Whistleblower sacked for speaking out on withdrawal from Afghanistan takes UK government to court

An ex-official at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) who revealed Britain’s chaotic response to the fall of Kabul, said the civil service has become so dangerously politicized that officials who speak out risk being sidelined or sacked. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 04 February 2023

Whistleblower sacked for speaking out on withdrawal from Afghanistan takes UK government to court

  • Josie Stewart, who gave an anonymous interview and leaked emails to the BBC about the withdrawal, said the civil service has become ‘dangerously politicized’
  • A former head of illicit finance at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, she is challenging her dismissal under the Public Interest Disclosure Act

DUBAI: A former senior official at Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is taking the UK government to court test the legal protections for whistleblowers, amid concerns they are not sufficient to protect civil servants.

Josie Stewart, who worked at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and was sacked after turning whistleblower to reveal details of the chaotic UK response to the fall of Kabul, said the British civil service has become so dangerously politicized that officials who dare to speak out risk being sidelined or losing their jobs.

She told The Guardian newspaper that former colleagues felt their role was to protect ministers, some of whom were only interested in “looking good,” rather than working in the public interest.

Stewart, who was head of the illicit finance team at the FCDO, was fired over an anonymous interview she gave to the BBC about the government’s handling of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. She is challenging her dismissal, based on the provisions the Public Interest Disclosure Act.

In her first interview since her dismissal, she said the government’s strategy for the withdrawal of its forces had been shaped by political concerns at home. Ministers were more focused on media coverage and “the political fallout” than saving lives, she added.

Her legal action adds to the pressure on Dominic Raab, who was foreign secretary at the time and who is currently fighting for his political career following allegations of bullying, which he denies. Raab was heavily criticized for failing to return home early from holiday in August 2021 when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.

Stewart, who worked for two years at the British embassy in Kabul during her seven years with the FCDO, volunteered to work in the Whitehall crisis center when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. One of her allegations was that ministers had not expected the British public to care about the evacuation of locals who had helped British troops amnd officials.

Her case, for which a final hearing is scheduled for September, could set a precedent for how the courts handle similar cases in future, including clarification of whether whistleblowers can avoid dismissal if they disclosed information in “exceptionally serious circumstances” and it should therefore be considered “reasonable” to have done so.

In her interview with The Guardian, 42-year-old Stewart said: “If the law is not tested and used then I don’t know how much it actually means, as potential whistleblowers don’t know which side of the line it is going to fall. Is what they’re going to do likely to be legally protected or not? If they don’t know, then I’m not sure how meaningful the fact the law exists is.”

Stewart, who now works for nonprofit organization Transparency International, alleged that the civil service has been dangerously politicized since the era of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and she accused the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, of failing to stand up for officials.

“I increasingly saw senior officials interpreting their role as doing what ministers say and providing protections to ministers,” she said. “It was almost as if their first loyalty (was) to their political leaders rather than to the public.

“Essentially people who said ‘yes’ and went along with it and bought into this shift in culture and approach were those whose careers went well. Those who resisted either found themselves buried somewhere or looking for jobs elsewhere.

“It threatens the impartiality of the civil service. The civil service is supposed to bring expertise in how to get things done. It risks that expertise being neutered by a slant towards focusing on things that look good rather than achieving impact.”

Stewart also suggested the politicization of the civil service had a dramatic effect on the government’s handling of the evacuation from Afghanistan. Moreover, she highlighted the government’s failure to draw up a plan to help Afghan nationals who had assisted the British, such as translators or contractors, but were not eligible for the existing Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy because they did not work directly for the UK, to leave the country.

“There was no policy because we didn’t intend to do it at all,” Stewart said. “The only reason it came into life during the crisis was because the government was surprised to learn that the British people did actually care and did feel that we owed something to those people.

“Then they thought: ‘Well, people do care and we had better do something about it.’ So it was a misjudgment, politically. Hence the chaos.”

