VINNYTSIA, Ukraine — As the mother’s cries of anguish pierced the cold morning air, mourners who had fought back tears could hold them no longer.
“Oh Yana, oh my daughter,” Olena Rikhlitska howled. “My baby, my little one.”
Her only child, 29-year-old Yana Rikhlitska, lay in a coffin before her, the younger woman’s blonde hair still in the tight braids she adopted when she voluntarily joined the Ukrainian army as a medic late last year.
Just over a week ago, Associated Press journalists filmed Yana Rikhlitska as she helped treat wounded soldiers in a field hospital outside Bakhmut, which Russian forces have pulverized during a three-sided assault to seize the city in eastern Ukraine.
A few days later she was dead. Rikhlitska and another medic were killed by shelling as they shuttled between the field hospital and the front line.
As friends, colleagues and relatives gathered Tuesday in her home city of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine to bid her a final farewell, they remembered a person full of vitality and spurred by a life-long drive to help others.
“She was really friendly and kind,” said Viktor Fateyev, 39, a colleague from the IT company where she worked in the human resources department. “She was like a mother to everyone; she was the focus point everyone gathered around.”
Rikhlitska was in Brazil just before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She spent a few months in the South American country practicing capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art, 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 defense effort. It wasn’t long before she decided to become a front-line medic.
He spotted her in the AP video when it aired, Fateyev said, and posted it in a group chat of her co-workers. “Everyone was so excited,” he said. “And then, the next day…” he trailed off.
Tetiana Obraztsova, 30, a member of a volunteer combat medic group who met Rikhlitska in September, said 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,” Obraztsova said.
Fellow volunteer Anastasia Muzyka, 29, recalled Rikhlitska as bright, kind and indefatigable.
“She was fiery, in a good way. She was so dedicated. It was like she was never tired,” 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 din of war, their love blossomed, and the couple married on Dec. 31, 2022.
“She was fire, the fire that cannot be extinguished.” said Oleksandr, who would only give his first name.
Childhood friend Snizhana Zaliubivska, 28, remembered Rikhlitska displaying a desire to help even as a little girl. The two had lost touch in recent years, but 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, Rikhlitska’s coffin was transported to the military section of the local cemetery and opened once more. Ashen-faced, her mother gently stroked her daughter’s cheek, and kissed her one last time.
“No, no!” Olena Rikhlitska sobbed 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 sinking to the ground.
Behind them, row upon row of Ukrainian flags fluttered above the graves of the war dead, snapping in the breeze.