“He said: “I love you, I’ll be back in a week.” And so it happened. Only he came back in a coffin” – stories of soldiers who died in battles for Soledar
In 2014, when the Russian military aggression against Ukraine started, Soledar had been occupied for just over two months until Ukrainian forces liberated it. In 2022, Russia came for a small industrial town near Bakhmut again. Since May 2022, it was heavily shelled, and by the start of 2023, Soledar became the focal point of the Russian offensive – and the site of the fiercest battle.
Eventually, the Armed Forces of Ukraine retreated from Soledar. The uneasy decision was made in order to preserve the lives of Ukrainian soldiers. Here are the stories of some of those heroes who died defending Soledar, the town that will one day be free from the Russian invaders once again.
This text was prepared by the Memorial memory platform that tells stories of the Ukrainian military and civilians killed by Russia, exclusively for war.ukraine.ua.
For the past two years, 35-year-old Oleksandr Zakolodnyi from Kharkiv had been the vice president of the Ukrainian Mountaineering and Rock Climbing Federation. He worked as a tourism trainer for 10 years. Oleksandr conquered many peaks: he climbed Kazbek, Elbrus, and Mont Blanc. In 2017, at the age of 30 years old, he received the “Silver Leopard” award – it is given to the climbers who conquered five seven-thousanders (mountain summits of at least 7,000 meters), and became the youngest among its winners.
Oleksandr also helped with the opening of the “Vertical” climbing center in Kharkiv. There, his wife Olha and he trained both children and adults together. “They did it with love and dedication. Kids looked forward to practice as if it were a holiday,” says Iryna Poltavets, a family friend.
Oleksandr was raising four children with his wife Olha: two from her previous marriage and two of their own. In the first days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Oleksandr took his wife and children to Lviv and returned home by himself. In his own van, he evacuated people from Kharkiv and other towns in the region, shelled by the Russians, to Poltava.
Zakolodnyi helped his friend Denys Kolisnychenko and his friends leave Chuhuiv. He saved ten people then. “He helped everyone who asked. He even went to hot spots. He helped us flee Chuhuiv. There was no fuel to be found anywhere at that time, we left the city through the fields and checkpoints. When Oleksandr got us out, he didn’t even take money for it,” Denys recalls.
In early March of 2022, Oleksandr signed up for the Territorial Defense Forces, which became part of the Main Directorate of Intelligence. He fought for the Kharkiv region, and after that was sent to the Donetsk direction.
“He said that he had to go and fight so that he would not be ashamed to look his children in the eyes later. I have not tried to dissuade him. It was like fighting a rock. My husband decided and did it. My feelings on this matter were mixed: on the one hand – pride, on the other – full understanding of all the risks… The worst is four daughters were left without a father. The elder ones have lost their father for the second time, it’s very difficult for them,” says the defender’s wife.
“If he set his sights on a goal, he was unstoppable. This was probably the main reason why he volunteered to fight. He felt responsible for his family and country. He didn’t put it on someone else because he knew: if everyone did that, there would be no Ukraine,” Iryna Poltavets says.
Photo from the family archive
Oleksandr fought in the “Kraken” Unit and had the call sign “Skelia” (“Rock”). Zakolodnyi took part in the liberation of the cities of Balakliia and Kupiansk, the villages in the Kharkiv region. The hero was awarded commemorative and encouraging awards, as well as the Order of “For Courage” (3rd degree) from Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Oleksandr Zakolodnyi dreamed of climbing Everest without an oxygen mask, and his wife – to adopt a boy.
“Sasha (ed. short from Oleksandr) said that we would build a house, adopt a dog and a cat. And regarding another child, he said, we would think about it after the victory because it’s a very serious matter. And now I clench my teeth and endure. I beg God to give us all the strength to survive this horror. I love life very much. I really want to live in a free country. I believe, hope, and wait for our Victory,” emphasizes Olha.
