Letter From Ukraine, February 20, 2024

From the Dominicans in Ukraine. 

Dear sisters, dear brothers,

After the morning Mass, I asked the Missionaries of Charity Sisters how they look at the future. “I was thinking about that a couple of times,” said Sister Immaculata. “But the only response that comes to mind is to trust God every day and do what we can. Love Him and love our neighbor. And live. He knows best what is awaiting us and what is good for us.”

We’ve reached the second anniversary of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, although perhaps it would be more correct for me to write that it is the tenth year of war. Everything started in 2014 with the Russian occupation of Crimea and the fighting in the Donbas. A couple of months earlier, the Revolution of Dignity had begun, which saw President Viktor Yanukovych removed from office. Millions of Ukrainians had gathered for demonstrations to show that they wanted to bind their future with the free and democratic Europe. Exactly ten years ago, more than a hundred people were brutally shot on the streets surrounding the Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv.

The Dominican Missionary Sisters of Jesus and Mary have a monastery in Fastiv where Sister Augustina lives and works. The war had surprised her when she was at the airport in Warsaw. “The war started exactly the day that I was supposed to return to Ukraine after a short visit to Poland. I had already crossed the passport check when Father Misha called me from Fastiv and said that I would not be able to come back because all the flights had been canceled.” She returned two weeks later, taking the first opportunity and joining a humanitarian convoy. “Since you are a sister and God puts you among these people, He puts you there not only when things are good, but also when they’re bad. When they need you.” “At the beginning of war, I made the decision that I’m staying,” said Sister Damiana from the same Dominican community. “Many people value our presence. They know they can always visit us, call us, have a conversation. I feel even more connected with these people in their suffering.” “I’m convinced that God wants me to be here,” added Sister Augustina. Both sisters are from Poland and have been in Ukraine for many years. “I feel that I am at home here, and I have internal peace. It is also important to me that I have the support of my family. Of course they would prefer if I were in Poland, but at the same time they understand my vocation. I think that as a sister, I couldn’t be anywhere but in Ukraine now. It would be against my vocation and against what God intends.” After a moment of silence, she added: “For me, it would be a little bit like some kind of… escapism.”

For Father Thomas, who has been living in Fastiv for a couple of months and had previously served in Lviv, the time of war is the time of truth. “Nobody expects me to play a brave hero. I am afraid, so I go to the shelter. When I have enough, I leave. The second year of war, especially, is a time when there’s no point in pretending, when one must be himself to keep living. This situation might last for a long time. So in order to preserve normality, one needs to be a normal person, behaving and reacting in a normal way.” Father Thomas compared the situation of Ukraine to a marathon. “There are fewer and fewer of the great, spectacular events; what is dominating is a daily grind of wartime.” He emphasized how important it is to know how to enjoy regular, simple things. He lives like that himself. “Things that we like, music, entertainment — they help us to survive. It’s worth investing in them.”

Natalia, who survived the first months of war with her elderly parents in the territories occupied by the Russians, saw things in the same way. When they had managed to break out of the vicinity of Bucha, they lived for a time in our priory in Kyiv. “I have always enjoyed little, simple things, like the fact that the rose appeared somewhere, or that the cat got a mouse. Now it has become even stronger. My way of seeing reality has changed. I try with full intentionality to keep daily rituals. Drink my morning coffee, pray, read part of the Gospel. Although I make much less than before the war, I spend money on tasty food. That for me is a sign of normal life.”

