Travelling to Ukraine as the country prepared to go to the polls Oct. 26, Neville Kyrke-Smith of Aid to the Church in Need found a people traumatized by recent events and conflict, but determined to build a civil society with dignity in the borderland between East and West. Valentin lay in the military hospital bed, with his wife Valentine sitting by his bedside. Valentin was a forester driver and joined the Ukrainian army to fight the insurgents in eastern Ukraine. “I was driving carrying ammunition and was caught in an ambush,” he said. “The Russian-backed separatist forces waited until I had filled up with fuel — ignored the intelligence vehicle leading the convoy — and opened up with gunfire on my truck. I was knocked out of my truck and run over.” Valentin was injured two months ago — he has major problems with his left leg and one hip is being surgically reconstructed. His wife Valentina told me, with tears in her eyes, that they have two sons aged 12 and 10: “The older boy now cries a lot,” she said. In another ward I met Sasha, aged 25, who was also caught in an attack and was dragged out unconscious minutes before his vehicle exploded. His mother, Nina, says that Sasha has suffered from numerous infections after his burns, but that he is on the mend now. Such tears, anguish and pain are not confined to the military hospital — where a plane had just landed with 13 seriously wounded from the fighting and headed for surgery as we met on the eve of Ukraine’s Oct. 26, 2014 parliamentary elections that swept pro-Western legislators into power. Despite the poll results, there is anguish from the deep shock of the suffering and conflicts — from the political protests and shootings of more than 100 innocent people around Maidan Square in Kyiv in February of this year — to the ongoing fight with Russian-backed separatists around Donetsk and Luhansk. Only three percent of Ukraine, excluding Crimea, is experiencing fighting, but many see this as the last fight for freedom from the Russian-dominated past. Ukraine is on edge, caught painfully between East and West, straddling a geopolitical and inter-confessional fault line. The recent election offers hope for many, but the impact of the corruption of recent governments has to be overcome and the remedy will be painful. Danylo Bilak, a lawyer at CMS Cameron McKenna who has worked as a senior government adviser, said that under ousted President Viktor Yanukovich $74 billion had been stolen from the country’s treasury in just four years: “We almost lost the country because of corruption. When Putin invaded Crimea we only had 6,000 battle-ready troops. Without the volunteer brigades and the support of the people in buying uniform and supplies, we would have been overwhelmed. The state is incapable of supporting the system of state.” “This is a very corrupt society, albeit a very religious one. Maidan was our war of independence, but there may be three or four electoral cycles to work through before we reach real stability and growth. We have to fight corruption and build a new society.” In addition to the death of more than 3,700 people, there are more than 375,000 people (one-third of them children) who are internally displaced, according to estimates by the UN, while hundreds of thousands are said to have fled into Russia. The war has directly affected 5 million people. In Kyiv, I met refugees — mothers and babies and many old people from Luhansk and Donetsk — waiting in line in the first freezing weather of winter at a volunteer charity center where people had dropped off warm clothing and food. I spoke to a mother with her young child from Donetsk and also met Victor from Pervomaisk, near Luhansk, who is a volunteer collecting clothes and foodstuffs. He had worked as a commercial real-estate developer, but fled after his apartment was hit and a house he owned had been burned down. The trauma of what has happened and is happening in Ukraine is affecting all people, but especially the young. Sister Luiza Ciupa runs training programs for teachers to deal with children whose parents have been injured or died; the catechetical department of the Ukrainian Catholic University hold open-house days for children from families who have been traumatized. Sister Luiza spoke of the needs: “We need to nurture the people’s faith and foster communities of healing.” Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, told me: “There are a huge number of refugees. We need to care for them and for those who were injured in Maidan and have been injured in the east of Ukraine. There are physical and spiritual wounds. We have been providing post-traumatic training for priests. In the Church we are setting up a center for pastoral care in crisis situations.” Archpriest Mykolay Danilevich, deputy director of the Department for External Affairs of the Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate) Church, put it thus: “The world has at least come to know Ukraine and to know that Ukraine is not Russia. We would like to ask for your prayers for peace. Please do not wait for your own house to catch fire. Help your neighbor to put out the fire!” Our party also met with priests and bishops of various other ecclesial communities, as well as with members of the Jewish community and a Muslim Mufti and Imam — most of whom had been involved and praying with the people in Maidan in February in the midst of “a revolution of dignity,” as Paris-based Bishop Borys Gudziak said at the time. The religious leaders are in accord that Ukraine must now build a civil society, rooted in respect for human dignity, based on moral values. Faith is a key foundation of life in Ukraine, an anchor after generations of suffering. A new generation is looking for support and prayers. Neville Kyrke-Smith is National Director of Aid to the Church in Need in the United Kingdom. For nearly a quarter century he has regularly visited Ukraine. Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.
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