The war has affected everything. The economy runs on loans from foreign governments that Ukraine will be hard-pressed to ever pay back. Thousand have been displaced or lost their jobs. The Donetsk region has been hit especially hard. Villages have been decimated — caved in walls, collapsed roofs, and broken windows are the norm. The houses and apartments that are still standing have no electricity. Businesses have fled and are unable and unwilling to return. The nearest grocery stores are hours away by car. The people of the Donetsk region are in dire need of help. Though there is a ceasefire, the shelling has continued during the dead of night — according to The Kyiv Post, nearly 90 people have died since the stipulations from the Minsk agreement were supposed to begin. Those with houses retreat to underground bunkers, some for weeks at a time. Many live in territory that has changed hands between Ukraine and the separatists multiple times, and have to navigate that relationship carefully. The front yard of one man was appropriated by separatists to send rocket-propelled grenades toward the Ukrainian army. His house now lies between Ukrainian checkpoints. During the fighting, the building just next to his was utterly destroyed.
Even still, a sizable minority of Ukrainians are sympathetic to Putin’s regime — Russian propaganda is sometimes the only news source people hear. A statue of Lenin is prominently displayed in the center of Zaporozhye. One man told me that there will always be problems in Ukraine as long as monuments like that remain standing. Ukrainian patriots have recently tried to topple it, but, in perhaps a symbolic omen of Russia’s looming presence, the statue proved too strong to come down. The ghost of the Soviet Union lives on.
Russian propaganda says that the Ukrainian army consists of a bunch of fascist thugs who are out to subjugate those sympathetic to Russia, but that is not the reality we encountered. Most of the soldiers are not professionals from the Ukrainian national army, but patriot volunteers, many no older than 22 years old. They are the fiercest Ukrainian fighters, and the ones the Russians hate the most. One volunteer told us that, when captured, they are not treated as prisoners of war; instead, they are brutally tortured and then killed. Most were quite happy to see us and talk with us. They all want American weapons — some are using tanks more than 20 years old. One even asked for the help of George W. Bush. But the main message they wanted to convey to North Americans was that they are not the Nazi thugs Russian television portrays them as — they are Ukrainian patriots who want peace and freedom for their country.
Every week, Ukrainian pastors enter the front lines to bring relief and aid to those who are suffering. Spending have their days driving, they bring tons of food, some clothing, and emotional and spiritual support that is badly needed. They have also provided a safe haven for those living in their own communities. However much despair and suffering exists, however hopeless it appears, they believe they actually have much to be hopeful for. As awful as the war has been, it has afforded the churches opportunities. They have had the opportunity to be generous and bless hurting people by driving to places like Donetsk and Mariupol to bring aid. They have had the opportunity to offer their churches as warm buildings for people in their communities during the cold winter. They have had the opportunity to pray, to see their churches grow, and to be a blessing to their neighbors.
As bleak as everything looked, this resilience stood out. I think of the pastors who have made more than 30 trips to the war zone and are planning more of them. I think of the woman who took advantage of a day without gunfire to rake the leaves and work in her front yard. I think of the woman who heats her house by laying bricks on her stove, all the while claiming God has spread his protective wings over her. I think of the soldiers who were excited to pose for pictures. I think of the wounded Ukrainian volunteer who, though his arm was broken and its flesh was ripped to the bone by an exploded grenade — who had lost his two closest friends in battle — still resounded a hopeful note, waiting for the day Ukraine would truly be free.
Most of all, I think of the Prince of Peace, who, by his sovereign power and bountiful and wonderful grace, works all things for the good of those who are called according to this purpose. Let us pray for peace.