Letter From Ukraine, December 3, 2022

Dear sisters, dear brothers, 

Once again Fr. Misha, the volunteers from Saint Martin, and I traveled to Izium and Balakliya. This time we were joined by Mr. Bartosz Cichocki, the Polish ambassador to Ukraine. He’s one of the diplomats who didn’t abandon their posts in Kyiv at the beginning of the war. He and his wife Monika strongly support all kinds of activities and centers of aid, including the House of Saint Martin in Fastiv. We spent three days on the road. The ambassador unloaded the buses and distributed aid to the needy just like the rest of us. The children of the small village of Kun’je outside of Izium were in awe of the toys, reflective armbands, and backpacks. People here live very simply, so the colorful gifts for the kids caused joy and broke the dreariness of life. At the store in the center of the village where we were distributing humanitarian aid, our presence caused a substantial crowd to gather. I suspect that Fr. Krzysztof, the prior from Korbielów, a famous car and motorcycle enthusiast, would be in heaven if he could see this living museum of automotive industry. A huge portion of the vehicles dated back to the USSR. Until the time of war, Kun’je had a large school building containing a high school, middle school, elementary school, and kindergarten. Unfortunately the building had been shelled by the Russians at the very beginning of the war. After that, until mid-September, the occupying forces used it as their barracks. Now it’s in ruins, and the children from the surrounding villages have nowhere to go to school. 

Passing bags of food weighing up to ten pounds from hand to hand was exhausting, but it’s hard to find a better way to unload the humanitarian aid trucks. This effort also has a deeper meaning. Passing from hand to hand is always an encounter with another human being from whom you receive and to whom you give. It’s a simple illustration of the words of St. Paul: “What do you possess that you have not received?” (1 Cor 4:7) In his most recent message for The Day of the Poor, Pope Francis very accurately expressed what many of us have been experiencing since the beginning of the war: “In front of the poor you don’t do rhetorics. You roll up your sleeves and put into practice what you believe, through direct involvement. That can’t be delegated to anyone.” For this reason, when I think about the volunteers and the Dominican brothers and sisters, I realize with deeper conviction that we’re very lucky, living at the end of long chain of good, since behind every bag of food, medicine, warm clothing, or the electric generators that are arriving for the poor is the work, time, money, and involvement of many good people. We are very grateful for all of this! Without you, we don’t exist. 

Father Misha was very moved by a meeting with a woman in Izium. “Her house is only 37°F. I don’t want to hear anyone complaining that they are chilly in Fastiv!” 

On the way back from the Kharkiv Oblast, I went to the train station to drop off Ania, from the Charytatywni group from Warsaw. She was taking the night train to Poland. At one of the platforms, the one with vehicle access, almost thirty ambulances were sitting waiting for the evacuation train to receive the wounded. Nowadays this is a frequent sight at the Kyiv railway station. I have a hard time getting used to it. One soldier drew our attention. He was walking with difficulty, in visible pain. I talked to him while standing on the escalator. He was returning from the front lines, wounded in both legs with four pieces of shrapnel — a large man with a beard, carrying in his arms a backpack with a cat. After I said goodbye to Ania, I thought that he might need my help. Somehow I couldn’t simply go home. I walked out to the front of the station hoping he would still be there. He was. He was sitting at the bus stop. I offered to drive him wherever he needed. He accepted the offer, since the cab company that he had tried to call wouldn’t respond. Yuriy is my age. He had just arrived by train from Kramatorsk, to which he had been sent from the front lines. Years ago he worked in Poland, and he had a lot of good things to say about it. He spoke a strange kind of broken Polish, with Russian and Ukrainian words mixed in. His commander gave him ten days off. I’m afraid it’s not enough time to treat his wounded legs, but I didn’t hear a word of complaint from him. I asked if it’s hard out there. “You know, dying is not the worst thing — what’s horrible is living in such uncertainty,” he said, referring to the Russian occupation. He’s full of hope and wants to continue fighting for a free Ukraine. “I’ll finally wash up, and tomorrow I’ll go home to my wife and my three kids. I haven’t seen them for a year.” I told him how grateful I am for what he’s doing for us on the battlefield. 

In the car, his cat meowed from time to time. Her name is Mushka [“Little Fly”], “like the front sight of a gun,” Yuriy explained with a smile. He found the cat in a basement in Spirne, a small village on the border of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, where he had most recently been fighting. “She didn’t want to go with any of the other guys, just with me.” And he added, “I don’t know if I saved her or if she saved me.” His daughter sent him a special bag for transporting animals, so Mushka is now traveling quite luxuriously with her “savior” to her new home. 

I am following the news from Kherson, and I’m worried. We were there three weeks ago. The city wrapped in darkness was depressing. At the time we left you could see some sparsely spread lights, but within the last few days, the Russians destroyed the power grid. Kherson, however, is a subject for another letter, maybe the next one. 

Last Sunday, after almost 72 hours, our Kyiv neighbors across the street from the priory got their power back. Fr. Petro took a picture with the caption: “Joyful photo!” The repeated mass-shelling of critical infrastructure heavily destabilizes life in Ukraine. If they keep it up, life in the capital of Ukraine and many other places will be very hard. The authorities are opening places where people can come, warm up, and charge their phones. They call them “points of perseverance”. Lack of power also means serious trouble with communications; if we don’t have light, the internet and cell phones don’t work either. For this reason, even getting through to Fastiv is bordering on a miracle. 

Despite the external darkness that is covering all of Ukraine these days, there is no shortage of beams of light and hope. For me, one of them was a meeting Marek, the superior of the lay Dominicans in Kyiv, had with a group of people from Khmelnytskyi who want to become our teriaries. I hope that the Kyiv fraternity will help them establish a new community there. Of course, time and patience are needed, but the enthusiasm and commitment is already in good supply, which I could see myself during my visit to the newest priory in Ukraine. 

“To my friends in Ukraine” is the way Fr. Alain, the socius to the Master of the Order, began the letter he sent us on the first Sunday of Advent. Many brothers, sisters, and lay Dominicans had the opportunity to meet Alain in Ukraine and stay in contact with him. In his short reflection, Fr. Alain mentioned the work of Austrian artist Billi Thanner. Her installation entitled “The Ladder to Heaven” could recently be seen in Vienna. One part of the ladder was inside the cathedral of Saint Stephen; the other was hanging on the south tower. Both parts of the ladder were made of aluminum with neon lights colored goldish-yellow. “The first step was located in the chapel, next to which tourists frequently pass by, inviting them to stop, directing their thoughts and their eyes up to a different reality outside the walls of stone and plaster. For the faithful who were coming to pray, this piece of art materialized and lit up the way for their prayers to rise to God,” wrote Fr. Alain. I’m realizing that this war is teaching me to listen and watch more carefully. It’s often the kind of attention that’s connected to danger. Recently, while walking on the sidewalk, I heard explosions of rockets somewhere. Along with the other passersby, I stopped, looking up to the sky. It was peaceful and cloudy. On the roads leading to Izium or Kherson, I look down more carefully in front of my feet, knowing that landmines could still be there. The Ladder to Heaven by Billy Thanner reinforces the call of the time of Advent to look with hope and faith upward, to Christ, as well as look down with greater attention, at the suffering sisters and brothers. “Mercy is born of deprivation,” taught Saint Thomas Aquinas; especially when we start to see someone else’s misery as ours. 

With greetings and gratitude for all help and support we are receiving, and with a request for prayer, 

Jarosław Krawiec OP,
Kyiv, December 3, 8pm 

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