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‘Someday they will find him’: Ukrainian refugee buried in west Cork after failed search for family

Yevhen Mishchenko’s next of kin could not be traced amid Russian occupation of home city of Mariupol

The smouldering grey sky was silent over Skibbereen this week as Ukrainian refugee Yevhen Mishchenko was laid to rest 4,000km from the home he fled in Mariupol as Russian rockets rained down on the besieged city almost a year ago.

Mishchenko (65) left Mariupol soon after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of his homeland. He came to Ireland where, after spending some time in Dublin, he was sent to Skibbereen where he stayed in a flat on Main Street and led a quiet existence for the three months or so that he called the west Cork town home.

It was in his flat on Main Street that this private man, believed to be an academic, died on January 2nd, his body found by other residents who notified the landlord, who in turn alerted gardaí to set in train the events which have brought home just how long the reach of war can be.

A postmortem confirmed Mishchenko’s death was not suspicious but when gardaí contacted the Ukrainian authorities to try to trace his next of kin, inquiries were made in Donetsk Oblast only for word to come back that his family could not be found as the city is now occupied by the Russians.


So it fell to the coroner for west Cork, Frank O’Connell, to take the sad decision to bury Mishchenko locally in Skibbereen and hope that someday when the guns finally fall silent in Ukraine, Mishchenko’s surviving relatives may learn of his fate and perhaps come and claim his remains.

“We know Yevhen was from the city of Mariupol and we have the building number on Lavitsky Street but Mariupol was destroyed when the Russians attacked, the city was devastated after fierce fighting and it remains under Russian occupation and we have not been able to trace his relatives.

“That’s all we can do for the moment, but our hope is that by burying Yevhen in Skibbereen, if family ever come looking for him, he can be exhumed and brought back to Mariupol and buried with his family there so that they will have a grave that they can visit and mourn him.”

The burial in Skibbereen on Thursday proved a poignant affair, as local Catholic parish priest Fr John Heinhold was joined by undertakers, Charles and Brenda O’Sullivan and Martin Collins, and two local gravediggers as Mishchenko was laid to rest in St Patrick’s Cemetery at Coronea just outside the town.

Slowly, they wheeled his coffin through the thickets of grey headstones bearing west Cork names like O’Driscoll and O’Donovan, O’Mahony and O’Sullivan, to a quiet corner of the cemetery that overlooks the Ilen estuary as the river drifts towards the sea at Roaring Water Bay.

Fr Heinhold, whose ancestors knew the horrors of war in Leipzig during second World War, watched as Mishchenko’s coffin was eased into the grave before he led the three undertakers and two gravediggers in a decade of the rosary, a small cluster of mourners silhouetted on a lonely hillside cemetery.

“It is very sad,” said Fr Heinhold, shaking his head before pointing out that Mishchenko was being buried beside the toy-strewn freshly mounded grave of toddler Joshua Odonker, who died just over a week ago when he choked on a grape at his home in Ard Carraig in Skibbereen.

“We will remember them both when we pass here. I suppose Yevhen never thought when he was fleeing Ukraine that he would end up in west Cork and find himself being buried here. We didn’t know what denomination he was, but we sent him off as best we could with some prayers for him.

“The important thing is that we were there at his burial, and it was dignified and respectful and we remembered his family too at this time. There may be somebody out there who is thinking about him and wondering where he is but, please God, someday they will find him and get closure for their loss.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times