KOSTIANTYNIVKA (Ukraine) -- The Russians invaded Ukraine at 4:43 p.m. Mufti Said Ismahilov, a 43-year-old Muslim spiritual leader of Ukraine, had already decided to leave his religious obligations and fight for his country.
As the warnings of imminent attacks grew more urgent, Ismahilov began training in a local territorial defense unit at the end of last. He had been a mufti for 13 years by that time.
Ismahilov was born and raised in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. He fled Russia in 2014 when Moscow-backed separatists took his city. After moving to Bucha, a quiet suburb of Kyiv, Ismahilov was again at the center of Moscow's attack on Kyiv and at the scene of atrocities that stunned the world eight years later. It was as if Russia's threat would never cease.
He said, "This time, I decided that I would never run away, but I would not flee, but I would fight," he stated in an interview with The Associated Press in Kostiantynivka. This town is close to the frontlines in eastern Ukraine, where a struggle for control of the region's territory is intensifying.
Ismahilov started his career as a military driver, helping paramedics evacuate the wounded from besieged towns or frontlines. Ismahilov, who is responsible for driving in dangerous conditions and emotional support of the critically injured, says that his new job is "a continuation my spiritual duty before God."
It is important to remember that you don't need to be afraid and can accomplish anything if you have the willpower. Ismahilov explains that the Prophet was himself a soldier. "So I will follow his example, and I will also not run or hide. I won't turn my back to others.
Ismahilov was among dozens of Ukrainian Muslims that gathered at the Kostiantynivka mosque Saturday to celebrate Eid al-Adha, an important religious holiday in Islam. This mosque is the last operational mosque left in Donbas, Ukrainian-controlled territory. According to Ismahilov, there are approximately 30 mosques in the area. However, most of them are now controlled by the Russians.
Russia took Lysychansk last week, the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance within the eastern province Luhansk. On Saturday, the governor of Luhansk said that Russian forces were now pushing towards the border with Donetsk.
Nearly 1% of Ukraine's population is Muslim. This country is dominated by Orthodox Christians. A large Muslim community is found in Crimea, which was illegally annexed in 2014 by Russians. The number of Muslims in Crimea rises to 12 percent. A significant Muslim community is also found in eastern Ukraine. This is due to waves of economic migration that took place as the region industrialized. Many Muslims came to the Donbas region to work at the mines and factories.
Many Muslims from Crimea and Donbas were forced to flee their homes by the conflict of 2014. They moved to other areas of the country to join long-established Tatar communities, or to build new Islamic centers with Turks, Arabs, and Ukrainian converts.
Many fled after the invasion. A mosque in Kostiantynivka was once home to several hundred Muslims. Few local residents were there on Saturday as they had traveled west with their families. The congregation consisted of soldiers and combat medics from various units, including Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian converts living in Kharkiv and Kyiv.
Following the traditional Eid prayers, Ismahilov spoke to the congregation, telling them that this year's Eid has a symbolic meaning in the midst war. He asked them to think of Muslims who live in occupied territories where many have lost homes and numerous mosques were destroyed by shelling. Ismahilov referred to the arrests of Crimean Tartars following the 2014 annexation and said that Muslims living in occupied territory do not feel secure.
There is a lot fear. "The war is continuing and we don't know what is going on in the occupied territories or what situation Muslims are in," he stated.
According to Ismahilov, he regards Russian Muslims invading Ukraine (including Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and his infamous Chechen battalions) as "criminals".
"They are committing crimes and... they have arrived as occupiers and murderers, on a territory which is the home of Ukrainian Muslims and Ukrainians without any justification. Ismahilov says that Allah didn't grant them this right. "They will answer all of this before God."
Olha Bashei (45), a Kyiv-based lawyer and paramedic who converted to Islam in 2015. She claims Russia is trying to "erase Ukraine off the face of the Earth." Bashei started working in Donbas as a frontline paramedic back in 2014. This war is her "jihad", a term that refers to a holy war or personal struggle within Islam.
"This war is mine, and I defend jihad because I have nieces, I have a mom, and I defend home. She said, "I don't want my nephews ever to see what I unfortunately saw in this war."
"Islam even helps me, because in Islam, prayer can somehow distract you from war because you read the prayer. You also have a connection to the Almighty. Islam is a support force for me in times of war.
While soldiers were preparing the Eid meal's traditional sacrificial sheep, a Kostiantynivka residential area was hit with heavy shelling. The ground was shaken by the incoming artillery. Some soldiers ran to the bunker of the mosque. Others ignored it and continued to drink tea and eat dates. Many people were injured by the shelling, and their roofs were reduced to ashes.
Ismahilov stated that they would pray for victory in the occupied territories.
"We pray for our Muslim compatriots to be safe, our families will be reunited and the slain Muslims go to heaven. We also pray that Allah will accept all Muslim soldiers who defend their country as shahids (martyrs).