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He was the first priest to be taken captive in the Donbas war. A group calling itself the Russian Orthodox Army abducted him on 4 July 2014, when he was on his way to his small Greek Catholic parish in Donetsk.

He feared for the safety of his parishioners left behind, and for his own life. A diabetic, he spent 12 days in solitary confinement, often blindfolded.

“They asked me what would happen if I stop taking my medicine,” he recalls. “I said I would die, so they confiscated my drugs. They started only feeding me white bread, which causes blood sugar spikes.”

Father Kulbaka says he endured mock executions for three consecutive days during the ordeal.

At one point, a gun was fired next to his ear while he was praying the Lord’s Prayer. He could feel the heat from the smoking barrel. He fainted.

“Their goal was to humiliate, break and frighten me,” he explains.

His captors finally released him on 16 July 2014. He says he was consumed by two emotions: hate and fear.

“Had I been given an automatic rifle and my captors stood before me,” he says soberly, “I would’ve shot them all.”

Taken to a Kiev hospital to recuperate, he was in a diabetic coma with a dangerously high blood sugar level.

For three days neither his blood pressure nor sugar level would normalize.

He then meditated upon his priesthood. At first he couldn’t find the strength to even pray, let alone “love or bless” someone. He realized his emotions were eating away at him.

“It was a different form of imprisonment,” he says. “So I forced myself to pray.”

“It finally worked on the third day. ... It was a miracle in a sense. My health started to vastly improve. When I reached this feeling of deliverance, of being in total serenity, my blood pressure and sugar level normalized.”

After recovering at a monastery for three weeks, he traveled to Lviv. Last year, he suffered a stroke, which further debilitated him. Now, having regained much of his strength, he serves a new flock, focusing on displaced families.

“I now harbor no negative emotions towards my captors — I would embrace them if I saw them. I pity them because I understand that their state of being wasn’t normal. I absolutely forgave them. God freed me from all this so I want to give back,” Father Kulbaka explains.

“What lies ahead, I don’t know. Where will I grow old if I don’t go back [to Donetsk]? Where’s my parish, where’s my place? This uncertainty is terrifying,” he says.

The protracted conflict has posed particular challenges to priests. Caritas Ukraine vice president, the Rev. Andriy Nahirnyak, says his aim is to serve every person, regardless of their attitude or social standing, and to “ensure our help isn’t interpreted as proselytizing.”

As the war has lengthened, Caritas has adjusted its services’ timeframes.

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