Currents News Staff
The “Old Crimea” cemetery stretches across the rolling hills outside Mariupol, in eastern Ukraine. In section 21, Ukrainian flags whipping in the wind mark the graves of Ukrainian troops.
Those buried are mostly young men who have died fighting Russia-backed forces in the past eight years, an often-ignored conflict that has killed as many as 14,000 people, including more than 3,000 civilians.
Ruslan Pustovoit was a soldier. Now he fights with a right-wing nationalist group called Right Sector.
“Putin is a pathetic, small man,” said Ruslan. “Everyone is ready to tear Russians with their own hands.”
He says he knows around 200 people who have been killed. He shows us the grave of one of them, a fallen friend now etched in stone, as well as his memory.
“Too many comrades have died,” said Ruslan, “too many civilians, too many children.”
In the bitterly cold, driving rain, Roman Peretyatko – a priest – prays at the towering grave of his friend, one of the first from here to die in the fighting. But Father Peretyatko, quiet and understated, has two sides, dividing his duties as an Army chaplain – in his olive green frock – which he says is his calling, and tending to a civilian congregation in this small Mariupol chapel.
“We are losing our best people,” said Father Peretyatko. “The Church gives people comfort. If they ask what’s going to happen next, we say it’s God’s will. We prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
People who can’t go to church ask Father Peretyatko to pray for them. He says their names at the altar. Among the handful who came one morning is a man who had one thing on his mind.
“We pray for peace, above all,” said one parishioner. “Thank God it’s peaceful right now. We are taking it one day at a time. We’ll see what happens next.”
The people of Ukraine have shown extraordinary calm in the face of this Russian threat. But it is clearly taking a toll.
“They tell us to remain calm,” the parishioner said. “We would love to live peacefully, to go to work, to raise children and grandchildren. We’re worried. How could we not be?”
Some military observers believe Putin will use Russian troops to connect Russia with Crimea, which he seized in a 2014 invasion.