Oleksandr Zakolodnyi was killed in action on January 21, 2023, in Soledar. For some time, his body could not be brought home, and then the comrades of the deceased helped to return him. The defender was buried in the Glory Walk in Kharkiv.
28-year-old Serhii Nebozhak from the village of Pavlivka in the Vinnytsia region studied to become a manager. Before the full-scale war, he ran his own business as a truck driver. He devoted his free time to sports. Serhii had a partner, Tetiana. He dreamed of traveling, buying his own house, and having two children: a son and a daughter.
Serhii took part in the Revolution of Dignity and did volunteering in 2014. From the first days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, he helped the military with the volunteers of the Union of ATO Participants and Veterans of Other Hostilities. He took self-defense courses and learned to shoot.
“On February 24, 2022, volunteers called him and said they needed a truck to transport ammunition. He drove them in his car to places where no one else was willing to go. He saved more than one brigade,” says his niece Anastasiia Burlaka.
In June, Serhii Nebozhak received a summons. “He said: “If I have received a summons, I must go. I have to protect my land. I will go where I need to go. Even to the Crimea. I will go first.” Everyone knew he was unstoppable. He was active and marched into battle,” says his niece.
Serhii Nebozhak fought in the ranks of the 46th Separate Airborne Assault Brigade as a driver. He had the call sign “Viking”. He took part in the liberation of Kherson and battles for Bakhmut and Soledar. During his service, he hit a mine twice. His cars were beyond repair but he survived. In Bakhmut, he was wounded in the leg – it was pierced by three shards.
“He was on sick leave for two days. Medics removed the fragments and he came back to the frontline. He never complained. He had a fever but said that he should be with the boys because it was his mission. He didn’t fear anything. His brother-in-arms said that Serhii always had a cool mind and a desire to go forward,” Anastasiia Burlaka says.
According to her, Serhii had a friend killed in the war and wanted revenge. He used to say that heroes die, and considered death in battle to be honorable. “He believed that soldiers who were killed in battle go to heaven. He said that he would also like to end up there,” says Serhii’s niece.
“He talked about what he saw at the front in such a way that I wanted to laugh. And then you come home, and you realize what he was talking about, and how scary it was,” she adds.
Serhii Nebozhak served together with his cousin and always tried to keep him safe. He often went to fight in the line of contact instead of others. Serhii was killed on January 16, 2023.
“During the street fighting, he was badly contused. The guys stayed in the basement for several hours but then they had to leave. Serhii’s wife’s birthday was coming in a few days, he promised her that he would come. He knew that he had to go out, that he could not sit there and wait for death. So they went up with another guy. That guy was shot, and Serhii got wounded in the leg. Medical experts determined that the bullet or shrapnel had severed the arteries. There was no rotation for a long time; it was not possible to save him,” says Serhii’s niece.
The family could not get the body of the deceased defender for a long time. Eventually, Serhii’s older brother managed to do this with the help of volunteers. The soldier was brought to his hometown in time for his wife Tetianas birthday.
“Serhii said that he would come to his wife’s birthday and he made good on his promise. When he was alive he said: “Don’t cry for me. I will die as a warrior.” But we ignored his words for a very long time,” Anastasiia recalls.
The hero was buried at the cemetery in the village of Pavlivka. His family and friends often bring coffee and his favorite nuts to his grave.
Volodymyr Neroda was born on January 1, 1997, in the village of Bashlyky in the Volyn region. After school, he trained to become a plasterer, worked for the Ukrainian Postal Service, and went to seasonal work in Poland. At the age of 19, Volodymyr went to war for the first time and fought in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ed. – name used in 2014-2018) in the East of Ukraine.
Two years later, in 2018, Neroda was seriously injured and had to resign from the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. He received treatment in Ukraine and Germany and, in total, underwent around 20 surgeries. “They put him back together from the bottom to the waist: his organs were stitched, his legs were put together. The operations sometimes took 4-6 hours. He had to learn how to walk again. It took a year,” said Liudmyla, mother of the defender.
