When the war began, the chaplain had to save a lot of children. Only his own – 35, of which 20 minors – lived in a family, and two more kids were waiting for adoption. About 40 children lived in the children’s rehabilitation center “Pilgrim Republic”, another 20 were in the center “Little Mother”.
“February 24 in the morning,” recalls Gennady Mokhnenko, “my daughter called me: “Dad, wake up! It has begun!” Our house is located in the east of Mariupol, so for the last eight years – since 2014 – the war has always been nearby, almost every day we heard the sounds of shelling. We had supplies of water, fuel and medicines, and I asked, especially recently,all of the church parishioners to prepare similar supplies for their families. They were very nervous and some even refused to believe when I reminded them, but now they are grateful – these supplies saved the lives of many. We had a clear plan – what to do, what to take, where the first collection point was, where the second was too… On February 23, we bought mattresses, groceries, a generator, water and took everything to the best bomb shelter in Mariupol under our church, that could fit in aroundr 50 people.”
At seven in the morning, the first column of refugees, which the chaplains led out, left the city. The second column, among which were the wife of the chaplain Elena and his young children, left Mariupol at lunchtime. These were the first organized columns for the evacuation of civilians in the city.
“I will never forget the separation from the children … Among them were two whom we decided to adopt recently. They already knew about it and lived at our house … It was especially painful to hug them and say goodbye, because these children dreamed of a family – but now I, their new father, had to go”. – Gennady Mokhnenko tells. – I was terribly worried. That morning we dangled into the city several times. After the first shelling, we arrived at the place where people died. Together with a man who was in absolute shock, they put a bag in the car, in which pieces his wife was folded… “
In the evening, information was received from the Ukrainian military – the Russians left the Crimea without resistance and are quickly moving to Mariupol. Order for immediate evacuation. Already on the way, scouts called: “Hurry! There is a high probability that the Russians can block the road to Zaporozhye!” They made it. But chaplain Gennady Mokhnenko and his colleagues and elder sons decided to return to Mariupol.
The Russians blocked Mariupol and began to destroy house after house, street after street. A few days later, the Russian military filled the city with dead and wounded civilians.
“Hundreds of women and children hid in the basement of our church, where we equipped a bomb shelter,” says Mokhnenko. “We found money remotely to provide for people there, but in the city it was no longer possible to buy anything with money. A team of volunteers were doing some activities for the kids at that basement while mines, shells and bombs fell from above… Mariupol became a real hell on earth – the Russians killed and raped people in the occupied, blocked city, and then threw away the corpses along with construction debris or fired in “mobile Auschwitz” – mobile crematoriums. “I lost many friends, many acquaintances went missing. Our parishioners, a couple of a middle age, both blind, have died because we didn’t have time to save them. Their burnt bodies were found in an apartment burned to concrete. The body of my friend, a urologist, a mountaineer, with whom we conquered many mountains,was missing and found by his wife under shelling among other bodies.”I have to return there!I didn’t bury him deep enough!”- she cries. The Russians took a husband and children from another woman. They simply disappeared somewhere in the wilds of Russian concentration camps…
In a few days, the lives of hundreds of thousands of peaceful people, regardless of their political views, religion or nationality, turned into hell, and prosperous Mariupol into a cemetery.
Chaplain Gennady Mokhnenko and his team did everything they could to help the dying city. They received and sent humanitarian and military aid from the west of Ukraine. Every day, tons of goods were unloaded and loaded. They worked at a “zero” point, bringing the necessary things to the soldiers. But the main mission is to save, take out civilians from under shelling.
“One of my eldest sons – Artem – became a real hero of Mariupol. First, he gathered people and led them to the basements, then rushed around under shelling – getting water and food for these people… The situation worsened, even in the basements it became deadly dangerous, and Artem conducted a thorough reconnaissance, formed a convoy of cars and led across the front line, through the battle, through minefields. He went first – and took 150 people with him. We met him and could not believe our eyes. “Dad, I’m coming back,” he said, loaded the bus with food and took it to Mariupol. We cried and prayed. Knowledge of thieves’ vocabulary helped Artyom to pass Russian checkpoints; he once served a term for “juvenile prisoner”’ … He gave bribes to Russians – vodka, cigarettes, “there is mother, grandmother…” – he was saying, and they let him through.
The second time he led a lot of civilian vehicles along the same proven paths, and the third time, when he returned, our buses were shot. Thank God they were empty. Only one vehicle had survived. “So from the first day when we started the evacuation of people from Mariupol we haven’t stopped it till now”
In total, the chaplaincy team evacuated more than 1,800 civilians and soldiers from Mariupol (dressed in civilian clothes,with fake documents). Not all volunteers withstood the inhuman stress. Drivers, buses, routes were changed, but rescue expeditions were not stopped.
Gennady Mokhnenko managed to take out all his younger children, but the older ones lived separately and were evacuated later. However, not everyone made it out of the city. Gennady Mokhnenko found out about the death of his 27-year-old daughter on a March Sunday morning in church after a sermon. Neighbors called: his daughter was in the apartment when a Russian tank fired there. Miraculously, her 4-year-old son survived.
Mariupol, where hundreds of thousands of people were born and lived, no longer exists. The city of Mary is destroyed, the “Russian world” took the soul out of it.
Chaplain Mokhnenko, like other chaplains, continues to carry out the mission that they themselves have determined – they deliver what they need to the front line, support the soldiers with the deed and word of God, help people in trouble, and evacuate.
“My last sermon in our church was the shortest,” says the chaplain. “Instead of the traditional 40 minutes, it was one and a half. I said: Do you remember the story of the Samaritan who saw a beaten man on the road? What did he do first? Yes, right – bandage the wounds, that is, provided first aid. My sermon for today is over.” A doctor took my place and gave the parishioners a lesson in tactical medicine – how to properly approach the wounded, how to bandage it, and how to provide medical care. I know for sure that this unusual sermon saved the lives of many… I also know for sure that the Russian empire will collapse. And we will return to Mariupol to our homes…”
So it will be. Evil will be destroyed. Ukraine will win, and Ukrainians will rebuild their cities: schools, kindergartens, churches, theaters, houses. And women and children will return there. And only then, probably, Gennady Mokhnenko will stop having this terrible dream.
Terrible dream of military chaplain Gennady Mokhnenko
The dream he has had for the last four months is terrible. In this dream, his children are taken as prisoners by Russian soldiers. He wakes up and puts his head under the cold water. Darkness recedes. Everything is fine, everything is where it should be: the children are safe, and he, 54-year-old Protestant pastor and military chaplain Gennady Mokhnenko, is in Ukraine, on the eastern front.