The crisis center received thousands of emails from desperate Afghans asking for help, which remained unopened until pressure from MPs led Raab to promise in the House of Commons that they would all be read by a certain date.

In January 2022 Stewart gave her anonymous interview and leaked emails to the BBC’s Newsnight program that revealed a decision to allow the animal charity Nowzad’s Afghan staff to be evacuated had been taken as a result of instructions from Johnson himself that overruled officials, who had said the workers were not eligible and others were at higher risk. Johnson had denied being involved in the decision.

The unredacted emails were accidentally published on social media by the BBC, revealing Stewart’s identity. She was stripped of her FCDO security clearance and subsequently sacked because, without it, she was unable to do her job.

Stewart’s lawyers expect the government to argue that the protections under the Public Interest Disclosure Act do not apply in this case because she was not, ultimately, dismissed for the act of whistleblowing, and they plan to challenge this.

An FCDO spokesperson said: “We are rightly proud of our staff who worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The cabinet secretary is proud to lead a civil service that works day in, day out to deliver the government’s priorities for the people of this country.”

A BBC spokesperson said: “We take our responsibilities as journalists very seriously and we deeply regret that the name of the email account was inadvertently revealed when the email was published on social media.”

A spokesperson for Boris Johnson declined to comment.

Arab nations warn against rising Islamophobia following Qur’an burning in Denmark

Updated 15 sec ago

Arab nations warn against rising Islamophobia following Qur’an burning in Denmark

  • Far-right extremists protested outside Turkish embassy in January too
  • Arab nations call on the world to hold hate crime offenders to account

DUBAI: Arab nations have condemned Friday’s burning of the Qur’an and Turkish flag by Islamaphobic extremists in Denmark.

Far-right anti-Muslim group Patrioterne Gar Live broadcast footage on Facebook of supporters carrying banners with Islamophobic messages as they burned a copy of the Qur’an and the Turkish flag in front of the Turkish Embassy in Copenhagen.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry denounced the incident as a “hate crime” adding that it would never accept such “vile actions being allowed under the guise of freedom of expression,” Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah reported.

And the ministry called on the Danish authorities to take action against those responsible and to ensure further incidents did not happen “that threaten social harmony and peaceful coexistence,” the report added.

Now Arab nations have spoken out against the acts by the extremists, saying the actions provoked hatred against Muslims – especially during Ramadan.

The Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates spokesperson Sinan Majali, said the act incited hatred and racism.

“Burning the Holy Qur’an is a serious act of hate and a manifestation of Islamophobia that incites violence and insults to religions and cannot be considered a form of freedom of expression at all,” Majali said in a statement.

The statement went on to urge the Danish authorities to prevent a repeat of such actions that “fuel violence and hatred and threaten peaceful coexistence.”

Meanwhile in a statement on the Kuwait Foreign Ministry warned that the burning of the Qur’an risked provoking an angry backlash from Muslims around the globe.

The ministry called for the perpetrators to held accountable, making sure that “freedom of expression is not used to offend Islam or any other religion.”

And Qatar condemned in the “strongest terms” the burning of a copy of the Qur’an, warning that the latest incident represented a “dangerous escalation” of incidents targeting Muslims.

The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the burning of the Qur’an under the claim of freedom of expression “threatens the values of peaceful coexistence, and reveals abhorrent double standards.”

The ministry reaffirmed Qatar’s rejection of “all forms of hate speech based on belief, race or religion.”

The Qatari foreign ministry called on the international community to “reject hatred, discrimination, incitement and violence, underlining the importance of upholding the principles of dialogue and mutual understanding.”

Scars of war and occupation run deep in Ukraine’s once bustling Izium

Updated 26 March 2023

Scars of war and occupation run deep in Ukraine’s once bustling Izium

  • City in Kharkiv province fell to the Russians in March, only to be recaptured by Ukrainian forces in September
  • With 1,000 civilians dead and 80 percent of the infrastructure wrecked, the devastation visited on Izium speaks for itself

IZIUM: A once bustling city with a population of around 44,000, Izium sits on the Donets River in Ukraine’s Kharkiv province. It grew rapidly after the Second World War following its liberation from German forces, becoming known for its many churches and cathedrals and a meeting point called Lenin Square, which was renamed John Lennon Square in February 2016.

