‘We Are Accidentally Alive’: A Muslim Cleric Reflects on His War Experience

An activist Muslim cleric in Ukraine with anarrest warrant over his head, Said Ismahilov had no doubt of the danger as Russian troops advanced on the capital, Kyiv, at the start of the war last year.

He was then living in the tranquil Kyiv suburb of Bucha, which lay right in the path of the advancing Russian tank columns.

“I had no illusions,” he said. “I knew we had to run away immediately.”

He recalled that time recently, during a lull in his work in a first-aid post near the front line in southeastern Ukraine. Bloody stretchers leaned against the wall at the entrance, and soldiers were hunkered down under the trees. Mr. Ismahilov pointed to the fields in front where he said farmers had doggedly harvested the wheat even in midst of a Russian rocket attack.

At the time of the invasion, Mr. Ismahilov was one of the most senior Muslim clerics in Ukraine, but afterward, Mr. Ismahilov, 44, joined the Ukrainian territorial defense and served as the first Muslim chaplain in the Ukrainian military. He now also works as a combat medic with the medical charity ASAP Rescue Ukraine.

He had already experienced war and occupation in 2014, when pro-Russian separatists seized power in his native city, Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine. An outspoken leader of a small but long-established Muslim community in that area, he came under threat from the separatist authorities and fled under fear of arrest.

Bloody stretchers and the boots of wounded soldiers at the wall of the building where Mr. Ismahilov works.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

He moved to the port city of Mariupol and then to Kyiv, settling in Bucha. In February last year, as Russian troops entered Bucha, he prepared to flee his home once again.

“I was thinking, ‘How far do I have to go for the Russians not to find me?’” he said.

He urged his neighbors to leave, too, but he said they did not have the same sense of urgency.

“They thought the Russians would occupy the place and not touch the civilian population,” he said.

But Bucha would become the epicenter of terror when Russian forces, blocked from advancing into the capital, turned to killing, raping and pillaging in the suburb.

Bucha’s Month of Terror

We documented dozens of killings of civilians and interviewed scores of witnesses to uncover Russian atrocities in Ukraine.

After one month, under pressure from a fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russian troops withdrew from the region around Kyiv.

That was when Mr. Ismahilov came back. After fleeing Bucha, he had enlisted in the territorial defense in Kyiv and volunteered to help collect the wounded from frontline areas and transfer them for medical care. And so he accompanied some of the first Ukrainian military units to enter Bucha after the occupation.

He recalled his grief at seeing bodies of civilians lying in the streets.

“I was driving and thinking, ‘Why did you not leave?’” he recounted. “If people have not faced war before, they do not realize how dangerous it is.”

Born and raised in Donetsk, Mr. Ismahilov is a child of the Soviet era who developed into a fervent Ukrainian patriot. His father was a miner; his mother, a baker in a bread factory.

The body of a civilian in Bucha, Ukraine, after it was liberated from the Russian occupation in April of last year. Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

He remembers a childhood of poverty and standing in lines for food with his mother during the 1980s. He spent his free time at the local sports stadium, training in wrestling and climbing in without a ticket to watch soccer games.

His family is from a community of Penza Tatars, also known as Mishar Tatars, who mainly inhabit central Russia and trace their ethnic origins to Slavic and Finnish ancestors.

Penza Tatars make up the second-largest group of Muslims in Ukraine; Crimean Tatars, most of whom lived in the Crimean Peninsula, are the largest.

Tatars, like other Muslim minorities, were suppressed under the Soviet Union and bear a deep collective scar from that oppression. Crimean Tatars were deported to Central Asia under Stalin in 1944 and allowed to return only many decades later. The family of Rustem Umerov, recently appointed as defense minister of Ukraine, was among those deported to Uzbekistan.

Mr. Ismahilov’s family and community fled Stalinist repression during collectivization, when the government forced farmers to give up their land, and moved to work in the mines of the Donbas region.

Religious expression was suppressed under Soviet rulebut in Ukraine, it has flourished in the years since Communist rule collapsed in 1991 and Ukraine achieved independence. In the 1980s, there were no officially registered Muslim communities in the Soviet republic of Ukraine. But by 2014, in independent Ukraine, 700 Muslim communities were registered, according to the 2016 volume of the Yearbook of Muslims in Europe, published in the Netherlands.

The Muslim population in the country then numbered 600,000, just 1.4 percent of the general population.

The last working mosque in Donetsk Province, Ukraine. Mr. Ismahilov still leads prayers there when he can.Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Mr. Ismahilov was educated in a technical college in Donetsk but later decided to study at the Moscow Islamic University, from which he graduated in 2001. He returned home to Donetsk, where he taught at the Islamic University of Ukraine for a year and then became the imam of a small community in 2002.

He gained a reputation for speaking out on freedom of religion, and he often says in interviews that Muslims in Ukraine are better off than Muslims in Russia. He was elected mufti of Sunni Muslims in Ukraine in 2009.

When pro-Russian separatists seized power in eastern Ukraine, they began detaining activists and community leaders, including priests and religious personalities. Mr. Ismahilov learned that his name was on an execution list. And so he fled.

The full-scale invasion by Russia last year swept him toward more hands-on activism.

When he began his job as a combat medic, he worked with his childhood friend Kamil, whose surname he did not provide for security reasons. “We were born in Donetsk, on the same street,” Mr. Ismahilov said.

The two were asked to help with medical evacuations, and they did not hesitate. “We have not stopped in a year and a half,” he said.

They worked first in Kyiv, as soldiers and civilians escaped Russian attacks in Bucha and another suburb, Irpin. Then, as the Russian troops withdrew from the capital and the fight shifted to the eastern front, they began to work in the heavily bombarded cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.

“People were so terribly wounded, civilians and military, that we worked night and day,” Mr. Ismahilov recalled. “We did not know the date. We were covered in blood. It was the big, dark stain of the summer.”

A man praying inside the Donetsk mosque. In Ukraine, religious expression has flourished in the years since Communist rule collapsed in 1991 and the country achieved independence. Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

When the Ukrainian army ceded control of Sievierodonetsk and crossed the river to Lysychansk, Mr. Ismahilov said, he hoped the river would present a natural barrier. But the Russian forces threw everything at Lysychansk, he said, with aerial bombardment and artillery.

“To be honest, when Lysychansk was encircled and our guys were holding it, and there was a narrow route out that was shelled all the time, we were sure we would not get out alive,” he said.

“Many times we should have died,” he added, shaking his head. “We are accidentally alive.”

He stepped down as mufti of Ukraine in November because his work as a frontline paramedic was so consuming. But he still leads prayers when he can at the last working mosque in Donetsk Province. He asked that the location of the mosque not be revealed since mosques have come under bombardment in the war.

He worries about the Muslim communities living under Russian occupation and the destruction of mosques in eastern Ukraine, including in Sievierodonetsk and in the embattled city of Bakhmut, and he has shared images of the damaged buildings on his Facebook page.

Because of where they lived, two-thirds of Ukrainian Muslims have ended up in occupied territory, he said, and so have been particularly hard hit by the war. Many families, like his own, fled to Europe, while dozens of men who stayed to fight were killed. “It’s a very difficult situation,” he said.

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from the Donetsk region.

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