‘Freedom or death’: Ukrainian soldiers fight for life, love amid ‘hell on earth,’ says military chaplain

‘Freedom or death’: Ukrainian soldiers fight for life, love amid ‘hell on earth,’ says military chaplain

LVIV, Ukraine (OSV News) — Faith, family and a love of liberty are sustaining Ukrainian soldiers amid a bloody counteroffensive against invading Russian forces, a military chaplain told OSV News.

“Our soldiers have a principle: freedom or death,” said Father Taras Mykhalchuk, pastor of the Garrison Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in Lviv, the main church of Ukraine’s military chaplaincy and part of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Lviv.

Father Mykhalchuk, speaking in Ukrainian through an interpreter, sat down with OSV News moments before presiding over a June 23 funeral liturgy for three recently slain soldiers.

He said his country’s troops are “just fighting for a principled life,” one that allows Ukraine to fully realize the democratic destiny it has sought since declaring independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

“We show the whole world that living in slavery is not real life,” he said, adding that Ukrainian soldiers “are just protecting the truth for their kids and grandchildren,” he said.

The battle has been a continuous one. Ukrainians vehemently rejected pro-Russian politicians in two mass movements, the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2013- Revolution of Dignity (also known as the Maidan), the latter of which saw 107 protesters killed. In , the Russian Federation illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, while fomenting separatist activities in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. From -2021, an estimated 14,200-14,400 Ukrainians, both soldiers and civilians, were killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, investigators have documented approximately 80,000 war crimes committed by Russia. In March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, for the unlawful deportation and transfer of close to 19,400 children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.

Ukraine has filed charges of genocide by Russia with the International Court of Justice — and has called to add charges of ecocide, given the June 6 destruction of Ukraine’s Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant in Kherson, which drained one of the world’s largest capacity reservoirs and caused catastrophic environmental damage.

The nonprofit Institute for the Study of War, based in Washington, assessed that Russia was likely behind the attack. Russia has steadfastly denied such accusations with Putin instead blaming it on Ukraine.

The litany of loss is relentless: In 2022 alone, “we said goodbye to several hundred fallen soldiers in this church,” while “many priests in the war zone, … where the two armies meet, are under shelling,” said Father Mykhalchuk. “Russia has organized hell on earth.”

During funerals at the church, he and his fellow priests “often say to the families that these soldiers are now born into eternity. We believe in eternal life.”

“We also speak about love, that love never fails and from the otherworld the soldiers are still with their families,” said Father Mykhalchuk.

Through the agony of shared loss, “the families of fallen soldiers support each other,” he said.

At a funeral for two young soldiers, “the mothers were just looking at each other, and they approached and hugged each other,” said Father Mykhalchuk. “They were total strangers, but through the funerals these families become like relatives to each other.”

Children of slain soldiers are a priority, he said, noting that other parents at the church “understand we need to support the kids and organize summer camps for them to be engaged. .. And this should be done throughout their lives, not just one summer, one year.”

Also providing a measure of comfort to families is the local community, he said, with Lviv residents regularly attending funerals at the Garrison Church, bringing flowers, lining the streets and kneeling when the coffins are solemnly borne by honor guards.

“Everybody kneels when the coffin, the body of the warrior, enters the church,” said Father Myykhalchuk. “That underlines this person is special.”

Even as the bloody battles rage on, there is hope, he stressed.

“It’s God’s miracle that after more than a year of the full-scale great war we are holding up, (and) … we have many victories,” he said. “The ideology of our enemies builds upon death, but as Ukrainians, as Christians, we value the dignity of human life. This is not a local war; it’s a choice between good or evil. God is with us, because we are protecting human life. Our strength is that all we do, we do with love. … And God is with us.”

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.