A letter from Ellen Smith, regional liaison for Eastern Europe, based in Germany
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On May 1, a group of five Presbyterians landed in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, after a long day of travel originating in Moscow, and transiting through Riga, Latvia (there are no longer any direct flights between Russia and Ukraine). Two years ago, another team landed in Kiev, a starting point rather than an ending point for travels in Ukraine and Russia. That first team made a journey to these countries to explore the conflict within Ukraine and between Russia and Ukraine, eight months after the revolution erupted on Maidan Square. Our goal for that first trip was to hear the voice of the church in that tumultuous time. All of our conversations were with Christians. In Russia, we explored the prevalence of Russki Mir (Make the Russian World Great Again). Most with whom we spoke discounted this as insignificant. Some expressed opinions about the conflict, but most did not. Many pastors were trying to quiet the voices of nationalism (either pro-Russia or pro-Ukraine) within their congregations. We heard voices of pain and loss, many having family in Ukraine unwilling to communicate with them. In Ukraine, we heard voices of anger and nationalism. Opinions were openly shared, the emotion of Maidan still raw. Many with whom we spoke, in both Ukraine and Russia, were working to meet the needs of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees. For this second trip, our goal was to explore how the church is engaged in ministry and to listen for peacemakers, as, two years on, the conflict continues.
The root causes of the conflict are complex. History (Soviet and pre-Soviet) is intertwined with ethnic divisions (Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Hungarian), economics and politics. In November 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned an agreement for closer cooperation with the EU, choosing instead to pursue a loan bailout from Russia. At this point, protests began on Maidan, a square in Kiev, and protestors seized the city hall. In December, Yanukovych signed the bailout deal with Russia, and in January the protests turned violent. It is not clear what triggered the all-out fighting that began February 18, but Maidan became a battlefield, and many died. On February 22, Yanukovych disappeared. In the days that followed, parliament voted to ban Russian as one of the official languages, triggering anger in Russian-speaking regions (the vote was later overturned). In the meantime, pro-Russian gunmen seized buildings in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, and on March 1, Russia’s parliament approved the use of force in Ukraine to protect Russia’s interests (Russia’s Black Sea naval base is in Sevastopol, Crimea). On March 16, Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. On April 7, protesters in Eastern Ukraine occupied buildings in the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence. The war has continued since that time, in spite of ongoing efforts by the international community to broker peace. In May 2014, pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence in an unrecognized referendum. For more detailed information on the Ukrainian situation, please see the BBC’s Ukraine crisis timeline.
For the account of our recent travels, I want to begin where the journey ended. On our last day, we joined a Christian aid group that we had accompanied on our previous journey, traveling into what is called the “buffer zone.” This is a 30 km zone between Kiev-controlled Ukraine and the DNR (the Donetsk People’s Republic—what the separatists now call themselves). When traveling into the zone two years ago, the group we accompanied was very careful to take us to places that were quiet; we had a military escort to ensure our safety. The group was delivering bread and staple food items to those who chose to remain in the zone rather than become refugees. Most people had left. There were signs of shelling and there were deep frustrations. People felt abandoned and waited for the fighting to end. However, the fighting has not ended. Since that time, this aid group has traveled regularly into the zone, bringing food and offering spiritual support.
On this trip, we traveled further into the zone, without a military escort. We passed through many checkpoints, as we had two years ago, but there was a matter-of-fact nature to encounters. The lead driver’s documents were checked, a few questions asked—“What is in your vans? You know where you’re going?” No cautions. We were waved through and continued on.
Two years ago, the 30 km zone was largely abandoned—a wasteland. I was surprised this time to see fields planted with crops. The communities closer to the Kiev-controlled territory were getting back to life. Shops were functioning. People were in outdoor cafes. We continued on, deeper than in our first trip.
Our first stop was the village of Tonen’ke, perhaps 15 km from the city of Donetsk but still in the buffer zone. Before the war, people in Tonen’ke worked in Donetsk and lived a rural life with their gardens and their neighbors. Now, those who have stayed hold on. A school bus comes for the few children who remain, but the work that supported this community is gone. Factories have been destroyed or are on the wrong side of the line that divides the territory. Driving into Tonen’ke, we noticed that all the houses on the main road showed signs of shelling. In the village center, people had already gathered, knowing that food packets were being delivered. Everything was orderly. There was someone in charge who let us know how many bags to give each family, some just one, others two or three, one family five. We had a chance to speak to a few people.
Zhenya is 21. She has stayed in the community to help her mother. Her older sisters have left with their children. When the shelling starts, she and her mother go to the basement. Fortunately, their house hasn’t taken a direct hit. Zhenya told us they no longer expect the DNR to come back to Ukraine, but she was very clear—they want Tonen’ke to stay in Ukraine.
Galina showed us her home, which had taken a direct hit. Though not reduced to rubble, it showed fire damage throughout the interior. Fortunately, she was in the basement at the time. I’m not clear whether her disabled husband died in the bombardment or in an unrelated way, but the room where he used to live was full of rubble. She is staying in a nearby city while neighbors work on repairing her home. It will be a while. Memories make her determined to return.