These days, however, the streets of Izium are eerily quiet except for the speakers blasting out news in its main square. For many residents, it is their only way of knowing what is happening around them.

The 10,000 residents who remain live among destroyed Russian tanks and chunks of shrapnel. The city’s main bridge lies reduced to ruins. With their owners displaced or killed in the conflict, homeless pets wander the streets in search of food.

Eighty years after being destroyed by one war, Izium struggles with the ravages of another: the invasion of Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24, 2022, and the subsequent occupation.

Within a fortnight, on March 4 to be precise, Russian forces had captured Izium, which became a strategic command point for them. But six months later, in a stunning reversal of military fortune, the flag of Ukraine was hoisted over the city after a fierce counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces.



The recapture of Izium deprived Russia of the opportunity to use the city as a key base and resupply route for its forces in eastern Ukraine. But with 1,000 civilians killed and 80 percent of the infrastructure wrecked, the damage and destruction visited on Izium in the space of just one year speaks for itself.

Today’s Izium is something akin to a minefield. Residents walk the streets carefully, but safety is never guaranteed. They say the occupying soldiers left behind several types of mines hidden all over the city — alongside the river, on the streets, in front of houses, and in the woods.

Banners with the word “MINES” painted in large red letters can be found on every other street. One stands outside the city’s main hospital.

A once bustling city with a population of around 44,000, Izium sits on the Donets River in Ukraine’s Kharkiv province. It grew rapidly after the Second World War following its liberation from German forces, becoming known for its many churches and cathedrals. (AN photo by Mykhaylo Palinchak)

The Ukrainian government claims that Russian forces carried out 476 missile attacks on Izium, an unprecedented number even by the standards of a war characterized by heavy shelling.

At one point, Dr. Yuriy Kuznetsov, a local trauma surgeon, was the only doctor left in Izium.

“The sight of the Russian tanks rolling in through the city’s bridge remains a vivid memory. I evacuated my wife and children to safety, but I had to remain behind to take care of my bedridden mother and my disabled brother,” he told Arab News from his office in the hospital.

During the occupation, he said, the hospital faced shortages of both medicine and staff. “We tried our best to operate successfully. Our X-ray machine broke down, so at times, I had to rely on my knowledge to treat the patients. We also ran low on anesthesia. Some patients couldn’t be saved,” Kuznetsov said.

Banners with the word ‘MINES’ painted in large red letters can be found on every other street. Today’s Izium is something akin to a minefield. Residents walk the streets carefully, but safety is never guaranteed. (AN photo by Mykhaylo Palinchak)

At the height of Russian control over Izium, Kuznetsov recalled, the hospital received up to 100 wounded civilians a day. The hospital building itself was partially demolished, forcing the few remaining staff to turn the basement corridors into operating rooms.

Medical workers had to rely largely on private medical donations and on the coronavirus medications they had stocked up on during the pandemic.

Electricity, though, was not a problem, according to Kuznetsov.

“We were treating those with previous ailments, wounded civilians, and mothers in labor, and we had a small generator that kept us afloat,” he told Arab News.

Dr. Yuriy Kuznetsov, a local trauma surgeon,  in the destroyed main hospital in Izium. (AN photo by Mykhaylo Palinchak)

While the hospital is being rebuilt, Kuznetsov said, the medical workers, including himself, are forced to live in small rooms along a corridor, their homes having long been destroyed. They suffer from varying degrees of depression.

Kuznetsov said he has not seen his family for a year and now spends his days treating landmine victims.

Senior Russian officials and diplomats have repeatedly defended what they call “the special military operation” in Ukraine and rejected accusations of criminal violence against civilians.

