Finland's Marin and Ukraine's Zelensky attended the memorial service for Dmytro Kotsiubailo
Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - Thousands of mourners, including Ukraine’s armed forces chief, knelt on Kyiv’s main square on Friday at the funeral of a war hero nicknamed “Da Vinci”, who was killed by Russians in the battle for Bakhmut.
President Volodymyr Zelensky and visiting Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin also made a surprise appearance at the ceremony, and thousands of mourners marched through central Kyiv to pay final respects on Independence Square, known as the Maidan.
While the funeral showed Ukraine’s efforts to honour its war dead, it also underscored the heavy impact of the Russian invasion and the long-running battle for the eastern town of Bakhmut.
Ukraine has not revealed the scale of its military losses during the war.
Dmytro Kotsiubailo was a 27-year-old volunteer fighter with the call sign “Da Vinci” who led a battalion called the Da Vinci Wolves.
He took up arms after joining Right Sector ultra-nationalists in 2014 and began fighting Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Zelensky announced his death in a video address on Tuesday.
Zelensky awarded Kotsiubailo the Hero of Ukraine decoration, the country’s highest honour, in December 2021.
He was the country’s youngest “hero”.
- ‘Hard path to victory’ -
Ukraine's commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny kneels before Kotsiubailo's coffin
In a rare public sighting, Ukraine’s commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny came to kneel beside the coffin on the central square.
“The path to our victory is very hard. And the price for this victory is the lives of our warriors, the best citizens of Ukraine, who have stood in the defence of the country with weapons in their hands,” Zaluzhny said in a speech.
“You should be sure that we won’t just avenge you. We will definitely win victory. Sleep peacefully, my friend.”
Flags with the emblem of Kotsiubailo’s battalion – three snarling wolves – fluttered around the coffin.
Zelensky brought Finland’s Marin to the packed religious service at Saint Michael’s Golden Domed Cathedral.
Soldiers in parade uniform then carried Kotsiubailo’s coffin out to a khaki truck loaded with flowers.
Mourners carrying flowers and Ukrainian flags marched down the hill to Maidan through closed streets. Many were weeping as they filed past his open coffin.
“We are feeling huge grief here. Grief and pain that our young men like him are dying,” said Liudmyla, a pensioner, carrying a bunch of tulips.
“I didn’t know him personally but I respect him immensely for what he did for his country. I’m proud to come from a country with citizens like him,” said 17-year-old law student Valentyn Demenyuk, wearing a scarf in the colours of Ukraine’s yellow and blue flag.
- Father and son killed -
Earlier on Friday, a smaller group of mourners gathered in the same spot to pay their respects to a father and son killed together in the fierce fighting for Bakhmut.
President Zelensky lays a bouquet on Kotsiubailo's coffin
Oleg Khomyuk, 52, and his 25-year-old son Mykyta signed up to the army as volunteers shortly after Moscow invaded Ukraine in February last year.
They served together and died in the same trench on March 2, according to their family.
Khomyuk covered his son with his body during an attack but a shell exploded nearby, killing them both, Yuriy Samson, Oleg’s brother, said at their funeral, wiping tears from his eyes.
The Khomyuks initially joined the territorial defence in Kyiv but also fought in the southern region of Kherson and eastern region of Kharkiv.
They later joined Ukraine’s troops in the eastern Donbas region that Moscow seeks to control.
The men “died heroically in combat positions”, the 241st Battalion in which they served posted on Facebook.
It included a picture of father and son posing together with their weapons, adding: “Heroes never die! We will remember. Let’s get our revenge.”