KYIV — The 6-year-old boy walked as much as President Volodymyr Zelensky, his small arms outstretched to just accept a medal on behalf of his father — a Ukrainian soldier killed in motion final yr.

It was a quiet second that appeared to convey the grief of all of Ukraine because the nation marked 32 years of independence on Thursday with a somber morning ceremony outdoors one in all Kyiv’s most well-known cathedrals. Thursday additionally marked the 18-month anniversary of the conflict, and the temper within the capital felt extra subdued than celebratory, as troopers and civilians mirrored on the loss and violence which have outlined their world since Russia invaded in February 2022.

Zelensky spoke of unity and insisted the nation “is not going to let Ukrainian independence slip out of Ukrainian arms.” Folks walked by the streets wearing vyshyvankas — conventional embroidered shirts — and visited a brand new show of seized Russian army {hardware}. Spirits had been lifted barely by information that Ukrainian forces had raised a flag within the contested southern village of Robotyne on Wednesday and landed in Russian-occupied Crimea early Thursday, the place they carried out a particular operation and in addition flew the Ukrainian flag.

However as at all times, the undertones of struggling had been unavoidable.

A 34-year-old soldier who goes by the decision signal “Jackson” attended the morning ceremony in assist of his commander, who was amongst these receiving medals from Zelensky for his or her braveness on the entrance line.

They’re serving within the nation’s east — the identical area the place a 2015 mine blast in a Russian-backed separatist conflict left Jackson with 24 items of shrapnel embedded in his physique. Even now, virtually a decade later, his close-shaved hair reveals a big scar working down the fitting facet of his head. The titanium plate docs positioned inside “is the worth I paid for liberty,” he stated.

His damage might have made him exempt from serving once more. However he signed as much as struggle final yr anyway. Since then, he has hardly seen his two daughters, 9 and three, however he’s serving, he stated, to make sure they develop up free.

“I don’t need them to have this similar expertise,” he stated. “If we don’t end this conflict now, they should.”

As quickly because the ceremony was over, he stated, he can be driving his commander again to the entrance.

Anna Bondaruk, 25, mom of Maksym, the 6-year-old within the ceremony, stated it was a “onerous day.”

“He is aware of every part concerning the conflict,” she stated as she held Maksym — wearing a standard blue-and-white Ukrainian shirt — on her lap. “He is aware of what occurred to his father.”

His grandmother, Maria, 45, stated the ceremony was an opportunity for him “to keep in mind that his father did a terrific factor.”

Oleksii Chechyn, a 24-year-old farmer, stated his go to to Kyiv to obtain a medal made him “be happy” after months of occupation and hospital visits. He was shot within the leg by Russian troops at shut vary final yr as he launched into a secretive resistance mission within the southern area of Mykolaiv. On Thursday, he moved towards Zelensky with out utilizing his crutch — the primary time he had walked on his personal since he was shot 11 months in the past. “My physician stated I might perceive once I was prepared. Right this moment, I understood it was this second,” he stated, beaming.

However Lyubov Konovalenko, 26, a senior medic within the Aydar Battalion who additionally acquired a medal Thursday and is at the moment stationed simply outdoors Bakhmut, stated she felt uncomfortable attending festivities in Kyiv when her fellow troopers had been nonetheless underneath hearth on the entrance line.

She is initially from the southern metropolis of Berdyansk, which is now underneath Russian occupation.

“We all know we’re combating because of this, so folks can stay right here,” she stated of Kyiv. However typically, she stated, it feels as if “folks in cities like this neglect there’s a conflict.”

Even for these whose lives might seem untouched, the ache is usually lurking just under the floor.

Newlyweds Daryna and Yevgen Herasymenko, 23 and 25, walked joyfully hand-in-hand by the streets of central Kyiv on Thursday — she in a marriage robe and veil, he in a tan swimsuit. They had been married final month however had solely simply taken their wedding ceremony photographs, and the event felt bittersweet.

Ten days in the past, they’d buried Daryna’s 26-year-old brother, Oleksii, who was killed combating in Ukraine’s counteroffensive within the southern Zaporizhzhia area.

Yevgen gently wiped tears from his bride’s face as she described how they realized on the ultimate day of their honeymoon that Oleksii had died. He had disappeared in early July, however they’d held out hope he may nonetheless be alive — till his physique was returned by Russian troops in a swap this month. That have “makes you consider you might want to stay your life to the fullest and never really feel such as you missed out on something,” Yevgen stated.

Just a few blocks away, a whole lot of individuals wandered by the show of seized Russian gear on one of many capital’s fundamental thruways.

Amongst them had been Yana Zadorozhna and her husband, Ivan Zadorozhniy, who’re anticipating a child boy on Sept. 20. Zadorozhna wore a standard Ukrainian costume and her husband a T-shirt depicting a HIMARS, the long-range artillery system equipped to Ukraine final yr by america. Their Jack Russell terrier, Cocos, wore a custom-made vyshyvanka. Regardless of pleas by Zadorozhna’s mom to think about going overseas to have the newborn, they plan to ship in Kyiv.

“It was a aware determination to present beginning in Ukraine and never some other place,” Zadorozhna stated. “We love our nation deeply.”

Close by, psychologist Yana Gorbunova strolled by the show along with her daughters Amira, 17, and Katya, 4.

The youthful one, she stated, already talks incessantly about becoming a member of the military when she grows up. “I don’t suppose it ought to be like this at 4½ years previous,” she stated. “She is aware of what an alarm is, she is aware of why they’re working to a shelter.”

The conflict, she stated, is in every single place they appear.

Quickly after, an air-raid siren wailed, signaling a possible strike on Kyiv. Police biked by the streets, urging civilians to search out onerous cowl. The identical crowds that had simply joyfully posed for selfies rushed to cover.

Heidi Levine contributed to this report.

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