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Letter from Ukaraine, July 26, 2022

Dominican Shield

Dear Sisters, Dear Brothers,

I wrote the last letter from Ukraine over a month ago. That’s a long time. Since life in Kyiv has become calmer and more normal, it’s harder to force yourself to write. Routine, weariness of repeated air alarms, beginning each day with checking the phone to see where bombs fell overnight and how many casualties, the fear of repeating what everyone already knows… all this contributed to my procrastination in writing. It isn’t good, especially since every time I talk with brothers and volunteers in Ukraine, we constantly repeat: the free and democratic world must not forget about this tragedy, and we have a duty to keep reminding people about it. Sometimes I watch horse races, and the horse that wins isn’t the one that ran at the head of the group from the beginning or even for most of the race, but the one that was first in the lens of the camera at the finish line. The war demands great endurance, and not only from the soldiers. All of us — regular people standing on the side of goodness and truth — need patience to be in solidarity with each other. We must not slow down too much in the race because the goal is still ahead of us. Today probably no one has any doubt that this war, which began over five months ago, is a long-distance race. 

I spent the last few days of June in the hospital. It was time to take out the screws and metal braces from the leg I broke over a year ago. This stay in the orthopedic trauma clinic during wartime was an interesting experience. The majority of patients nowadays are soldiers. This kind of warfare that’s dominated by artillery barrages results in hundreds of soldiers and civilians suffering all kinds of wounds every day. I keep seeing pictures on social media of soldiers without arms or legs, accompanied by dramatic appeals from their families for financial support to buy prosthetics or begin expensive treatment. In the hospital I met Artem, a Kyiv businessman slightly younger than me. Until recently, he had been running very successful, growing companies. When the war started, he decided to defend Ukraine. “I recognized that this isn’t a time to make money,” he said. “When the Russians approached Kyiv, I volunteered for the police force and then joined the army and went to the front lines.” As he was fighting in Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, he was wounded by a cluster bomb fragment, which lodged itself in his knee. He showed me a little sliver of metal, the size of a grain of rice, which the surgeon had just removed from his knee. As for his friends, the shrapnel wounded their faces, lungs, and hands. While listening to his story, I realized there’s a reason why this kind of area-covering ammunition is forbidden by many countries around the world. 

The hospitals are working at full capacity, thanks to the determination of Ukrainian doctors and medical personnel, as well as the support from around the world. On the hospital floors where soldiers are treated, there are special volunteers who bring better food and anything they need. The room where I was with Artem was visited by a young woman who brought my roommate all kinds of delicacies. I, as a regular patient, remained on basic hospital chow. Help and care like this for soldiers returning from the frontlines is very needed. I noticed that they accepted it with gratitude and not any entitlement or arrogance. A similar observation was recently shared with me by Silvia, who works in Poland as an EMT. Between her shifts, she volunteers to drive an ambulance to Lviv, evacuating the most seriously wounded war victims to hospitals in Poland and around the world. “These people receive our help with gratitude. It frequently happens that they themselves or their families worry about us and ask if we are hungry or tired. They are different from our Polish patients,” she told me. 

I’m very encouraged by the attitudes of people like Artem. He taught me something important about loving one’s country. He could have easily hid from the army, thanks to his money and connections. However, he decided to defend his country. As we laid on adjacent beds, recovering from our treatments, he told me about everyday life at war: how he took care of soldiers in his unit and how he obtained necessary equipment and cars, often using his own money to buy them. While he was at war, he and his business partners created an organization that uses the latest technology to document the destruction inflicted by Russians around Kyiv. In one of the pictures, Artem is standing with a bandaged leg and his little son by his side. The young boy had a bandage on his leg, too. Maybe he had some injury, or — as it seems to me — he just wanted to look like his dad! 

“This war has become a shock that, through pain, suffering, and revelation of weaknesses we hadn’t noticed, helps us to discover ourselves. It also helps us to see our own strength and ability to defend ourselves.” These words were spoken in a public discussion by Archbishop Ihor Isichenko, a retired Orthodox priest from Kharkiv; he’s known well by us Dominicans, since he had been a lecturer in our Institute of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Kyiv. 

While visiting Fastiv recently, I asked Father Misha to tell me about the people who have been finding shelter in the House of Saint Martin. “We have a grandmother with a sixteen-year-old grandson who is handicapped. They’re from Pokrovsk, about 30 miles from Donetsk. We’re waiting now for a teacher from there who had refused to leave earlier without her 12-year-old orphaned student. We’re also trying to evacuate more families from Bakhmut. Zhenya is already here with his family, but two of his wounded classmates are still there. The father of one was killed. We have an opportunity to transport them by ambulance to Fastiv or maybe even to Poland. The only question is if they can get out and if they will finally decide to leave.” Very frequently however, people who were heavily affected by war are paralized by the situation and have a hard time leaving behind familiar places. I saw this with my own eyes a few weeks ago in Kharkiv when I visited families who had been living for a couple months already in the basements of apartment buildings in the great neighborhood of Saltivka. They all kept repeating, “This is our home… Where would we go?… We don’t know anyone in western Ukraine or abroad… The war has to end at some point.” 

“We keep sending food all the time to eastern and southern Ukraine,” Father Misha continued. “As long as we can get there, we’ll keep helping people. Recently Mykola, our volunteer, brought 600 pounds of food to Slovyansk. We’re also helping three kitchens that prepare food in Kherson, where the situation is very difficult. We want people who live there to know we haven’t forgotten them.” 

Today Father Misha and his volunteers are organizing a festival for families in Borodyanka, one of the most destroyed cities in the vicinity of Kyiv. It’s another of these events organized in the usual place. Every week, more people are returning to their houses, or whatever is left of them. “Until recently, we had 1114 families from Borodyanka under our care. That’s how many boxes of food we delivered there every week. Now we have more than 2000.” People keep coming back and are trying to somehow restart their lives. It’s difficult because most of them don’t have jobs and are forced to live off of state subsidies and humanitarian help. If that help ever stopped coming, many families would suffer hunger. 

As I was driving to Poland, after almost six hours of waiting in the customs line, I stopped in a village to have some peace and make a phone call. It was already night. After a while, I saw the headlights of a car coming up behind me. I initially thought it was the border patrol who had become interested in me or, even worse, the police coming to give me a ticket for stopping at the bus stop. Instead, a young woman came to me and asked in Ukrainian for help. “Is there any hotel around here? I’m driving with my child from Kharkiv, and I cannot drive any more. And on top of everything, my phone isn’t working.” I could only find a hotel in Lublin, about an hour away. I drove ahead of them to help them get to their destination safely. Svietlana explained that they had only just decided to leave Kharkiv. Before they had somehow managed to survive, but now there’s a Ukrainian military post near their house. “I’m afraid that when the Russians learn about it, they’ll start shooting in our direction. I didn’t want to leave. I just finished the construction of a big, new house. It took twenty years of my life.” She shared her story, very clearly shaken, in the middle of the night, in a country she’d never seen before. The war had stolen from her and her family twenty years of dreams and hard work. I saw that she’s rather well-off. Now she’s driving her car with her mother and son and with a handful of things, through Poland to western Europe. She has some friends in Ireland. She’s driving with a passionate desire and hope that she’ll be able to come back to her country, her house, her job, and her friends. There are many people like her. On the border crossing I noticed many cars with license plates from Kharkiv Oblast. 

With greetings and gratitude for the help you offer us and Ukraine, and with request for prayer, 

Jarosław Krawiec OP
Kyiv/Warsaw, July 26, 12:20pm
 

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