The cost of war
From his second-floor office on 7th December, Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights (or Ombudsman) Dmytro Lubinets offered a summation of a November governmental report titled “The War Against Human Rights”: 10,189 wounded civilians since the war began; 6,595 civilians killed; 12,340 children forcibly taken to Russia; 440 children killed; 140,000 houses destroyed; 205 religious buildings destroyed; and 14.03 million people homeless.
Downstairs, in his building’s lobby in central Kyiv, staff members scurry about decorating for Christmas while English-language holiday music fills its corridors. It’s just one scene representative of so many in a country trying to adapt to the new realities brought about by war.
In the capital city, thousands still commute to work using the metro, and restaurants and cafes remain open, merely adapting their menu based on what food can be procured and whether or not they have the necessary electricity to prepare it. In places such as Izium, residents are still combing through the remains of their former homes and workplaces, trying to salvage what they can, while assuring themselves, and anyone who might visit, that they will rebuild.
The numbers, as outlined by the ombudsman’s report, are necessary data points, but each one tells its own tale of struggle and loss.
The day before the report was read aloud, on 6th December in the southeast border town of Przemyśl, Poland, our delegation visited a mother and child center where new arrivals are provided food, shelter and support provided by CARE International.
At the Greek Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, chancery offices have been converted into lodging, with ongoing construction signaling that the task of welcoming new refugees is unlikely to come to an end anytime soon.
There are so many stories under one roof: A room containing 20 bunk beds has been inadvertently transformed into a playground by toddlers climbing about and running around their makeshift home, while an elderly woman reads a book, as she reclines against her luggage. When asked where she arrived from, all she can utter before beginning to cry is “Bucha” — the city where a bloody massacre in March left behind mass graves and accusations of Russian genocide against Ukraine.
In another room is Nadia (who asked to withhold her last name), who at age 74 just arrived in Poland, following the advice of Kyiv’s mayor, who advised the city’s elderly residents to leave for the winter, fearful that there will be long periods without heat or electricity.
“When the first bomb went off, I was at my son’s, out of town,” she said, recalling the start of the war. “I came back weeks later but didn’t recognize my home.”
“I decided to stay anyway, but now they told me it was better to leave,” she continued. “But I have no plans for my life.”
In the city of Rzeszów, Poland, on 5th December, about 20 Ukrainians arrived at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reception center to take Polish language classes. Most are shy and hesitant to share their stories, but they call out the names of their respective home cities: Mariupol, Donetsk, Odessa.
One student — Maria, who provided only her first name, age 20 — asked if she could write out a short testimonial.
“I am originally from Kyiv, I came here to Rzeszów in November. I wanted to stay in my motherland for as long as the war would last, because I believe it is my duty. But with these missile attacks all the time, it was difficult to stay.”
She continued, noting that half of her family is in Poland and the other half remains in Ukraine:
“I want to return as soon as the situation improves. But we are all grateful for the hospitality of the Polish people. For now the most difficult thing is to find a good job here and the prices for apartments.”
The outpouring of support from Poland since the start of the war has been unrivaled in Europe. Since February, the country, which has a complicated history with Ukraine, has spent more than an estimated $8 billion euros in response to the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
According to Władysław Ortyl, president of the Podkarpackie region, nearly 4 million Ukrainian refugees have passed through his district since February.
The government’s support, which has included funds for children starting school and providing medical care, is based on the principle of “giving refugees the same rights as Polish citizens,” which has been complemented by Catholic relief agencies, such as Caritas, the Order of Malta and a host of religious communities.
While Russia has targeted critical Ukrainian infrastructure in recent months, in an effort to flood Poland and the rest of Europe and overwhelm the continent with even more refugees in hopes of stirring up internal dissent there, Ortyl says he is aware of what may soon be coming and is unfazed.
“Before us is the possibility of a second wave because of destroyed infrastructure, cold, lack of water and services,” he said. “People want to get out. We are ready.”
Welcoming the ‘Prince of Peace’
On 25th February, the morning after war began, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, released a short video pleading for solidarity and prayers for Ukraine.
Shevchuk and around 100 others bunkered below his cathedral in Kyiv and the following day released another video, providing an update and spiritual support. Soon these daily videos became a lifeline to the outside world.
As the war lingered on with no end in sight, he considered reducing the frequency of his messages or stopping altogether, until one day he visited the besieged city of Žytomyr.
“At a parish, a little old lady approached me to say, ‘We live in constant terror, we are afraid, it is good that you talk to us,’ ” he recounted to the journalists who visited him at his cathedral December 9th:
” ‘But ma’am, I don’t know what to tell you anymore!’ ” the archbishop replied.
” ‘No matter what you say, it matters that you talk to us,’ ” she countered.
“Then I realized that even if I don’t know what to say anymore, it is important for people to hear the voice of their church accompanying them,” said Shevchuk.
As the war rages into its 10th month, the country’s religious leaders — in a nation where, historically, church and state already have a paper-thin separation — have been on the front lines.
The Ukraine Council of Churches, composed of 16 different representatives, including Christians, Jews and Muslims, unites 95% of religious institutions in Ukraine.
“War has given us a new opportunity to collaborate,” said Kyiv’s Archbishop Kryvytskyi.
During a meeting with the council, the religious representatives said that while the Gospel’s call to be peacemakers and their desire for peace is strongly present in their work, Kryvytskyi also said, “Our obligation is testifying to the truth.”
While, historically, many of the country’s Protestant traditions have been rooted in the pacifist tradition, members of the council noted that those tendencies have been challenged ever since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. Even those who refuse to take up arms, they note, have not shied away from helping war efforts in other capacities.
And at this point, that truth-telling of the council, as they see it, means speaking bluntly that, in the words of Shevchuk, Russia must “stop military actions, stop killing us.”
“This will be the first step to genuine and lasting peace,” he said.
With the onset of winter and just a few weeks before Christmas, there is uncertainty as to what lies ahead.
High-rise residential buildings, warned Jan Sobiło, auxiliary bishop of Kharkiv- Zaporizhzhia, “will become refrigerators” if the country keeps facing strikes on its power grid.
But how can and how should a country and the church in these circumstances face Christmas?
On December 14th, Pope Francis launched a special appeal, asking all people of goodwill to spend less on gifts and other celebrations, and instead donate money to support Ukrainians.
“Brothers and sisters,” the pope said, “I tell you, they are suffering so very, very much.”
Sobiło said that in late November, he visited Rome to meet with Francis and saw Christmas preparations underway at the Vatican.
“I wonder if we in Zaporizhzhia will also be able to have a tree in the square?” he recalled thinking.
He concluded that was unlikely, but said it doesn’t mean that both churches and individual homes shouldn’t prepare for the arrival of Jesus:
“Christ was born in a dark, cold cave with the light of a candle, and we too will welcome the newborn Jesus in the warmth of our hearts, despite the cold around, Everyone now asks: Will there be Christmas joy, will it be permissible to sing or should we shut up and cry?” said Shevchuk. “I say yes and yes, Christmas will be there. We have the right to celebrate Christmas joy … because the Prince of Peace will be born.”
As believers prepare to welcome the Prince of Peace, new polling suggests that some 85% of its citizens believe the fighting should continue until Ukraine regains all of its territories. This Christmas, crucified Ukraine — martyred Ukraine, as Francis has frequently referred to it — seems very far from resurrection, though its citizens are unshaken in their faith that it will one day arrive.
Article reproduced courtesy of
Christopher White: Vatican Correspondent for National Catholic Reporter
Photographs: Marcin Mazur / CBCEW