Volodymyr Neroda got a disability status, and regularly underwent rehabilitation. As part of it, he got into archery and became a member of the “Lutsk Falcons” club. “A nerve in his right arm had to be stitched up, and it was not working properly. He could not lift anything. He started practicing archery to work on it,” says the soldier’s mother. The young man trained regularly and participated in tournaments. Volodymyr wanted to be selected for the veteran games where injured servicemen try themselves at various sports.
Photo: Pavlo Kovalskyi
The young man also wanted to buy a car and was saving for a house for his mother and siblings, says Yevhen Tkachuk, the deputy company commander of the rapid response battalion.
When Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Volodymyr was in rehabilitation in the Lviv region. From there, he headed straight to Lutsk, where he signed up as a volunteer for the local Territorial Defense Unit.
“Volodymyr was naive as a child. Hardworking, kind, and responsible. He always was eager for battle”, says Yevhen Tkachuk. “One time he approached me and said: “They won’t let me join the army, I had a lot of injuries, a contusion. I want to go to Poland instead to earn money.” We are a volunteer unit so I let him go. And then it turned out that he had gone to the frontline.
Neroda became a driver of the OUN Volunteer Battalion which later joined the 71st Separate Huntsmen Brigade. “He could not serve but his burning desire to be always useful, to protect Ukraine had won. He always asked whether he had done something well. In military terms, he was a reliable comrade,” Pavlo Kovalskyi says.
In the OUN battalion, Volodymyr Neroda had the call sign “Tokar”. He fought in the Kharkiv and Donetsk directions. Volodymyr’s mother says that she did not try to dissuade her son from taking up arms because it would be impossible.
“It was not in my child’s nature. He worried about the boys, about the volunteers, he constantly tried to help someone. It was impossible to stop him. He said: “The younger brothers should be at home because they are still young, while I, the eldest one, should fight. We will not let the Russians come here”, Liudmila recalled. She says that Volodymyr never complained, on the contrary – he comforted her. The last time the woman saw her son was in August 2022.
“There are people with whom you are not afraid to go to the frontline. Volodymyr was one of those people. He had no fear at all. There was a hit, many were wounded. They were too afraid to go pick up one of the wounded. And Volodymyr volunteered – he was always in the first ranks. He got wounded but the boy he saved survived and recovered,” Yevhen Tkachuk recalled.
Volodymyr Neroda was killed in action on October 13, 2022. He came under artillery fire while rescuing a wounded brother-in-arms. The hero was 25 years old. He was buried in the village of Moshchanytsia in the Volyn region. The hero is survived by his parents, three brothers, and two sisters.
Kyrylo Serhiienko was born on April 12, 1983, in Kyiv. A lawyer by education, he worked for Ukrainian airline companies. Later, he changed his career path: worked at a tourist equipment store, and became an official guide to the Exclusion Zone, the 30-km zone around The Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Oleh Shalashov, a friend of the defender, notes that Kyrylo devotedly engaged in things he was passionate about. “He paid great attention to detail and was reliable in his work. A person you can always rely on,” says Shalashov.
Oleh said that Kyrylo always thought about his family, especially about his daughter Sofiia.
“He was very much a family man. His wife and daughter were his rear and peace. No matter where we were, Kyrylo was worried only about his family. He said that he was already missing his daughter and had to go back,” Shalashov recalls.
Photo from the family archive
Now Sofiia is 14 years old. She was very close with her father, says Yanina Askerova-Serhiienko, the wife of the Ukrainian defender. “He was not only her father but also her friend.”
With the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Kyrylo Serhiienko helped people from the villages near the Exclusion Zone that had been liberated from the Russian occupation. He decided to volunteer to the frontline and defended Bucha, Hostomel, and Irpin in the ranks of the “Azov” regiment.
