The Brave Priest

Father Oleh, a brave priest on the frontline

Siversk (Ukraine) . “See that factory in front of us? It is occupied by the Russians. They have seen us now and might shoot us. Let’s hope they don’t,’ calmly explains Father Oleh Ladnyuk, the Salesian priest who lived in Italy for eight years and took his vows in Turin. In the Donbass inferno,  he is known as “The Brave Priest”,  defying the Russian’s  gunfire to bring medicines, food and aid to the civilians left on the firing line.  Our minivan, a Red Cross on the windscreen, is packed with humanitarian aid. We speed as fast as we can down the icy linear road, cutting straight across the open fields.  The simple low houses have been mercilessly ravaged by the artillery. The shrapnel did not even spare the white statue of the Virgin Mary. 

The road is dotted with the  carcasses of white, red and green cars, reduced to pieces by bombs, and we are forced to slow down to drive around a huge crater. The village with the unpronounceable name is dead. There appears to be not a living soul, except for a handful of zombies, holed up in cellars which have been turned into makeshift bunkers. Intermittent artillery fire acts as the backdrop to a ghostly landscape. Bogdan, middle-aged and with shaky legs, struggles up the steep steps from a hole in the ground where he is hiding in the company of his dog. ‘I’ve been living here since June when the fighting intensified,’ he says, pointing a couple of kilometres away to the suburbs of Russian-occupied Lysychansk. A battery supplies the dim light and a small heater gives off a little warmth with the outside temperatures reaching minus 15 degrees at night. Asked what his expectations are after a year of war, Bodgan, barely holding back the tears, whispers “I hope to survive”.

The few who remain do not want to give up what is left of their homes and have neither the strength nor the money to start over anywhere else. Others are called ‘zhdun’, those waiting for the Russians . Ljuba, who runs up to Father Oleh to hug him, is a tiny “babucka”. “Look at my house,” she says, “It was hit by a  bomb three days ago.” The roof has caved in and inside there is only rubble. Father Oleh hands her some medicines, a box with food, basic necessities and small icons of John Paul II that the military chaplain was given by a supporter in Italy to be brought over and distributed on the front line. “The war is causing so many casualties among the Ukrainians,” Oleh explains, “but even more on the Russian side. They are being dispatched to assault in waves all along the Donbass front line starting in Bakhmut.” The cannons in the background have been replaced by the burst of machine-guns and explosions of a battle that is frightfully close. “They often call me from hospitals to console the wounded with a prayer,” says the Salesian Father. “It is terrible to see our boys with arms and legs missing. Families ask me to look for their loved ones who have been taken away from the battlefield on stretchers. Sometimes they are alive and I contact them by mobile phone. Unfortunately other times I find they are dead. ” 

Retracing back down the icy track under Russian fire it leads to Siversk, a ghost town with neither water nor electricity. A moustachioed gentleman, who won’t give up, shows us a piece of shrapnel the size of half the palm of his hand. “It got stuck in the front door when the rocket exploded there in the snow.” The façade of the Soviet-style popular building  he lives in has been stripped by bombs. The four remaining civilians live in modern catacombs carved out of the basement.  “My name is Alexander,” a young boy introduces himself in English, helping to unload the last aid boxes, with the image of Don Bosco, brought by Father Oleh to an emergency collection centre. Silversk is the city at war of children, there are at least 70 hiding in DIY bunkers. The artillery fire intensifies and as we are leaving a grenade explodes with a sombre metallic screech some thirty metres away, in the middle of the houses, which act as a shield absorbing the shrapnel. Luck or perhaps, as Father Oleh says, “It is the Salesian cross always hanging around our necks that protects us”.