The seven coffins were hoisted into the echoing hall in central Kyiv on Saturday by military pallbearers in full ceremonial dress, to the sound of a lone trumpet and army-style snare drum.
Mourners in black and clutching roses had earlier gathered near Maidan square in Ukraine’s capital to pay final respects to interior minister Denys Monastyrsky and his colleagues, who died in a shock helicopter accident earlier this week.
“They were not broken by the war, and they did not allow others to be broken,” the eulogist and moderator of the ceremony told the hundreds of mourners that included senior government officials.
Outside, Ukrainian and European Union flags were fluttering at half-staff in a wintery breeze, nearby roads were blocked and lined with anti-tank obstacles, and law enforcement patrolled empty streets.
Monastyrsky, a 42-year-old trained lawyer who took up his post in 2021, was one of nine people on board a state emergency services helicopter when it crashed this week near a kindergarten and residential block in the Kyiv commuter town of Brovary.
He was among an emerging generation of politicians in Ukraine, and was the highest-ranking official to die following Russia’s invasion launched in February last year.
The moderator explained during the ceremony that it was Monastyrsky himself who called Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky on February 24 last year to inform him that Russia had invaded.
It was Monastyrsky, he added, who had orchestrated the distribution of arms to residents of the capital as Russian forces closed in.
– ‘We have to advance’ –
“Glory to Ukraine,” he said in closing his comments, spurring an echoing response from hundreds in the hall: “Glory to our heroes”.
Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska had arrived at the ceremony wearing all black and carrying floral garlands to comfort loved ones of victims.
The families had gathered before the president arrived, some weeping over the coffins, each draped with the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag and next to a large black-and-white portrait of the victim.
“Ukraine is losing its best sons and daughters every day,” Zelensky said in a statement later.
One of those killed was a photographer, Mykola Anatsky, 34, who was travelling with the minister to the frontline from the destroyed city of Bakhmut.
“Kolya was an extremely kind, intelligent child. He still could have done a lot for Ukraine,” said his childhood schoolteacher Lyudmila Zakharenko, recounting that her former student had a newborn daughter.
“It’s scary because the best people are passing away,” the 53-year-old said, choking up.
Ukrainian intelligence officer Ilya Samoilenko, who was captured by Russian forces after their weeks-long siege of the Azovstal steel works in the southern city of Mariupol, described Monastyrsky’s death as “a great loss”.
“We’re in a war. The people involved in empowering and enforcing our defences are critically important,” he told AFP, referring to the killed interior ministry officials.
Yet Samoilenko, with an artificial eye and prosthetic arm to attest to his own brush with death defending Mariupol last year, said Ukraine could not afford to mourn long.
“We can have a couple of days of grief,” he told AFP, saying the crash in Brovary was no reason to halt “forging our victory”.
“We have to move. We have to proceed. We have to advance,” Samoilenko, clad in camouflage, said as the ceremony closed.