From Tonen’ke, we drove on to Avdiivka. This is a village that three months ago was under heavy bombardment. It is 10 km from what remains of the Donetsk airport. People still live in Avdiivka, mostly elderly people determined to stay in their homes. We began at a church whose pastor fled when the war began. The Christian aid group has made it a center of ministry, helping people repair windows and other damage from near daily mortar rounds. We were told that the artillery usually starts at 4:00 p.m. and goes until 5:00 a.m., but it started early on the day of our visit. While we were getting oriented at the church, they received a call about a mortar round that had just hit. We showed up at the house after the elderly resident had been carried off to the hospital and while the Ukrainian military were still investigating. Our friends quickly began to assess the damage, measuring window frames for repairs. Then we drove on to a house that had been reduced to rubble in February. Lyuda, the homeowner, still had a small structure at the front of her property, where she and her disabled husband continue to live. She showed us the heap that had once been her house, lamenting that they even got her best cooking pot. As we surveyed the scene, the shelling began in the distance. It was hard to know from which direction it was being fired. We could not see where it landed either. We spent a little more time with Lyuda and then decided it was best to move on.
We visited two more homes with similar stories. Alexei’s wife had been in the basement when a mortar hit, but he was sitting in the house by the stove when the roof came down around his head. He is thankful that the kitchen (a separate structure) survived. His wife has gone to live with relatives, but he hangs on, taking care of his chickens and his pigeons, sorting through the rubble to see what he can find.
Maria Yakovna fell while running during one bombardment. She is 89 years old. The fall has left her bedridden. She lies in a drab, windowless room. Her daughter cares for her. One might ask why they stay, but so many years of their lives are invested in their homes. I have had people tell me that it is better to die at home than live as a refugee. As we drove away, one of the neighbors told us that it wasn’t safe for us and to get out of Avdiivka.
This was the end of our trip. Why did I start at the end? Because it helps to sort through the comments we heard along the way. We spoke with different people: P. kept telling us that he is a Ukrainian, a loyal Ukrainian. He commented that Donbas might come back, but they won’t have the power and influence that they once had. It was clear that he felt the people of Donbas had different priorities from the rest of the country—as the industrial center of Ukraine, they previously had great economic and political influence. They supported the leadership of Yanukovich, ensuring his election. He shared that peace will require an apology from the DNR. His church is active in caring for those who suffer on both sides of the buffer zone, as well as within the zone.
F. is a peacemaker we spoke with on our last trip. Two years ago, he was trying to bring church leaders together in dialogue. Peacemaking is still a priority, but his efforts are now in other directions—focusing on ministry to the poor and to young people. He asks groups of students if they have relatives in Russia. They all do. He asks them if they will now hate their uncles and aunts. And yet, he was less neutral than two years ago. He made it clear to us that he believed the conflict was started by Russian-backed paramilitary individuals and groups in Donbas. We asked what hope there is for an end to the conflict. He shared that there are many barriers to peace, both economic and political. People make money selling weapons, and there is political capital to be made in fighting for “Ukraine—the nation.” And then, so many have died. With so many hurt feelings, and so much resentment, how do you forgive?
M. works for an organization involved in reconciliation, healing old pains from atrocities in World War II. We asked M. and her colleagues about reconciliation with Russia. They told us that everyone was welcome to apply to their seminars, which had included Russians. As we rode a tram to the center for lunch before our next meeting, M. asked us where we had been in Russia. We told her Moscow and Velikiy Rostov. She bristled at my use of the word “Velikiy,” which means great. It triggered a reaction. She proceeded to share with us what she had heard secondhand about aggressive behavior by priests in Donbas. M. is from Donbas. She does not plan to go back. She does not know which of her friends and relatives are still alive.
We also spent time in our travels talking with Christians from Crimea. They shared that in voting to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia, they weren’t voting for Russia or against Ukraine; they were voting for peace. Remember Sevastopol, Russia’s military base on the Black Sea on the peninsula of Crimea? Can you fathom what fighting might have taken place throughout Crimea? They could. The Crimeans chose peace. They have not become wealthy. Their lives go on much as they did before, but now friends from the west don’t visit and they are unable to travel to the west because of sanctions. They are all on a no-fly list.
The one voice we did not hear from is that of the DNR, Donbas. I am confident that they have similar stories of regional loyalty (nationalism) and of houses coming down around their heads.
The war is a tragedy. The current political climates in Ukraine and in Russia encourage nationalism. To be neutral is to be unpatriotic—disloyal. Nationalism does not encourage reflection, only reaction. Information, misinformation, resentment, hurt feelings. How do you forgive? People are tired of the war. Tired of hearing about it. Tired of the refugees and their needs. Too often, the local people can’t get what they need, like spaces in kindergarten for their children, because they are reserved for the children of refugees. But the war goes on.
What are the lessons for us?
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