Ukraine's soldier musicians thank America, urge more help

Mykolai Sierga, the founder of Cultural Forces, becomes emotional during the unit's concert in Washington, DC (ROBERTO SCHMIDT)
Mykolai Sierga, the founder of Cultural Forces, becomes emotional during the unit's concert in Washington, DC (ROBERTO SCHMIDT)

Ukrainian opera singer Yurii Ivaskevych traded his tuxedo for military fatigues to fight the Russian invasion. When he lost his leg in a mine explosion last year, music called him again.

Ivaskevych, 51, is a member of Cultural Forces, a recently created Ukrainian military unit that consists of professional musicians who perform for soldiers on the front lines to lift their spirits and relieve them, if only briefly, of the horrors of war.

"With us, they can cast their mind back to their past lives even for an hour -- something good, some positive emotions," Ivaskevych, whose military call sign is Pavarotti, told AFP in an interview.

"They feel needed, they feel that they haven't been shipped off and forgotten."

This week, Cultural Forces launched a tour across the United States to thank Americans for their support of Ukraine's war effort and remind them of the crucial need for aid despite domestic political infighting.

Last month, US lawmakers passed a long-awaited $61 billion military aid package for Kyiv after months of squabbling in Congress as Ukrainian forces suffered setbacks on the battlefield due to ammunition and funding shortages.

"We are grateful to America, to the American people for thinking about us, for supporting us," said Mykolai Sierga, founder of Cultural Forces. "It's a fight between good and evil, between authoritarian power and humanity."

At their first concert in Washington earlier this week, Ivaskevych, wearing khaki shorts that revealed his prosthetic leg, performed Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" and the classic Neapolitan piece "O Sole Mio."

The 40-day tour will take Cultural Forces to New York, Chicago, Dallas and other US cities.

Besides Ivaskevych and Sierga, the band includes a player of bandura, a Ukrainian folk string instrument, a jazz pianist, and a celebrated violinist turned grenade launcher who joined the unit after she lost an eye in combat.

- Weight off their shoulders -

Before the invasion, Sierga, 35, was the star of a popular Russian-language TV travel show that was broadcast in both Ukraine and Russia.

"On that day I understood that I am Ukrainian," said Sierga.

Sierga joined the military on the second day of the war and ended up in an infantry brigade.

He soon noticed that the trauma of war was causing insomnia in many soldiers. He found a guitar and began singing to them. It helped, and soon he was being invited to perform for other military units.

Today Cultural Forces is an official unit of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, comprising about 80 professional artists, most with combat experience.

They perform for frontline forces, at military hospitals as well as for military spouses and children. They hold about 20 shows a day across Ukraine.

"Sometimes we just come and listen," said Sierga. "It helps take some of the weight off their shoulders and put it on our shoulders and then they can breathe."

- 'So help us' -

In July last year, Ivaskevych was returning to his infantry unit when he stepped on a Russian mine.

His comrade rushed him to safety as he screamed in pain. His leg was amputated above the knee.

As Ivaskevych was recovering in the hospital, a group of Cultural Forces musicians showed up in his ward and his fate was sealed.

Today, his music brings solace to fellow soldiers on the front lines.

"There is anger in their eyes, they are tired, they are away from home... It's war," Ivaskevych said. But after hearing him sing, "Their eyes light up."

In recent weeks, Russian troops have made gains in northeastern Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky has complained that the West has been too slow to make decisions and allocate aid, and the delays are costing lives.

If Russia is not stopped, Ivaskevych wondered, "What will happen to the freedom that Americans and American authorities advocate for so much?"

"The people of Ukraine have made their choice," he said. "So help us."