January 29, 2015

A Christmas message from the frontlines


This year, my Bethlehem is completely torn to shreds by an endless expanse of gaping holes. It is sown and braided with puncture marks of machineguns and automatic fire, fragments of mines, grenades, Grad rockets. Wherever you turn, holes are ubiquitous – in the facades of buildings, in fences, retaining walls, windows and roof tiles, trees and automobiles – all strafed with holes.

This year, my Bethlehem emerges from a porous, pock-marked world, positioned somewhere on the margin between human thought and human mindlessness, on the border between the real and imaginary, abundantly strewn with the dried and scattered seeds of last year’s sowing.

Today in the Pisky Sands near Donetsk, there is no hint of safety, no refuge or hiding place from the ruthless, ragged proliferation of punctured holes. Wherever you set your foot – everywhere there is the gaping depravity of a bullet-riddled essence: an expanse of condensed destructiveness, a frozen moment of senseless dispersion. My pockmarked world looks utterly senseless – without reason.

In my Bethlehem, people reside in unlit undergrounds. Darkness is everywhere. The wooden entryways into their basements are traced with bullet-holes. Beyond the doors there is only darkness. In front of the next set of doors – a flimsy covering – at least something to keep out the wind and the cold. Beyond those doors – more darkness. After that, another pair of blanket screens. Beyond that, more darkness.

Light does not live here. This is where my people live: Raven, Panda, Zachar, Apostle, Taxi Driver, Bronik, Student, the Baron, Monk, Beekeeper, Beetle, Brunette and Giant, a furniture salesman and actor from Kyiv, a lawyer from Dzerzhynsk, an IT techie from Kovel, a student from Makiyivka, a railway man from Lviv. People from the bullet-ridden darkness. They take refuge here from the spray of gunfire during breaks in the fighting. They hide from human mindlessness that prowls through the back streets of this shot up settlement.

Their mission: not to let a healthy train of thought or life itself to slither through the open wounds of their body of reality.

For my people in the basements, it gets lonely – and cold. Somewhere far away there are those who love them and wait for them to come home – but here, they are cold and lonely. When the generator breaks down, they light a candle. When it gets lonely, they light up pleasant memories. At least those who already have them… It seems that life finds sanctuary here in the shadows of extinguished sunrises, human dreams dispersed by winter winds and bullet-shredded expectations. And the darkness is sometimes so thick that you want to wash it off under a shower. Except that in my Bethlehem water exists only in wells in a semi-frozen state. With this sort of cold water you can never wash away the darkness…

In my Bethlehem, in contradiction to Aristotle, silence and noise live simultaneously and in the same location. You can’t hear children’s laughter, parents’ admonitions, the hum of transport, the whisper of neighborhood gossip, the beating of hearts in love. Life here has descended into the underground. And yet, here in my Bethlehem, the noise is very loud, unbearably loud. Sound here is cruel, it erupts and strikes to open wounds, blows holes through the air, shatters time and human fates. This noise knows how to burn through the whitest of whitest snow with deep red drops of blood. It howls, shrieks and whistles, rattles, thunders… and it is always painful. Shots ring out when I awake and when I drift asleep, from near and far, from our own side and from the foreigners. This is the Bethlehem cratered by the sound of gunfire. My Bethlehem.

Here, distance and time change their appearance. The neighboring building becomes the next battle position and to reach it without appropriate precautions and armed escort is not always possible. Every step in my Bethlehem is a process of recognition and careful analysis: you look around you, you calculate, you reach a decision. Because there is whistling. And occasionally, in your immediate vicinity you can’t just sail through it. You have to crawl along shattered fences, sometimes running, half-squatting like a crab for a distance of eight meters one from another, eluding the motionless stare of someone’s crosshair aim.

It’s worthwhile to look under your feet and not to forget about booby traps along the sides – and not to forget about snipers, not to stand in the road, so the wind does not blow a stupid bullet into your spine.

As in every Bethlehem, in mine the local fauna seek out human companionship. Nature, confused by the cruelty and aggression, cold and hunger, drags itself to human beings, seeking protection, warmth, humanity. Frightened and abandoned animals cuddle up to one another and gather around their camouflaged friends. Every battle station has its own manger.

In my Bethlehem, as one would expect, there is its own secret – hidden from the eyes of the strong and the mighty, incomprehensible to the clever and the wise of this world, there is its own human dream. Serhiy dreams that after the war he will finish constructing his own house. Pasha-Cyborg thinks about a driver’s license for his son. Andriy is planning to get married. Tolya is hoping that maybe he will be able to return to his old job.

So, in this cratered, bullet-ridden reality of my Bethlehem, in its darkened underground and on its devastated backstreets, besides the cold and lonely emptiness, she lives – hope. You can only sense it, carefully peering through bullet holes in the general direction of heaven. Hope that someday the snows will melt away and all the deeply frozen ice flows will break apart and springtime will return; that this depraved surrealism will live until its final chord, that the final note will jangle and fall, not reaching its final destination, that final bullet… In the light of a new sunrise forever will be snuffed out the days of human mindlessness and all the residents of this historical-apocalyptic drama – my people – will be able to return to their homes to the sincere applause of international gratitude – ALIVE!!!

God came into this world, wounded by evil, in order to heal the gaping holes in the human heart, to warm with His Love, illuminate with the light of His Hope. He came small and fragile, impoverished, humble and helpless. But He came! And He came for all time! In this lies the essence of every Bethlehem – Emmanuel! Z Namy Boh! (God is with us!) Hope – this is always the challenge – and every challenge demands a brave heart, in order for faith to become reality. Hope needs a brave heart, to become Love, capable of victory… Even in this pockmarked, bullet-ridden reality, hope can take up residence. Through the holes, even from bullets, you can always see heaven. It all depends on whether you are looking in the right direction…

With the Birth of Christ, my people!!!

Father Andriy Zielinsky is a military chaplain serving in Donetsk with various Ukrainian units. The original Ukrainian-language text, written on the occasion of Julian calendar Christmas (January 7), was translated by Alexander Kuzma. It is printed here with Father Zielinsky’s permission.