“The special military operation takes place in accordance with the fundamental provisions of the UN Charter, which gives states the right for legitimate self-defense in the event of a threat of use of force, which we have exercised,” Sergei Kozlov, the Russian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, wrote in an Arab News op-ed in February.

“As you can see, Russia follows the true spirit of international law, not some kind of ‘rules-based order,’ arbitrarily introduced by the West and its henchmen.”  

Five km away from the city center, in a silent pine forest, lies a grim reminder of Izium’s darkest days. More than 440 people, only a tiny percentage of whom were said to be soldiers, lie buried in makeshift graves with wooden crosses planted atop each one. Some crosses have names and times of death listed, while others have only numbers.

The mass graves were discovered on the return of Ukrainian forces to Izium in September 2022. Bodies that were exhumed showed signs of torture. Several had their hands tied, and one had a rope around his neck. Other victims’ skulls contain several bullets.

More than 440 people, only a tiny percentage of whom were said to be soldiers, lie buried in makeshift graves outside Izium. The mass graves were discovered on the return of Ukrainian forces to Izium in September 2022. (AN photo by Mykhaylo Palinchak)

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Pesko dismissed the allegations as a “lie” and said Russia “will, of course, defend the truth in this case.”

A team of both international and Ukrainian investigators now has the painstaking work of identifying the victims. Many families eagerly wait to find out the fate of their loved ones and give them a proper burial.

At Izium’s Auto Stop Cafe, Olga Alekseychuk makes food and serves coffee. The cafe belongs to her relatives, who offered her the job of looking after it.

“It’s a pity to have lost our homes,” she told Arab News. “The winter of the occupation was very difficult to deal with. We kept warm by wearing many layers of clothes and by boiling water and huddling near the pot.”

Olga Alekseychuk at Izium’s Auto Stop Cafe. (AN photo by Mykhaylo Palinchak)

From 5 to 11 p.m., Alekseychuk said, she and her family hid in their basement to keep safe; at times, they spent entire nights there.

“This war ruined countless lives, and it is not yet over. The Russians left, but we now face a mine problem. Just a few days ago, a friend’s wife stepped on one. Luckily, she survived, but she suffered very bad injuries,” she said.

Alekseychuk said the life the people of Izium knew is over. “We now lead primitive lives. It is almost a luxury to have a Wi-Fi connection. People are walking around like zombies — no money, no jobs, no homes.”

Her sentiment was echoed by a woman who runs a small food kiosk nearby. The woman, who did not want to give her name, told Arab News she practically lived in her basement and had taken to boiling water to keep warm with her son. They survived on canned food.

In addition to the physical damage on a colossal scale, life in Izium remains blighted by anguish and trauma months after the departure of the occupying troops.

While some small businesses have reopened, the economic revival of the city is still a long way off.  (AN photo by Mykhaylo Palinchak)

“The memories they’ve created for us will never leave us. My mental health problems spiraled after the occupiers left. I was in survival mode while they were here,” Alekseychuk said.

“Now I don’t know how to readjust back to normal life, which isn’t normal at all anymore.”

On a recent day, a group of teenage girls sat near the food kiosk. They said that during the six months of occupation, they had spent their time playing cards and board games while being confined to their homes.  

There was nothing else to do, they told Arab News. Nevertheless, they were happy simply to have their internet connection back. 

The cost of Izium’s reconstruction is yet to be determined, with some experts saying it could run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

While some small businesses have reopened, the economic revival of the city is still a long way off.

Experts say the cost of reconstruction in Izium alone could run into hundreds of millions of dollars. (AN photo by Mykhaylo Palinchak)

Most citizens expect financial assistance from Ukraine’s government, but how the authorities intend to decide on the allocation of funds remains unclear, especially given that most of its budget is still earmarked for fighting off Russian forces. 

As for the citizens of Izium, they are waiting not only for the reconstruction of their city, but of their lives too.