Early Sunday morning, we met in the priory for a conversation. Her train was to arrive at dawn, since Natalia had begun studying at the Catholic University in Lviv last year. “I started another school, although I don’t know if I’ll live until graduation,” she said with a smile when I asked her about her plans for the future. Most of the people I talk to have many reservations when making plans. I met Vera in Café San Angelo in the House of Saint Martin in Fastiv. “I live one day at a time; I try to look with hope toward the future and plan different things. I know that every day I must do as much as I can the best I can. Before, I used to plan tasks a year out. Now every single day is an entire entity.” She saw my surprise when she said, “I’m not waiting for a victory.” And I asked her what she meant. “I don’t wait because I know that every day of war means lives of our soldiers. Of course I desire a victory very much, but not at any price.” I heard a similar statement from Natalia: “In the fall of 2022, we were very happy when our army liberated the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. But at that time, nobody in the media mentioned what price was paid for this achievement, how many people had died. For this reason, nobody among my friends speaks of a quick victory anymore. Obviously we want victory, but it doesn’t have to be quick. It should rather be with the fewest losses of people.”

John and his wife Natalia are lay Dominicans. When the war started, John volunteered for the army. Since then, he’s been on the frontlines. During those two years, he had managed only twice to visit Lviv and see his wife and little son, Joseph. “We miss each other. It’s good that we can communicate and stay in constant contact.” When we talked on the phone a couple days ago, John was somewhere around Avdiivka. He said that the situation was very serious, and the Ukrainian army probably wouldn’t be able to maintain control over the city. On Saturday evening, I received an update through Father Wojciech from Khmelnytsky: “John just wrote to me that the Russians took Avdiivka, but his brigade was evacuated, thanks be to God.” John and I don’t talk about military things, though, but about faith. “I miss confession and Eucharist. I see for myself that when you stay in a state of sin for a long time and don’t have access to the sacraments, especially confession, you gradually become worse.” Although the Ukrainian army is trying to increase the number of chaplains, there are still few of them. “There is a town, Pokrovsk, not far from us,” said John. “A priest was there, so I could get there every two months to go to confession and participate in the Holy Mass. The priest would celebrate Mass even for just one person.”

We Dominicans have been discussing among ourselves our pastoral ministry. “I think my job as a priest is to help people keep their spirits up,” said Fr. Tomasz. “Jesus is always hope, and he is always victor. I don’t feel like a volunteer. I don’t see myself in that function. My task is to be a priest, to support people from the pulpit and in life. Now it is about perseverance. Jesus said that he who remains until the end will be saved.” Fathers Igor and Oleksandr from Ukraine work as student ministers. “We are far from the frontlines, and people from Khmelnytsky try to live a normal daily life. They don’t talk about war too often,” said Fr. Igor. “It reminds me of the situation in Donetsk where I’m from, throughout the years of 2014 to 2022. In the city, people lived relatively normal lives, but a dozen or so kilometers away, the fight was happening, bombs were exploding, and soldiers were shooting each other. Having a longer perspective now, it’s hard for people to talk about war, and for that reason they don’t take up the subject too often or they hide in conversations about mundane things. Why? Because it’s difficult. Our psyche can’t take thinking about it for too long. I can say that the subject of war is becoming less and less popular.” Fr. Oleksandr from Kyiv had a similar observation: “In our group, conversations about war are rare. If they do happen, they usually occur during individual meetings. That doesn’t mean that the subject isn’t important to the young people. They think about it, they experience it very strongly, especially boys and young men.” Fr. Oleksandr also pointed out a difficulty that young people encounter in building lasting relationships: “In the time of war, it’s much more difficult to plan the future together, to think about marriage. Young men, because they know that at any moment they could go to war, are afraid of taking the risk of entering a lasting relationship, of having children.” Oleksandr regularly visits the hospital where the wounded soldiers are: “‘Until the war is over, I’m not ready for another child,’ I recently heard from one of them. ‘If something happens to me, how can my wife manage with two little children?’”

