On a warm March day that has all the signs of early spring, three burly men lift their shovels from a truck and begin covering a row of fresh graves with sand.
Stefan Ivanchuk, a 60-year-old groundskeeper at Lychakiv cemetery in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, is already sweating as he bends to his work among the graves, where blue and yellow ribbons, the colours of Ukraine, adorn simple wooden crosses.
It’s not normally Ivanchuk’s job to dig graves, but since the start of the war with Russia all of the cemetery workers, even the security guard, have been asked to help out as more young Ukrainians die at the front and return home in coffins.
“The hardest thing is to bury young men,” Ivanchuk says as he leans against his shovel. The youngest soldier they buried here was just 20 years old. “It just hurts your soul.”
The 21 new graves sit in a special corner of the cemetery reserved for Ukraine’s war heroes.
A worker wearing a dark sweater wipes the sweat from his face and walks back to the white truck to get more sand, which absorbs moisture and helps keep the earth flat.
After a year, workers will cover the ground and build tombstones like the dozens of rows of identical stone crosses that already mark the graves of soldiers who have died in the eight years since Russian forces annexed Crimea and Moscow-backed separatists seized pockets of Ukraine’s eastern region. Russian President Vladimir Putin has since recognised the regions as independent states, though the rest of the world considers them part of Ukraine.
Until recently, Lychakiv cemetery was one of Lviv’s major tourist attractions. Ivan Franko, a poet and national hero, is buried here, as are many notable Poles who lived in the city during the years it oscillated between Polish and Soviet control.
Tourists have now all but disappeared from the 18th-century cemetery. Lviv, which sits just under 50 miles from the Polish border, has so far been spared the sort of devastating attacks seen in eastern Ukrainian cities since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24. Mariupol and Kharkiv have been heavily shelled. Civilian casualties are thought to be in the thousands and the United Nations estimates some 3.9 million people have fled.
In Lviv, young women with tiny dogs on leashes sip cappuccinos outdoors, while buskers perform cover songs on the busy promenade in front of the city’s opera house.
The now twice weekly funerals of soldiers, which take place at the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in the center of the city, are one of the few reminders of war.
On Sunday, mourners knelt on the cold marble floor as soldiers in camouflage carried two caskets into the hall of the garrison church. Standing under statues of winged angels and saints shrouded in blue and white sheets to protect them from bombs, a priest told the crowd of mourners their men were now with God.
“From heaven they will do everything possible to remain side by side with their brothers in arms, their families and kin,” the priest said. “Our love for them is not in the past; our love for them is ongoing.”
The women sobbed, and men carrying blue and yellow tulips looked down at their feet.
Later, at Lychakiv cemetery, workers lower yet another casket into the ground. The dirt makes a dull thudding sound every time it hits the wooden crown of the coffin.
Ivanchuk, the groundskeeper, explains that to dig each grave requires four workers. With four or five funerals taking place at one time the workers have had to abandon their normal duties.
“All the staff came to dig the graves, even security and the person who sells tickets (to the museum on the grounds),” he says.
Down the street from the cemetery, Liliya, 45, works as a manager of a warehouse that supplies simple caskets and flowers to the military for local soldiers’ funerals.
“It’s so difficult to know that these are such young soldiers,” she says, declining to give her last name. “I am scared every day but I continue to believe that we will win.”
On March 12, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said around 1,300 Ukrainian military personnel had so far died in the conflict. Moscow, on the other hand, has said that 1,351 Russian soldiers have been killed in what Putin says is a “special military operation.” Ukraine and the United States estimate Russian military casualties to be far higher than official announcements.
Ivanchuk, who previously worked as a truck driver in Germany, says his son has been driving off to cities across Ukraine to evacuate women and children to Lviv.
The city’s population — originally 720,000 — has increased by nearly 200,000 since war broke out. The streets are packed with crowds of newly arrived Ukrainian families. The narrow roads of the historic city are jammed with cars carrying plates from Kyiv and Kharkiv.
“All anyone wants to say to foreign governments is to close the sky (over Ukraine), but I know they are afraid to join the war,” Ivanchuk says. Ukraine has repeatedly called on Western allies to create a no-fly zone above the country to prevent further Russian aerial assaults.
In that moment an elderly woman walks by the graves and pauses in front of one of the newer crosses.
Ivanchuk picks up his shovel. Next week, workers will need to dig four new graves. Their truck now empty of sand, the crew throw in their gear and start up the engine.