Later, Kyrylo transferred to the 46th Airborne Assault Brigade to serve with old friends of his. He took part in the offensive on Kherson from the Beryslav direction. In early January, Serhiienko ended up in Soledar – his unit was sent there as reinforcements.
Kyrylo Serhiienko was a lieutenant and the deputy commander of the mortar unit. He had an ironic callsign “Malysh” (“Tiny One”). “Kyrylo was 2 meters tall. A very stocky man but at the same time – very kind. He was always polite and always asked you how you were doing and how he could help,” recalls Anton, a soldier’s friend.
Photo from the family archive
From January 2, 2023, Kyrylo performed missions at the “Artemsil” plant in Soledar. The last time he spoke to his wife was on Christmas Eve. “He said everything was fine, “I love you, I’ll be back in a week”. And so it happened, but a week later he returned in a coffin,” said the hero’s widow.
“Kyrylo saved his brother-in-arms from mines. Both his (ed. brother-in-arms’) legs were damaged, he cannot walk now. Kyrylo sent him to the medical brigade and prepared for an ambush himself,” Yanina says. “He was very exhausted. The temperature was 20 degree Celsius below zero, severe frost, they had not slept for three days, and took watches. There were no windows, shells were flying, it was a meat grinder. They worked 20 meters away from the invaders. On January 8, a shell flew into the room where Kyrylo was taking shelter. Instant death. He died heroically with a weapon in his hands.”
Oleh Shalashov says that Kyrylo prepared his wife for the possibility of his death in advance. “He said that everything he was doing was for the future of his wife, his daughter, and his country. He said: “We are titans, I am a titan. I have to go forward and defend my country because it’s the future of our children,” recalled the friend of the Ukrainian defender.
Kyrylo had a leave only once – in autumn, he took time off for his daughter’s birthday. After the victory, he dreamed of taking her to Ukrainian Crimea. And after his rotation, he planned to do volunteering.
“Kyrylo said: “The war will be long. Longer than a year or two. Don’t expect victory now, you don’t know what’s going on there. When I have my rotation, I don’t want to go back to the boys. I will be helping, I will start something with volunteering,” the hero’s widow recalled.
Serhii Chaika was born in the village of Tsybulivka, the Odesa region. He graduated from the Tsebrykiv Agrarian Lyceum, where he learned tractor driving. At the beginning of the full-scale war, Serhii lived in the village with his wife and her son: they ran a household and dreamed of moving to a city. The young man went to war on February 26, 2022, together with his neighbors. Anastasiia Chaika, a sister of the deceased defender, says that the relatives tried to dissuade the men, but in vain.
“The guys didn’t listen to us, to be honest. We said: “Why? Wait.” And they said: “And who if not us? We will not wait for the Russians to come to our village.” They packed and left,” Anastasiia recalls.
“They were couldn’t go home for the first four months. And later, Serhii visited five or six times, just for a few days. We asked him to stay a little longer. And he answered: “If I don’t return, they won’t let other guys go home. I can’t do that,” she adds.
Serhii did not tell his relatives much about the war. He said that everything was fine, and told them not to believe what others say.
“He never complained. He never told us anything in detail. He said: “You don’t need it.” He called when he was driving to Soledar, talked to his wife and mother for a long time. And then the connection was lost,” Chaika’s sister says.
Photo from the family archive
Serhii fought in Mykolaiv, Kherson, and in the Donetsk direction in the ranks of the 101st Battalion of the 61st Brigade. He was killed on January 3, 2023.
“We found out the next day. His body was removed from the battlefield by his comrades. There were two killed and one injured,” – says Anastasiia Chaika.
“Serhii was a very good person. He helped people even during the war. There was an elderly couple in this one village with no one else left. Serhii constantly visited them, bought them food, water, and lanterns, charged their phones. And when he came home for a few days, he asked the boys who stayed there to visit those people and bring them something. He was like that… Treated old people very well, and he helped everyone,” says Anastasiia.