“Everybody needs mental health services now,” the food kiosk owner said.



Putin says Russia will station tactical nukes in Belarus

Updated 26 March 2023

Putin says Russia will station tactical nukes in Belarus

  • Putin said the move was triggered by Britain’s decision this past week to provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium
  • The Russian leader earlier made a false claim that the rounds have nuclear components

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans on Saturday to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus, a warning to the West as it steps up military support for Ukraine.
Putin said the move was triggered by Britain’s decision this past week to provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium. The Russian leader earlier made a false claim that the rounds have nuclear components.
He subsequently toned down his language, but insisted in a state television interview broadcast Saturday night that the ammunition posed an additional danger to both troops and civilians in Ukraine.
Tactical nuclear weapons are intended for use on the battlefield, unlike more powerful, longer-range strategic nuclear weapons. Russia plans to maintain control over the ones it plans to Belarus, and construction of storage facilities for them will be completed by July 1, Putin said.
Putin didn’t say how many nuclear weapons Russia would keep in Belarus. The US government believes Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which include bombs that can be carried by tactical aircraft, warheads for short-range missiles and artillery rounds.
In his interview, Putin argued that by deploying its tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, Russia was following the lead of the United States, noting that the US has nuclear weapons based in Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkiye.
“We are doing what they have been doing for decades, stationing them in certain allied countries, preparing the launch platforms and training their crews,” Putin said. “We are going to do the same thing.”
Russia has stored its tactical nuclear weapons at dedicated depots on its territory, and moving part of the arsenal to a storage facility in Belarus would up the ante in the Ukrainian conflict by placing them closer to the Russian aircraft and missiles already stationed there.
Some hawkish commentators in Russia long have urged the Kremlin to put the tactical nuclear weapons close to the weapons to send a signal to the West about the readiness to use them.
Putin said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has long asked for the nuclear weapons as a counter to NATO. Belarus shares borders with three NATO members — Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — and Russia used its territory as a staging ground to send troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
Putin noted that Russia helped modernize Belarusian military aircraft last year to make them capable of carrying nuclear warheads. He said 10 such planes were ready to go. He said nuclear weapons also could be launched by the Iskander short-range missiles that Russia provided to Belarus last year.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is living in exile, said the agreement to transfer the tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus “underlines the threat to regional security” from Lukashenko’s regime.
“Europe won’t be safe until Belarus dictator is removed & brought before tribunal to face justice for crimes against our country & Ukraine,” Tsikhanouskaya wrote in English on Twitter.
While discussing in his state TV interview the depleted uranium rounds that Britain promised to ship to Ukraine, Putin charged the ammunition would leave a radioactive trace and contaminate agricultural land.
“Those weapons are harmful not just for combatants, but also for the people living in those territories and for the environment,” he said.
Putin added that Russia has vast stockpiles of similar ammunition but so far has refrained from using them.
Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process needed to create nuclear weapons. The rounds can’t generate a nuclear reaction but they do emit low levels of radiation. The UN nuclear watchdog has warned of the possible dangers of exposure.
Such rounds were developed by the US during the Cold War to destroy Soviet tanks, including the same T-72 tanks that Ukraine now faces in its push to break through a stalemate in the east.

’Everything wiped away’: Tornado kills at least 26 in Mississippi

Updated 26 March 2023

’Everything wiped away’: Tornado kills at least 26 in Mississippi

  • Tornado continued sweeping northeast at 70 mph without weakening
  • Tens of thousands of people in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee remained without power

