Paul Hughes says one of the most difficult moments of his life was placing a Canadian flag over the body bag of a soldier from Alberta killed during a bloody battle in eastern Ukraine.
Hughes carefully drove an ambulance carrying the body of Kyle Porter for more than four hours away from an area near Bakhmut where the Canadian and another soldier, Cole Zelenco, were killed during fierce fighting last week.
“I draped the Canadian flag over him. That hit me as hard as I’ve been in hit in the 14 months I’ve been in Ukraine,” Hughes said in a phone interview from Kharkiv after retrieving Porter’s body Tuesday.
“My heart goes out to (their families). The deepest condolences.”
Global Affairs said in an emailed statement that the department is aware of reports that two Canadians died in Ukraine. It said it’s following up with authorities but cannot release more information due to privacy considerations.
Family and aid workers identified the two Canadians.
Zelenco was from St. Catharines, Ont., and was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, Mayor Mat Siscoe posted on social media. Zelenco was described in an online fundraiser as strong and courageous with a fierce sense of loyalty.
An honorary ceremony is taking place in Ukraine, the fundraiser said, and his body is expected to be back in Canada in two weeks.
Hughes said he did not know the two Canadian soldiers, but troops in their unit described them as brave heroes.
“These two men are heroes and are heroes in this country,” Hughes said. “They are so highly respected by their comrades.”
Hughes is a farmer and community activist from Calgary who has been in Ukraine for more than a year. He runs HUGS Helping Ukraine, a grassroots support agency that partners with local humanitarian agencies, out of Kharkiv.
He received a call from another aid organization that said two Canadians had died in a devastating battle. He knew he had to help his fellow Canadians in whatever way he could.
Hughes drove his organization’s ambulance to an area not far from where the two men were killed in the eastern Donbas region, which has seen the fiercest and most prolonged fighting of the war. It sounded like hundreds of bombs dropped in the short time he was retrieving the soldier’s body, Hughes said.
Hughes said it has been a “barbaric and vicious war” and where the men were killed is an epicentre.
“It’s hell on earth. It’s a bad, bad, bad place,” Hughes said.
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress expressed condolences on social media to the families and friends of the two men.
“(They) will be remembered for their bravery and their sacrifice in defence of Ukraine’s freedom and peace in Europe,” the post said.
“The Ukrainian Canadian community honours their memory.”
READ MORE FROM CBC: 2 Canadians killed in Ukraine’s bloodiest battle in Bakhmut
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2023.