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  • Writer's pictureMartin Zeilig

Padre Antin Sloboda

Captain Padre Antin Sloboda feels “grateful” for being able to participate in Operation Reassurance, a recent Canadian Armed Forces humanitarian mission to help Ukrainian war refugees.

But, as Padre Sloboda stressed, he also felt “sad” that Russia’s unprovoked and genocidal war of aggression against Ukraine is continuing and people in his homeland are still suffering. The illegal invasion took place on February 24, 2022.

Operation Reassurance (OpRe) is an initiative of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) which dates from 2014, when NATO partners “agreed upon and began to enact a series of military measures on 16 April 2014,” in response to the February 2014 annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, notes the Government of Canada website.

Human rights specialist Akaash Maharaj, Ambassador-at-Large for the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC), says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unambiguously genocidal. He leads GOPAC’s project on international prosecution of Crimes Against Humanity, its work on reconciliation in post-conflict states, and its efforts to strengthen integrity in the global sport system.

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide has been ratified by both Russia and Ukraine, Mr. Akaash wrote in an email message to The Voxair reporter.

It defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such.”

“Vladimir Putin is not attempting to eliminate the physical existence of the Ukrainian people, but he is certainly trying to extinguish the existence of a Ukrainian national and ethnic identity,” Mr. Akaash, who is based in Toronto, Ontario, said.

“Moreover, the killing of civilians, the ethnic cleansing of occupied territories, and the forced deportation of children are all specifically banned by the Convention as acts of genocide. Russian forces have committed all these acts against the Ukrainian people.”

The mission that Padre Sloboda and 120 other CAF personnel participated in lasted from April 12-August 1.

“We worked primarily with the Polish Territorial Defence Force,” Padre Sloboda, who was born and raised in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, said during an in-person interview with The Voxair on September 13.

“We came at the invitation of the Polish Government to assist at the refugee centres. I went as a Chaplain, and because of my linguistic abilities.”

Besides Ukrainian and English, he also speaks Russian and Polish.

“The experience in Poland was very meaningful and I’m happy to have gone to help Ukrainian refugees,” Padre Sloboda said.

“It was a privilege because when you’re in Canada, you follow the news and help through charities, but when you’re there, you see the realities and war is ever present.”

The CAF members helped refugees who stayed at two large refugee centres in Warsaw.

“We also assisted at two huge soup kitchen projects,” Padre Sloboda said.

“At one of those kitchens, 10,000 people would come to receive meals. As a chaplain, I would provide emotional and pastoral and counselling support, whatever existential grief they were going through.”

He observed that on a daily basis, the chaplains would see about 30 individuals each.

“We would talk to them for at least ten minutes,” he added.

“I’d say that fifty percent of the people came with extreme trauma. They were running from extreme violence. They lost a lot in Ukraine.

“This is not an easy situation to be in, including for chaplains, but compared to what those people are going through, this is out of our imagination.

“We were helping mostly women and children, some elderly and some men. Most of them have family in Ukraine, like husbands and/or elderly parents who didn’t move with them.

They came with an idea that they would stay for three or four weeks, and then got stuck and are still staying in refugee centres.”

He recalled one woman, in her late 50s, and her 80-year-old mother.

“They had a greenhouse business in Marioupol,” Padre Sloboda said. “It was all destroyed.”

Marioupel, a city on the north coast of the Sea of Azov at the mouth of the Kalmius River, is in the Pryazovia region of Ukraine, notes Wikipedia.

Prior to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and its capture by Russia, it was the tenth-largest city in Ukraine and the second-largest in Donetsk Oblast, with an estimated population of 431,859, according to a 2021 census estimate. Following its capture, after a fierce and heroic resistance by Ukrainian defenders, the population is now estimated to be less than 100,000, according to Ukrainian authorities.

The two women told Padre Sloboda that even their dogs were killed by the Russian artillery shelling.

“The Russians were targeting whatever they could,” he said.

The Russians used the barking dogs as a target and shelled the home, Padre Sloboda continued.

“When the war started, lots of people hid in their basements for five weeks. They never left the basements.

“They ate pickles and drank water from the heating pipes. One refugee said her husband got so sick that he died in the basement. They could not bury him and took him in the backyard, and buried him there in a little hole they dug. Now, they want to return to Marioupol to give him a proper burial.”

Padre Sloboda reflected that his mind is filled with so many similar stories.

“The hardest hit areas were the Russian hit areas,” he said.

“People were so upset that Russia came to ‘liberate’ them even though they were never oppressed. ‘We could speak Russian or Ukrainian. We had a happy life.”’

Slava Ukraini! Herojem Slava!

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