ROLLING FORK, Mississippi: Rescuers raced Saturday to search for survivors and help hundreds of people left homeless after a powerful tornado cut a devastating path through Mississippi, killing at least 25 people, injuring dozens, and flattening entire blocks as it carved a path of destruction for more than an hour. One person was killed in Alabama.
The tornado devastated a swath of the Mississippi Delta town of Rolling Fork, reducing homes to piles of rubble, flipping cars on their sides and toppling the town’s water tower. Residents hunkered down in bath tubs and hallways during Friday night’s storm and later broke into a John Deere store that they converted into a triage center for the wounded.
“There’s nothing left,” said Wonder Bolden, holding her granddaughter, Journey, while standing outside the remnants of her mother’s now-leveled mobile home in Rolling Fork. “There’s just the breeze that’s running, going through — just nothing.”
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency announced late Saturday afternoon in a tweet that the death toll had risen to 25 and that dozens of people were injured. Four people previously reported missing had been found.
Other parts of the Deep South were digging out from damage caused by other suspected twisters. One man died in Morgan County, Alabama, the sheriff’s department there said in a tweet.
Throughout Saturday, survivors walked around dazed and in shock as they broke through debris and fallen trees with chain saws, searching for survivors. Power lines were pinned under decades-old oaks, their roots torn from the ground.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued a State of Emergency and vowed to help rebuild as he headed to view the damage in an area speckled with wide expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields and catfish farming ponds. President Joe Biden also promised federal help, describing the damage as “heartbreaking.”
The damage in Rolling Fork was so widespread that several storm chasers — who follow severe weather and often put up livestreams showing dramatic funnel clouds — pleaded for search and rescue help. Others abandoned the chase to drive injured people to the hospital.
It didn’t help that the community hospital on the west side of town was damaged, forcing patients to be transferred. The tornado also mangled a cotton warehouse and ripped the steeple off a Baptist church.
Sheddrick Bell, his partner and two daughters crouched in a closet of their Rolling Fork home for 15 minutes as the tornado barreled through. Windows broke as his daughters cried and his partner prayed.

Perrilloux said preliminary findings are that the tornado began its path of destruction just southwest of Rolling Fork before continuing northeast toward the rural communities of Midnight and Silver City, then moving toward Tchula, Black Hawk and Winona.
The supercell that produced the deadly twister also appeared to produce tornadoes that caused damage in northwest and north-central Alabama, said Brian Squitieri, a severe storms forecaster with the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
In northern Alabama’s Morgan County, a 67-year-old man who became trapped beneath a trailer that flipped over during severe overnight storms was rescued by first responders, but he died later at a hospital, AL.com reported.
Even as survey teams work to assess how many tornadoes struck and their severity, the Storm Prediction Center warned of the potential for hail, wind and possibly a few tornadoes Sunday in parts of Mississippi and Louisiana.
Cornel Knight waited at a relative’s home in Rolling Fork for the tornado to strike with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. Despite the darkness, its path was visible.
“You could see the direction from every transformer that blew,” he said. Just a cornfield away from where he was, the twister struck another relative’s home, collapsing a wall and trapping several people.
Royce Steed, the emergency manager in Humphreys County where Silver City is located, likened the damage to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“It is almost complete devastation,” he said after crews finished searching buildings and switched to damage assessments. “This little old town, I don’t know what the population is, it is more or less wiped off the map.”
In the town, the roof had torn off Noel Crook’s home.
“Yesterday was yesterday and that’s gone – there’s nothing I can do about it,” Crook said. “Tomorrow is not here yet. You don’t have any control over it, so here I am today.”
The tornado looked so powerful on radar as it neared the town of Amory, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Tupelo, that one Mississippi meteorologist paused to say a prayer after new radar information came in.
“Oh man,” WTVA’s Matt Laubhan said on the live broadcast. “Dear Jesus, please help them. Amen.”
Now that town is boiling its water, and a curfew is in effect. Three shelters in the state are feeding the throngs of displaced people.
“It’s a priceless feeling to see the gratitude on people’s faces to know they’re getting a hot meal,” said William Trueblood, of the Salvation Army, as he headed to the area, picking up supplies along the way.
Despite the damage, there were signs of improvement. Power outages, which at one point were affecting more than 75,000 customers in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, had been cut by a third by midafternoon Saturday, according to poweroutage.us.
Meteorologists saw a big tornado risk coming for the general region as much as a week in advance, said Northern Illinois University meteorology professor Walker Ashley.
Tornado experts like Ashley have been warning about increased risk exposure in the region because of people building more.
“You mix a particularly socioeconomically vulnerable landscape with a fast-moving, long-track nocturnal tornado, and, disaster will happen,” Ashley said in an email.



