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Ukraine's best-known soldier died earlier this week defending Bakhmut


Da Vinci, the famous Ukrainian war hero, has died. He gave up his dream of going to art school to fight for his country, and he died defending the eastern city of Bakhmut earlier this week. He was 27. Thousands of Ukrainians turned out for his funeral in Kyiv yesterday. NPR's Joanna Kakissis was there.


JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Nine years ago when Dmytro Kotsiubailo (ph) was a fresh-faced teenager, he was in Kyiv's Maidan Square, protesting against a Russian-backed president who compromised Ukraine's independence. On Friday, Kotsiubailo returned in a coffin as a legendary soldier who devoted his life to defending Ukraine in the harshest of battles with Russia.


KAKISSIS: Thousands of mourners waited in long lines to see the hero they called Da Vinci. They wept as they sang Ukraine's national anthem and held bouquets of roses and carnations.

Twenty-five-year-old Karina Nikolaeva brought her 5-year-old son.

KARINA NIKOLAEVA: (Through interpreter) I want to show my child how everything starts and how it ends in Ukraine right now. I grew up forced to glorify old heroes from a foreign state. I want him to understand what it means to be a real patriot.

KAKISSIS: Kotsiubailo became Ukraine's youngest military commander at age 21. His brigade is called Da Vinci's Wolves. Two years ago, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy awarded Kotsiubailo the country's highest honor, the Hero of Ukraine, making him one of the youngest to receive the distinction.


KAKISSIS: When it came time to take Kotsiubailo's coffin to its final resting place, those in the crowd fell to their knees as a sign of respect. Eighteen-year-old Diana Kozyr sang along to the national anthem. She says the war is forcing so many young Ukrainians to forgo their dreams in order to keep Ukraine intact.

DIANA KOZYR: (Through interpreter) This war not only takes away our lives, but also our youth. We should be studying peacefully. But now we can't even think about the future because we don't know what will happen.

KAKISSIS: In an interview late last month, Kotsiubailo also seemed stressed about the future. He warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed ready for a very long war.


DMYTRO KOTSIUBAILO: (Through interpreter) Putin won't give up. He's ready to fight no matter how many years it will take.

KAKISSIS: But the Ukrainians are ready, too, he added, they're ready to fight to the death. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kyiv.


Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.