young men and women will be killed,” she said. “Words cannot express how difficult it is. Very, very difficult. Even though they are strangers, they are someone’s children, just like I have a child.”

At the start of Russia’s war, there was a small cluster of freshly dug graves on a hillside in one part of the cemetery. Now, nearly 500 soldiers have been buried here in plots filling half the hillside, she said, and more will come.

In the top section of the cemetery, city officials have begun exhuming the unmarked graves of soldiers who were buried as long ago as during World War I, young men who died early in the last century making way for those who have now fallen in this war.

“It is just so hard to think — last summer, there were so few,” Ms. Havrylenko said. “And now there are so many.” She added with a faraway look, “Until the war ends, how many more will there be?”

Reporting was contributed by Neil MacFarquhar from Stockholm, Cassandra Vinograd and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London, and Daria Mitiuk from Lviv, Ukraine.

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