Burying Ukraine's fallen innocents

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Media captionA mother mourns at the coffins of her two children who were killed the day the ceasefire was declared, as Fergal Keane reports

The BBC's Fergal Keane attends the funeral of Nikita, 10, and his sister Karolina, six, who were killed by shelling near Mariupol in eastern Ukraine last week.

The family had told us they wanted the story to be told.

But it was one of those occasions in the reporting of war where the witness feels personally shamed by the cruelty of conflict, as if all humanity was diminished by the injustice inflicted on one family.

At the graveside there was at first only the sound of wind blowing across the fields of harvest stubble, the quiet shuffle of neighbours feet as they gathered to bury the two children.

Then a van arrived. The coffins were gently removed and carried to the edge of the grave. The children, Nikita, 10, and Karolina, six, looked not dead but as if they were asleep.

As their mother Tatiana approached a loud wail of anguish enveloped the crowd. Her voice gave vent to sorrow, anger, bewilderment - all that can be expressed by woman whose two children have been cut down by war.

'Little helper'

Nikita lived his days in a wheelchair, suffering from cerebral palsy and unable to feed himself. His little sister Karolina was the little helper of the family, a constant support for her grandmother, Lubov Vasilievna, who looked after the children during the day.

Image caption Family members gathered to mourn Nikita and Karolina, two siblings killed by shelling near Mariupol

On the day of the ceasefire, 5 September, and just hours before it was to come into effect, Lubov was sitting with the children in her flat when the shelling began. In this war both sides have placed weapons and fired shells in areas where civilians are living. As in every war I have covered the interests of the innocent and uninvolved come a poor second to the priorities of military men.

When the shelling began Lubov tried to get to the children to a basement shelter in another building. Pushing Nikita in his wheelchair and with Karolina running alongside they rushed across the courtyard. She remembers hearing the whistling noise of an incoming shell. Then the ground shook.

"When I held my granddaughter Karolina the whole left side of her was shredded," she said. "I was in shock." She was wounded in the arm and her ears were ringing from the noise of the blast. But somehow Lubov managed to get the two children back to her flat. Karolina was already dead, Nikita was falling in and out of consciousness.

Image caption The two children were buried in an emotionally charged funeral in Mariupol

"Nikita was still in his wheelchair. It was really difficult. There was blood everywhere," she recalled.

Some soldiers arrived. By then Nikita was dead and the children's bodies were taken away. Lubov was brought to hospital. Lying there later she told me: "I don't know how I am going to survive this. These images of them are in front of my eyes."

Silent vigil

Three days later I saw her again at the graveside of her grandchildren. Her cries mingled with those of her daughter.

Image caption The children's grandmother, Lubov Vasilievna, says she is still haunted by the memory of their death

Repeatedly she called out: "God, why have you taken them?" Before the coffins were lowered into the grave mother Tatiana knelt by each child and spoke softly to them, her hand stroking their hair, as if they might still hear her words of tenderness.

And then, overcome by grief, she collapsed and was carried away. By the end only the children's father and a few neighbours were left, and Lubov who sat before the grave in silence.

The ceasefire is supposed to end the random cruelty that destroyed the lives of Nikita and Karolina. But for their family it is a truce empty of meaning.