Svieta has just returned from a short break in Poland. She was there with a group of people from Kyiv with whom she works in a nongovernmental organization. “During those days, my friend and her son stayed not far from a railroad station. Every day, the arrival of a train caused the boy to become excited and curious. But at night, it was terror. The sound of passing trains would wake him up. He was afraid it was another rocket attack or bomb explosion.” Many of us automatically associate the noise of the hand driers in public bathrooms with the sirens announcing an air raid. Svieta told us that in the rehabilitation center outside Lviv, they had to remove the driers because the patients couldn’t handle the sound. Fr. Oleksandr recently woke up suddenly in the middle of the night and went from his bed to a safe place. Only a long moment later, when he checked his phone, did he realize there was no attack. Something had simply fallen in the priory or outside the window and had made a sound that reminded him of an exploding rocket. “At the beginning of war, I was able to concentrate on work during the alarms. Now I can’t,” said Natalia. “We haven’t gotten used to it. We’ve survived a great trauma, and now we’re being retraumatised every time.” Then she added: “I realized that I’m afraid of soldiers. I understand they’re our soldiers, that they fight for us, but it doesn’t help!” “Maybe it’s a memory of what you went through during the Russian occupation?” I asked. “Certainly. And it hasn’t been helped even though I try to work on it, and I understand everything; whenever I see them, I have a reflex to go hide somewhere.”

“I’m the most sorry for the kids. Now they don’t cry anymore when they go to the shelter, but the trauma remains,” said Sister Damiana about her ministry in the kindergarten in Fastiv. “When we pray at school with the children, they say they are grateful for being able to come to class. They ask for peace. The fathers of a couple of the children died in the war, so the children pray for strength for their moms to survive. If somebody has one of their parents on the frontlines, they pray that they can talk to them every day,” added Sister Augustina. “It sometimes happens that when you start class, a child comes to you and says that she’s had no contact with her mom who is on the frontline. You have to hug the child and comfort her somehow.” 

“Are we already fed up with this war?” I asked my friends. “It seems to me that we repeat stereotypically that the society is tired of war. Every one of us in Ukraine lives with PTSD to some degree. People simply live in war,” responded Vera. “Every one of us has made a decision one way or the other concerning the situation we’re in. If people are going abroad, they know they’re going for a long time or forever. It is a conscious choice and not a temporary state like it was at the beginning of war when we completely didn’t know what was awaiting us.” “Is that why so many people stayed in the country or returned to Ukraine in the middle of 2022?” “Because this is our home,” Vera responded shortly. “It never crossed my mind to leave Ukraine, even when at the beginning of war the Russian army was thirteen kilometers away from Fastiv. And that was a moment of crisis for me. But it passed, and I managed to overcome it.” Vera is an administrator of the house for refugees, which the Dominican Center of Saint Martin de Porres runs in Fastiv. Every day, she meets people who had to leave their homes because of war. “We don’t really understand what it means to become homeless. This notion, until recently, would apply mostly to people living on the streets or affected by all kinds of addictions or serious problems. Now, the deep experience of homelessness, with all its darkness and emptiness, is shared by many persons who lost their homes and have nowhere to return to. In those whom we are trying to help is a great fear of rejection. They are afraid that they will have nowhere to go. They are very deeply alone and homeless. It’s a very difficult moment, and we are trying to help these people to stand on their own. Many of them are afraid to look to the future.”

Dear sisters, dear brothers,
Today’s letter from Kyiv, written on the night before the second anniversary of the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine, is not only longer but also a little bit different than the forty previous letters that I wrote over two years. I want to thank those with whom I talked and who honestly shared with me their experience of life in the country ravaged by war, but also my sisters and brothers in the Dominican Order and our coworkers, friends, and volunteers for walking on this road together, even at times when we are tired and uncertain — the road on which we share the joy and pain of this time. I am deeply convinced that God chose every one of us in order to accompany Him exactly in this time and this specific place. I also have no doubt that God’s Providence put next to us so many good and sensitive people who — although they sometimes live far from Kyiv and Ukraine and speak different languages — are so close to us and understand us so well. I want to thank the Dominican family and all people who pray for us and with us, who help us, support us, and sometimes cry with us and share our joy.

With fraternal greeting and never-ending request for prayer,

Jarosław Krawiec OP
Kyiv, February 20, 2024

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