Love, pain and loss at historic Ukraine cemetery

Updated 25 March 2023

Love, pain and loss at historic Ukraine cemetery

  • Located in southeastern Lviv, the Lychakiv cemetery is one of the oldest graveyards in Europe
  • It is the resting place of prominent figures including the poet Ivan Franko and thousands of soldiers who perished during World War I and II

LVIV, Ukraine: At a historic military cemetery in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, Valeriy Pushko lights up two cigarettes. One is for himself, the other for his son whose portrait is fixed to a cross planted in the ground.
“I smoke with my son,” said the grey-haired man.
“We used to take cigarette breaks together. It’s a bad habit but it makes things easier. I talk to him, think about him and that makes me feel better.”
Pushko said many others come here to smoke with their fallen husbands or sons.
Located in southeastern Lviv, the Lychakiv cemetery is one of the oldest graveyards in Europe and is often compared to the historic Père Lachaise in Paris, where dozens of celebrities are buried.
It is the resting place of prominent figures including the poet Ivan Franko and thousands of soldiers who perished during World War I and II.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine over a year ago, rows of new graves have appeared. A sea of blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags and red-and-black nationalist banners mark them.
Some mourners leave stuffed animals, cigarettes, and cups of coffee at the graves of their loved ones.
More unusual symbols of love and sorrow included children’s drawings, vinyl records, a golf ball, and a bottle of beer.
Shortly after the Russian invasion in February 2022, authorities began burying soldiers killed in fighting at the Lychakiv cemetery.
But the area initially designated for military burials quickly filled up, said city official Oleg Pidpysetsky.
The authorities then began laying Ukrainian servicemen to rest at a new site bordering Lychakiv.
Funerals are held nearly every day in the new burial ground. Called the Field of Mars, it now contains about 350 graves.
“No one knew how critical the situation was,” Pidpysetsky told AFP.
“Someone thought it would end in a month, two, three, six months. But, unfortunately, the war has only gotten bigger.”
Oleg, one of the mourners who came to visit a friend’s grave, called the losses “irreparable.”
“We will have our victory of course, but this is the price we pay. And that is not the end,” said the 55-year-old.
“These people gave their lives for us.”
Oleg mourns the loss of his 45-year-old friend also called Oleg.
He said the father of two volunteered to go to the front.
“Unfortunately, nothing can be done now. Thousands of Russians will not replace my Oleg,” he said bitterly.
Kyiv does not reveal the number of its military casualties but Western officials say more than 100,000 Ukrainians have been killed or wounded.
Olga, who came to visit her brother-in-law’s grave, says the mementos people leave “is all that’s left, the only connection with their heroes.”
Her sister comes to the cemetery every day, she added.
“That’s her second home now,” said Olga.
Vyacheslav Sabelnikov, who served in the infantry before receiving a serious injury, says several men he fought with are now buried at the cemetery.
“I came to visit a friend whose birthday is today,” said Sabelnikov, placing a candle in front of his portrait.
Sabelnikov said he lights up candles to remember his friends, saying it was important to “honor” their memory.
Anna Mikheyeva, a 44-year-old social worker, came to visit her son Mykhailo’s grave. He served in the 80th Parachute Brigade and was killed last year at the age of 25.
Mikheyeva says she often brings her son things “he liked” including Coca-Cola, sweets, and cigarettes.
“If I come in the morning, I buy a coffee for myself and also for him,” added the dark-haired woman.
She said she felt calm at the Field of Mars.
“There are only young people here. They are like sons and brothers to me.
“When I come I always say ‘Hi guys’. And I always, always thank them.”