Crossing Ukraine by car is the only way to arrive in Kyiv from abroad these days.
The 372 miles of countryside between the Polish border and the capital are picturesque, especially in the summer. Hot but not too humid, the climate is continental; the landscape, lush and inviting.
The colors of the Ukrainian flag emerge before one’s eyes: a cloudless, deep blue sky meets endless golden wheat fields ready for the harvest. Succumbing to the combine, they sustain the lives of millions of people on different continents. As in the Gospel, “if [a grain of wheat] dies, it produces much fruit.”
The sun guides the graceful gyrations of the national flower: Ukraine produces half of the world’s sunflower oil. For ages, the land was called the “breadbasket of Europe.” In recent years it has supplied much-needed food for the populations of the Middle East and Africa. This year the yield should be bountiful.
Kyiv beckons with golden domes shining forth from verdant park foliage. Today the streets are active again: bustling traffic and fashionable city dwellers make Kyiv look almost normal.
But things are far from normal in Ukraine.
If you glance off the highway into the suburbs and towns northeast of Kyiv, which I visited with Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Vilnius, Lithuania, president of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe, you see pine trees broken by artillery shells.
The rubble has been cleared from the main roads, but what remains of burnt-out gas stations, hospitals, schools, houses, high-rise apartments and shopping centers — not to mention the scars of shrapnel on church facades — creates an eerie sense of transpired and impending evil. For at the end of February, helicopters, like a swarm of mechanical locusts, descended assault units throughout the idyllic middle-class cottage towns, where hard-working families relocated when housing prices in the capital skyrocketed in the years after independence.
Archbishop Grušas and I exchanged notes in the backseat while driving through the streets of Bucha. Suddenly, he exclaimed, “This is the street! I recognize it from the TV images!”
The harrowing row of burnt-out tanks and armored personnel carriers had been cleared from Yablunska Street (Apple Tree Street, in English) and summer verdure covered demolished dwellings visible in April through naked branches. But images of that street as the Russian soldiers left it are seared into the consciousness of people around the globe. What happened here is scorched into the identity of every Ukrainian.
Since the retreat of Russian forces, more than 1,300 bodies have been discovered around Bucha, most of them innocent civilians, tortured and executed. Twenty bodies, lying for days, even weeks, were found on Yablunska Street alone. One man was returning a borrowed bicycle to a friend, another was trying to visit someone in a nearby hospital and another wanted to retrieve clothes from his home. They were found shot, some with their hands tied behind their back.
St. Andrew’s domes reach like silos into the sky — both a plea to the heavens and a monument over the sandpit, which in March served as a mass grave. In the church, 67-year-old Nadia, who tends the candle and icon shop, explains the exhibit of ghastly photos: Arms and legs stick out of a hastily filled trench and contorted torsos lie in black body bags.
Her voice quivers and tears fill her eyes as she details the monstrosity: the beatings, the rape of women and children, the summary executions.
It is one thing to view these images on a screen and another to go to the Bucha cemetery, where line after line of fresh graves make clear that Bucha is not a statistic, but an unfathomable human tragedy traumatizing the town and the country. The pain and sorrow cannot be allowed to paralyze or bring us to despair. Rather, they should mobilize globally people of good will to resist evil: “Never again!”
The stark contrasts that morning were numbing. For days I was speechless and did not know what to say. I still don’t. How beautiful the land and brave the people; how craven the cruelty and deadly the depravity that has descended upon them. This was a moment of listening — to stories of family members taken away and never seen again, of homes demolished and lives destroyed, of gratitude and hope, of resilience and resolve to rebuild.
Outside the church, there were food boxes sponsored by CNEWA, regularly distributed by Caritas Ukraine and members of the parish to people — mostly the elderly, women and children.
As of 18 July, 2,621 Ukrainian towns and villages have endured Russian occupation. News from these communities and the fate of their residents are fragmentary. We know the occupiers have abandoned the search for bodies in the destroyed city of Mariupol. They continue to abduct people in the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and to deport hundreds of thousands from Luhansk and Donetsk. The shelling of civilian housing near the front lines is a daily occurrence. How many streets like Yablunska will be revealed in those towns? How many civilians will be victimized by the ruthless invaders?
Recently, a photograph circulated around the world showed a father in Kharkiv, Vyacheslav Kubata, at a bus stop praying over the body of his 13-year-old son, Dmytro, killed by a missile. He had been there, in prayer, for two hours. The next day, Kharkiv was shelled again. Another three lives. Not a statistic, but a tragedy for the family, the city, the country and all of humanity. The Jewish Talmud teaches that anyone who saves a life saves an entire world. In the towns near Kyiv, I witnessed the opposite: Through the state-sponsored murder of innocents, humanity is devastated.
And yet in Bucha, and during my other visits to Ukraine under siege, not a single person argued for compromise or concessions to the invaders. After Bucha, there is little doubt for Ukrainians about genocidal intent. It is a life-or-death battle, a resilient defense of God-given human dignity. The people of Ukraine, with full awareness, are paying the highest price to be free, to be human.
Ukrainians are doing more than their part: They are standing up to the nihilistic, savage lust for power of a dictator and his legions — when no one else dares. They sacrifice their lives, they volunteer, they help the 7 million internally displaced and the needy left at home, and they donate from their modest earnings to help their soldiers defend their homeland and support humanitarian relief projects.
Ukrainians ask the world to understand the nature of the menace that extends far beyond their borders, to stand with them, so their golden fields can continue to serve as a global breadbasket, so their blue sky can be free of mechanical locusts.
Everyone — those in power and the seemingly powerless — can pray, speak up, contribute, open their hearts and homes and do something to stop the war and killing. Global solidarity has been awakened and must continue — so children can play on Yablunska Street again and wait serenely for the bus in Kharkiv.
Will the sacrifice of God’s little ones be recognized? Will their call be heeded?
Ukrainian Greek Catholic Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak of Philadelphia visits Ukraine regularly, most recently in July.