Volunteer medic, 29, buried in Ukraine after being killed by Russian shelling
Yana Rikhlitska, 29, died alongside another medic as they shuttled between a field hospital and the frontline.
“She was really friendly and kind,” said Viktor Fateyev, 39, a colleague from the IT company where she worked in the HR department.
“She was like a mother to everyone. She was the focus point everyone gathered around.”
Ms Rikhlitska was filmed by journalists just over a week ago as she helped treat wounded soldiers in the field hospital outside Bakhmut, which Russia forces have pulverised during a three-sided assault to seize the city in eastern Ukraine.
At her funeral on Tuesday, her mother’s cries of anguish pierced the cold morning air as mourners – who had fought back tears – held them no longer.
“Oh, Yana. Oh, my daughter,” Olena Rikhlitska cried.
“My baby. My little one.”
Those gathered for the service, in Ms Rikhlitska’s home city of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine, remembered a person full of vitality and spurred on by a lifelong drive to help others.
Ms Rikhlitska was in Brazil just before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 2022.
She spent a few months in the South American country practicing capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art, Mr Fateyev said, clutching a bunch of yellow tulips as he waited to pay his respects at the funeral.
She flew home after the invasion, he said, and straight away began fundraising and working as a volunteer for troops to help the Ukrainian defence effort.
It was not long before she decided to become a frontline medic.
Mr Fateyev saw Ms Rikhlitska featured in the Associated Press’s video report when it aired and posted it in a group chat of her co-workers.
“Everyone was so excited,” he said.
“And then, the next day…”
Tetiana Obraztsova, 30, a member of a volunteer combat medic group who met Ms Rikhlitska in September, said Ms Rikhlitska ferried humanitarian aid to Bakhmut even before she became a medic.
Russia has been trying to capture the city for six months.
“She did all that she could, right from the start of the full-scale war,” Ms Obraztsova said.
Fellow volunteer Anastasia Muzyka, 29, recalled Ms Rikhlitska as bright, kind and indefatigable.
“She was fiery, in a good way. She was so dedicated. It was like she was never tired,” Ms Muzyka said.
In combat, eventually even soldiers need to rest, she added. “But not Yara. She was always there, helping everyone.”
It was during her volunteer work in August that she met her future husband, Oleksandr, who was in the Ukrainian army.
Amid the noise of war, their love blossomed and the couple married on December 31.
“She was fire, the fire that cannot be extinguished.” said Oleksandr, who would only give his first name.
Childhood friend Snizhana Zaliubivska, 28, remembered Ms Rikhlitska showing a desire to help even as a little girl.
The two had lost touch in recent years, but Ms Zaliubivska was devastated to hear of her friend’s death.
“It wasn’t a surprise that she was volunteering. She was a true patriot of the country,” she said.
“She would never refuse anyone. She was always helping everyone who would ask.”
Draped with the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, Ms Rikhlitska’s coffin was taken to the military section of the local cemetery and opened.
Ashen-faced, her mother gently stroked her daughter’s cheek and kissed her one last time.
“No, no,” she cried as the coffin was carried to the grave and lowered to the sound of a gun salute.
Only the support of her husband, Mykola, and another relative prevented her from falling to the ground.
Behind them, row upon row of Ukrainian flags fluttered above the graves of the war dead, snapping in the breeze.
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