military chaplains close to the front “to re-motivate” soldiers and civilians

While Ukraine is preparing, at the end of May, a counter-offensive in the Zaporijjia region, military chaplains are going there to provide material and spiritual support to soldiers and civilians alike.

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Military chaplains from Mariupol in the Zaporijjia region, end of May 2023. (Laurent Macchietti / Radiofrance)

Father Gennadiy Mokhnenko, a large metal cross around his neck and a Kalashnikov handy in the car, oversees the loading of humanitarian aid. His team will distribute it to civilians and soldiers in the Zaporizhia sector. “Where we are going, civilians cannot go. You need special permits to work so close to the front”, he explains. Men of the Church thus go as close as possible to the fighting in Ukraine every day to support civilians and soldiers on the front line. Father Guennadiy Mokhnenko is part of a battalion of military chaplains from Mariupol.

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Gennadiy and his military chaplains are regularly called to this area of ​​Zaporijjia by officers to come and provide the soldiers with support that is at least as much spiritual as material. “Yesterday, I was with a unit whose commander had sensed fear in his soldiers. With the preparation for the counter-offensive, they all fear for their lives. The officers understand our role as chaplains and they invite us coming to re-motivate their men, which is essential”he describes.

Civilians who have been living for 15 months in a basement

This battalion makes a first stop in the ghost town of Orikhiv. At the foot of one of the few buildings still inhabited, the chaplains unload the food aid, immediately stored by Svetlana and her neighbors in the basement, where they have spent their lives for fifteen months. “You never see anyone here, says Svetlana. We are 21 neighbors and that’s it, so we’re really happy when people come to see us. Especially chaplains. They are always so happy! They lift our spirits. We are happy to see that we have not been completely forgotten here.”

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Before parting, they say a prayer together. The chaplains then go to visit the soldiers stationed near a checkpoint where they dug their camp on the ground. Yuri, in his fifties, knows the importance of these men of God at the heart of the war. “I have already dealt with a chaplain several times when my brother was killed in a village near Bakhmout, remembers the soldier. He listened to me, he advised me and that really helped me. I know you can’t erase the death of a loved one, but it’s nice to have someone to talk to.”

Father Guennadiy Mokhnenko is part of the battalion of military chaplains from Mariupol on the move in the Zaporijjia region, at the end of May 2023. (Laurent Macchietti / Radiofrance)

Yuri explains that he could not have entrusted his doubts, his fears to a brother in arms or to his officer as he could have done with a man of the Church. “A good chaplain will always be better than the best psychologist”concludes Father Gennadiy Mokhnenko.

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