Montana’s junior senator did not plan to be the first U.S. senator to travel to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. But when an old friend and faith leader invited Sen. Steve Daines to witness the country’s suffering, he said yes.
“I saw indisputable war crimes. This is pure evil and bloodshed,” Daines, a Republican, told CNA of his Holy Week trip. “I literally saw the bodies in the shallow graves as they were exhuming them.”
At a gravesite in Bucha, authorities investigating war crimes pitched tents in which to place the bodies after digging them out, Daines said. Inside, they snapped photographs to document the cause of death for men, women, and children.
“You could see bullet wounds in the back of heads,” Daines remembered. “I mean these were people who were executed. They were murdered.”
He recalled smelling the “stench of death” and seeing with his own eyes the “complete disregard for life.”
According to an April 21 Human Rights Watch report, “Russian forces committed a litany of apparent war crimes during their occupation of Bucha” March 4-31. Ruslan Kravchenko, the local chief regional prosecutor, told HRW on April 15 that 278 bodies had been located so far since Russian forces withdrew, with the vast majority being civilians’.
‘A little wooden toy’
Another moment ingrained in Daines’ memory came when he encountered residential communities, apartment complexes, and homes turned into “piles of rubble.” In one such pile, he came across a child’s toy.
“It was a little wooden toy, a little car, and I picked it up,” he recalled of the figure with wheels painted in bright blue. At the time, he said, “I was thinking about our own family,” with four children and three grandchildren.
He also saw the charred body of a Russian soldier inside an armored vehicle.
“It just shows you they have no regard for life, for human life, whether it's Russian life or Ukrainian life,” he said of the Russians. “It's very, very evil.”
Accompaniment by faith leaders
Daines credited Christian pastors and faith leaders for making his trip to Ukraine happen.
Just before Easter, an old friend — whom Daines described as an outspoken faith leader in Ukraine who had served as a member of parliament there for 11 years — called him while he was in Eastern Europe.
“I can get you into Kyiv,” the friend told him.
Daines flew to Krakow, where the pastor of a Ukrainian church from a city in northern Ukraine that had been attacked by Russians picked him and his friend up at the airport.
From there, they drove to the border with Ukraine, which they walked across that night. At the crossing, located in a small town, they passed a stream of refugees traveling in the opposite direction.
According to estimates from the United Nations, nearly 6 million people have fled Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, with more than half escaping to Poland.
After crossing the border, yet another faith leader picked up Daines and his friend and drove them to Lviv to catch a train. Another faith leader, in Lviv, handed them the tickets. From there, they embarked on an eight-hour train ride to Kyiv, where Daines was joined by Representative Victoria Spartz (R-IN), who was born in Ukraine and was visiting her grandmothers.
The train — on alert for missile activity — stopped twice in the middle of the night. But, Daines, said, nothing happened. He arrived in Kyiv the next morning. Then, Ukrainian authorities took him to the shallow mass graves in Bucha.
A faith-filled journey
Daines stressed that he was in Kyiv the day before Good Friday.
“God placed the sin of the world on Christ and it was his death and sacrifice that has redeemed us and allowed us the great hope of heaven and eternal life to pay for the penalty for our sins,” he said.
While the situation in Ukraine brought moral clarity that “there is still evil in this world,” Daines said, Christ was “the good that overcame the evil of the world.”
In Bucha, he said that he witnessed the contrast between good and evil while watching leaders of the Orthodox Church comforting the people there.
“I remember seeing two older ladies just sitting on a park bench, not far from where they’re exhuming the bodies,” Daines said. “There was actually a string quartet that was just playing some beautiful music quietly, while you could see these Ukraine Orthodox Church leaders there” reaching out to the community.
What he saw in Ukraine emphasized “that the forces of evil are very apparent in the world,” Daines said. But, he added, “so are the forces of good.”