November 22, 2016
A story by photographer Joseph Sywenkyj:
My camera was in hand while almost my entire body was shaking. The biting wind was beating the cold into my skull as I had removed my wool hat and was bent over looking straight down in a small, but genuine, act of social benevolence.
The shaking betrayed an attempt at holding back sorrow and tears.
I was standing in a square among thousands of mourners. A song, that song, played over loud speakers in the square with its mournful melody and symbolic lyrics. It transported me back to another square, to another coffin draped in a blue and yellow flag, almost two years earlier in Kyiv during the Euromaidan.
This time, however, I was in the small city of Novodnistrovsk, almost one year ago today.
Moments later I spoke. It was more an attempt at speaking, for I stuttered and fumbled as I stood in front of a microphone addressing the large grief-stricken gathering. My words were sincere, but I doubt they offered much comfort.
The entire town came together to mourn the loss of their son, their friend, their colleague and their neighbor Serhey Kornetskyy, a 35 year old Ukrainian soldier from the 55th Brigade, who succumbed to the severe wounds he received while defending his nation from Russia and the separatists it supports.
Before my small address, two women in their 40s approached me while I was leaving the Novodnistrovsk cultural center and asked if I would speak during Serhey’s funeral. I instantly refused.
“But you are a volunteer,” they said looking confused.
“No, I am a photographer,” I replied.
“Did you take her to church? Did you spend time with her? Were you with her after Serhey died,” they asked.
I nodded my head yes. I had in fact done all these things with Serhey’s mother, Valentyna Ivanivna. I again refused and tried to explain that I hadn’t even met Serhey as he was in grave condition in intensive care before he died.
“You are indeed a volunteer,” one of them interjected. “The town knows you were with her. They know you are an American, and they are expecting you to speak. Please,” they pleaded.
Doctors, nurses and volunteers struggled to save Serhey’s life at the Kyiv City Burn Center for several weeks. A fire had engulfed Serhey’s tent while he slept, and he had severe burns on 70% of his body, including his upper body and face.
I spent a few hours with Valentyna one day, half a day on another, and a few more hours on the third. This went on for several weeks. One day I drove Valentyna to Volodymyrsky Sobor, so she could light candles and pray for her son’s health.
I didn’t take many photographs on any of these days. I was prematurely thinking weeks and months in advance to what I thought would be more significant images of Valentyna spending time with Serhey as his health improved, and he made his way through the long and grueling healing process he was surely going to confront.
On Sunday, November 22, 2015, I called and simply asked how things were going. “He died,” was her reply. She was not crying, but her voice gave away her anguish and the feeling of being utterly lost.
“Who is with you?” I asked.
“No one. I’m alone,” she replied.
I rushed to the hospital, hugged her and sat with her holding her hands. After some time we met with Lena, a volunteer and incredible woman studying to become a nurse who has selflessly given countless hours, days and nights for almost three years helping others. She was also grieving and in disbelief about Serhey’s passing. All the wounded individuals, all those hours, days, weeks, months… all the tears, agony, painkillers, missing limbs, burns and deaths seemed to have caught up with her on this day, with the passing of Serhey.
“I’m done,” she said softly and sincerely. “I can’t do this anymore.” Lena later found her bearings and strength and continues the important work of assisting wounded soldiers and countless others.
We agreed that the next day I would drive Valentyna and Lena to help run the bureaucratic errands that a family member must go through when a soldier dies: picking up documents from one place and bringing them to another to get them stamped; going to the morgue to pick up Serhey’s body; waiting for the vehicle to come and transport her and her son’s remains back to Novodnistrovsk for burial.
At some point during the day, Valentyna said, “It would be so nice if you could come to photograph the funeral for memories sake.” I said yes, that I would be honored.
Serhey’s remains were driven back to Novodnistrovsk in the evening and into the night. Three residents and volunteers from Novodnistrovsk came, two to drive the van with Serhey’s body, the other in an Audi A6 where Valentyna and I rode. In the middle of the night, as we got closer to Novodnistrovsk, approximately 400 km from Kyiv, we were met in village after village, town after town, by people lined up along the road on their knees holding candles. We would stop, and someone would offer condolences from the community, give flowers and some money. Local activists with Ukrainian flags on their cars and police vehicles escorted Serhey’s body through their respective towns with the emergency lights flashing.
When we arrived in Novodnistrovsk in the dark of the night, Serhey’s body was placed on a stage at the town’s cultural center under watch of an honor guard. Hundreds of family members, friends and mourners were present.
The next day a funeral procession took Serhey’s body to the town square, then to a local church and ultimately to Serhey’s final resting place: a pleasant tree lined cemetery in Vinnytsia oblast.