When we arrived at the city of Debalteseve to relieve the 25th Infantry Battalion (which had served there for over four months), we found that they had set up a makeshift chapel room inside the main base. That was great for me and many in our detachment, because we certainly needed spiritual support in the war zone.
Our predecessors in 25 Battalion said they had a priest (chaplain) of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, who visited them regularly and even stayed for a while. I found the cell-phone number of that priest, Ivan Isayevych, who had come from the far-western province of Zakarpattia to help front-line Ukrainian troops with their spiritual needs, and who had lived at Debaltseve for several months. I contacted him a couple of times with invitations. However, due to the complicated operative situation in our area – which was deteriorating week by week – he could not come to us for Orthodox Christmas. I called him again in late January, to invite him to our Epiphany Day celebrations, but was distressed to learn he’d been badly injured during the recent MLRS bombardment of the city, and was currently being treated at the hospital in Artemivsk.
We tried to invite other priests, including Orthodox ones, but due to our limited contacts in religious circles we could find no courageous churchmen (Orthodox or Catholic), and so no representatives of these two major Ukrainian churches ever visited 40 Battalion during our long stay in Debaltseve. However, two Protestant priests – one local (from the liberated city of Sloviansk – a survivor of the separatists’ occupation) and the other foreign (from the US) – visited our base in January to offer spiritual solace. I helped with English interpretation when our officers (including our battalion commander, Victor Pocherniaev) spoke with the American. And we prayed together. But those two priests never returned – the situation was becoming too dangerous.
And so, without an assigned priest, our chapel room was abandoned – becoming a temporary billet for new troops awaiting deployment to the front. But in my heart I felt that prayers to God should be spoken and heard again in the chapel. Therefore, as soon as the last soldier left this room, Volodymyr Sarychev (our deputy commander) and I agreed to take care of the chapel as best as we could. We cleaned it, cleared the garbage, and boarded up the broken windows. I found lots of Bibles, New Testaments and prayer books in the Ukrainian language, collected by the priest Ivan Isayevych, as well as pictures with saints.
I also found in the chapel something that I – being a faithful Catholic – found unpleasant: a black key ring in the form of a human skull. Previously, in Kyiv, I had worked at a Christian radio station, reading and “voicing over” books on exorcism – the expulsion of an evil spirit from persons or places. And so I threw this key ring far away, as it may have been a “bad omen” or additional factor in the early deaths of comrades at Debaltseve. Remarkably, after I removed this key ring, fatalities in our unit immediately ceased and no one was killed for ten consecutive days.
I found no cross or crucifix inside the chapel, so I made four wooden crosses, using a simple knife. I carved a big cross for the chapel, smaller ones for my roommates (Colonel Sarychev and Major Vakulenko), and another small one for the battalion communication room.
We prayed not only in the chapel. During the bombardments I read my prayer book aloud in the shelter, surrounded by comrades (many of them hardly knew a prayer, but in moments of danger they eagerly heard mine and joined in). On one of the last days before the withdrawal, our commander bid me read aloud his prayer book in the Old Slavic language, used by the Orthodox Church in the Middle Ages. That language is not so difficult for me to read and understand, so I read this prayer book for our troops too.
Our chapel was completely destroyed by Russian-backed separatist artillery on the night of 13 February 2015, together with the big wooden cross and all the religious stuff. The other hand-made crosses were lost in my ruined living room. I am just sorry that, in the hurry of withdrawal, I forgot to rescue from the communication room the only cross that was left undamaged …
(Edited by Christopher Summerville)