Currently in Kyiv, the Vatican’s ambassador to Ukraine said regardless of expectations that a Russian assault on the city is imminent, he is determined to stay and be with the people as a sign of the pope’s closeness.
Speaking to SIR, the official news agency of the Italian bishops, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, who was appointed as apostolic nuncio to Ukraine in June 2021, said he made the difficult decision to stay in Kyiv “because we are not just an embassy.”
“Here I represent the pope to the people and to the churches in Ukraine. I have not only the duty, but also the possibility of being close to the people. So, my place is here,” he said.
If the situation worsens and it becomes “humanly impossible to stay,” Kulbokas said the question of whether to leave will be raised, “but for the moment if we manage to stay here, we will not move.”
Currently in its eighth day following Russia’s invasion early last Thursday, the war in Ukraine is seeing more casualties as Russian troops increasingly target urban areas in their pushback against Ukraine’s defense.
A Russian convoy some 40-miles long is reportedly drawing near to Kyiv, where citizens for days have been sheltering in subways and basements as air sirens warn of bombardments.
The city’s iconic Independence Square in the past few days has been surrounded by barricades with sandbags and Czech hedgehogs to block the path of tanks. Grocery stores are sparse, and the streets are largely empty other than a handful of people waiting in line at the pharmacy or at supermarkets.
Ukrainian troops are conducting checks for possible Russian spies scoping out strategic locations, stopping cars and people out on foot to perform bag and vehicle checks.
So far, it is estimated that some 2,800 Ukrainian troops have died since Russia’s invasion last Thursday, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has so far recorded an estimated 752 civilian casualties in Ukraine, with 227 killed and 525 injured.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, at least 498 soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, and more than 1,500 wounded, although the Ukrainian authorities are reporting a much higher Russian casualty rate.
These numbers are expected to rise as fighting continues and as Ukrainian and Russian forces battle for Kyiv in the coming days.
Speaking of the current situation in Kyiv, Kulbokas said the Vatican’s embassy is in one of the central districts, and that he is staying there with two collaborators and a group of religious sisters who work there.
Kulbokas said that in the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion they, like everyone else, stockpiled food and water so they would have reserves in case the situation escalated, but no one believed war would actually break out.
“We will therefore have food and water for a while, but certainly not for a very long time,” he said, noting that some Ukrainians are already being impacted by what will likely become a serious humanitarian crisis.
“As the days go by it will extend to the whole city of Kyiv,” and in other cities such as Kharkiv, which has seen heavy fighting, and Odessa, Mariupol, and Kherson, “the situation is similar,” he said.
The humanitarian situation “is bound to get worse,” he said, saying another major concern of his from the beginning has been the fate of the elderly and those who are sick.
“How do you go about getting treatment in these situations? Especially for those who could not, nor had the strength to evacuate, and stayed,” he said.
There is also concern for pregnant women who are about to give birth, Kulbokas said, noting that many children are being born in underground shelters, without specialized care or medical assistance.
“The drama is strong,” he said.
Referring to the numerous blasts that have been heard on the outskirts of Kyiv since fighting began, Kulbokas said the nunciature has identified several areas they consider to be “relatively more protected” in the event of a missile attack.
Right now, people are sleeping on mattresses they have placed in various makeshift shelters, including the basement of certain buildings.
Masses are also celebrated in places that are considered safe, however, Kulbokas said he always keeps a backpack near that contains the essentials: water, documents, and a phone, “to be ready for anything.”
Speaking of his own decision to stay, Kulbokas said that conveying the pope’s closeness to the Ukrainian people has “a very strong meaning for me too, because by being here, in some way, we can feel the drama of those who suffer from gunfire, cold, danger, injuries, and even death.”
“But we can also feel very strongly the solidarity among Ukrainians, of all confessions and religions,” he said, saying he gets a call every day from the mufti of Kyiv who inquires as to whether they have enough food and water, or if they need to shelter someone.
Both Catholics and Orthodox, as well as Jews, do the same for each other within their churches, he said, adding, “There is a lot of solidarity and to see this unity is a beautiful and very strong experience.”
Kulbokas said they also feel the solidarity of those outside of Ukraine who are praying for peace, saying, “It is as if we were, in these days, the spiritual capital of the world where, on one hand, the drama meets but also the beautiful response of humanity on the other.”
Referring to the pope’s numerous social media appeals and his own diplomatic approach to the war, Kulbokas said he has received countless calls from people expressing their gratitude for the pope’s prayers and his many appeals for peace.
Pope Francis, he said, “is certainly close to the suffering Ukraine, but he is close to everyone. The pope said that war must always be stopped, no reason can justify war. War is the work of the devil and therefore every possible effort must be made to stop it.”
The church’s main task is “to reconcile everyone,” and to foster in all sides a spirit of fraternity, Kulbokas said, voicing his desire that “everyone would join in this mission of condemning the war and of spiritual union and making peace with everyone.”
Speaking of the day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine called for by the pope and that took place on Ash Wednesday, Kulbokas said it was a very important gesture for Ukrainians.
“Sometimes we have doubts about prayer, as if it were only a personal plea. Prayer is not only this: it is also a solidarity with those who are not believers, it is closeness, it is brotherhood. It contributes to peace because it destroys the very foundations of war,” he said.
Prayer, he added, “eliminates arrogance, the lack of responsibility, it generates conversion, it gives us the spirit of humility. Prayer unites us both with God and among all of us and in prayer we become once again, in God, his sons and brothers and sisters for one another.”
“When God sees us like this,” he said, “he cannot remain indifferent and not give us peace as a gift.”