Ukrainian Christians remember 51 days huddled in a church as the city was destroyed

Piletsky was hit in the head – by a bullet or shrapnel – and spent several days in hospital.

He recuperated in his apartment until March 15, when church members brought him back to the building. A day later, his apartment was destroyed.

A nightmarish pattern emerged. The days began at 6:40 a.m. with Russian songs playing through loudspeakers. Ukrainian troops often responded with gunfire. Then came a resounding announcement: “The forces of Russia and the Donetsk People’s Republic demand that you surrender. Church members laughed as they recited the script. After instructions on how to surrender, five minutes of silence followed. Then the bombardment began. Dust filled the air.

“There was always a smell of smoke,” Zhenya said. “Everything was black. Everything was burning.

The church lost electricity and water. They had rented part of the building to a mobile phone company, which had installed an antenna on the roof. They disconnected it, fearing it was a target for Russian bombers. The antenna had backup batteries that church members used to charge their phones. But there was no signal, no way to communicate with the outside world.

Water was scarce. They rationed as best they could.

“We couldn’t wash ourselves. We couldn’t shave. We couldn’t flush the toilet,” Zhenya said. “It’s either your child’s life or you brush your teeth.”

They took what food they could before leaving their apartments. Aleksei Kalchuk, one of the church ministers, made a fire outside and cooked. Often he would enter and exit through a window to avoid gunfire from the other side of the building.

Prayers and graves

Soldiers of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic took control of the area around the church. Donetsk, a city in far eastern Ukraine, was seized by pro-Russian separatists in 2014.

The fighting near the church building has become less intense. But the danger remained. Three times soldiers from Donetsk came to the building. They broke the windows and demanded that the women and children leave. They also attempted to seize cars in the church parking lot.

The church members prayed in silence. Then “we told them, ‘No. We have children. We have elderly people. We will leave at some point,” Olya said. “So they didn’t take our cars.

“We weren’t going anywhere or doing anything without praying,” she added. Before venturing out to look for provisions, the Christians asked God to grant them safety. Then they opened the door. If they heard gunshots, they decided “God said no this time”.

When they were able to leave, church members saw the effects of the three-month siege. The roads were impassable. The buildings were unrecognizable. And the bodies were everywhere.

“People were digging graves beside the road,” Sasha said. Near a huge hole, someone had written: “58 people are buried here”.

“And there were so many of these holes,” Olya said.

Once, church members came across a man who was digging a grave that was too short for an adult. They asked him if it was for a child.

No, said the gravedigger. It was for a man. The shrapnel had cut him in two.

Bombs and Bible studies

Christians have experienced small acts of kindness outside the walls of their church. A liquor store owner gave them the few candies and cookies he had in his store for their children.

Some of the Russian soldiers they met were from Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim republic that endured years of bombardment in the 1990s as rebels tried to break away from Russia. The Chechens gave the Christians small rations of water and told them which streets to avoid.

Back in the building, church members had morning Bible classes. One of the preachers said they were going to go through the Gospel of Mark.

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