Ukrainians in embattled east mark third Easter under fire

By Dan Peleschuk

KOSTIANTYNIVKA, Ukraine (Reuters) - Ukrainians in the embattled east flocked to church on Sunday to mark their third wartime Easter as Russian troops inched closer to threatening some of the region's key cities.

Fighting on the eastern front has worsened in recent weeks, particularly around the town of Chasiv Yar, while Kyiv's troops await crucial U.S. military aid to beat back Moscow's advance.

Residents in Kostiantynivka, 15 km (10 miles) southwest, said they remained determined to celebrate the holiday despite the worsening security situation from Russia's 26-month-old invasion.

"We came in 2022 and in 2023, and we'll come again," said Natalia Hryhorieva, 58, outside an Orthodox church as she waited for a priest to bless her Easter basket with holy water.

Cannon fire bellowed in the background during the early-morning mass, in which the priest decried the "godless" enemy and led a prayer for Ukraine's victory.

Earlier, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in an Easter message from Kyiv, called on Ukrainians to unite in prayer for each other and soldiers on the front line, saying God has a "Ukrainian flag on his shoulder".

Kostiantynivka is one of several key Ukrainian-held cities in the industrialised Donetsk region that could become Moscow's next major target if Chasiv Yar falls, analysts have said.

Russian forces are also advancing from the south, having captured the village of Ocheretyne, Russia's defence ministry said on Sunday. Ukraine did not immediately comment on the claim.

At least two people were killed over the past 24 hours after settlements across the region were shelled 19 times, governor Vadym Filashkin said on Telegram.

"We want this to end quickly, so our kids can feel calm," said Nina Shyshymarieva, 31, standing with her young daughter.

"So they can have a childhood."


Elsewhere behind the front line, Ukrainian troops also sought an Easter respite from the fighting.

Reuters accompanied a chaplain of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade as he toured temporary bases, whose locations could not be disclosed, to hold mass and bless the visibly tired soldiers.

Ukrainian forces have found themselves outgunned and stretched thin as Kyiv faces a better-equipped enemy and struggles to overhaul its mobilisation programme.

Troops enjoyed traditional Easter pastries provided by acquaintances and volunteers. Many said they wished they could celebrate with their families back home.

The chaplain, Yevhen Savchenko, said services like his can "inspire" people amid the worsening circumstances.

"When things are difficult, people indeed turn to god and genuine prayer. (They) pay more attention to the spiritual element," he said.

"We see that."

(Additional reporting by Ivan Lyubysh-Kirdey; editing by Giles Elgood)