In the March 2017 edition of ONE, writer Mark Raczkiewycz reports on Ukrainians who have been displaced since the recent war. Below, he offers some additional reflections.
On this reporting trip for CNEWA, two observations left a deep impression on me.
One is the power of the human spirit. It was clear that the violence people saw before having to flee their homes indelibly stays in their memory and the daily stress they face complicates their lives. Yet, they persevere. It’s inspiring to see them fight for their survival without succumbing to self-pity or letting themselves fall into despair. They unite into outreach groups, form communities, and establish support networks. They’re not afraid to ask for help when they need it and try to move on with their lives not knowing what the future has in store for them.
It’s inspiring because it’s easy to get discouraged living in war-ravaged Ukraine, knowing that the country can do little to stop the fighting almost three years into the conflict. I think it’s abundantly clear who can stop the fighting at a moment’s notice.
The Rev. Andriy Nahirnyak, Caritas Ukraine vice president, told me, “people are fatigued, including priests — these are the negative consequences” of the protracted war.
It’s also easy to get discouraged when you see how the government implements evolutionary, and at times, incremental reforms designed to improve the lives of ordinary Ukrainians. For example, only in late January did the relatively new ministry of occupied territories and internally placed persons publish an action plan to more formulate policies in this crucial area to assist 1.7 million refugees.
The fact that average people haven’t benefited from what reforms have been made since February 2014 makes it frustrating. Widespread, top-down corruption is still the nation’s top internal national security threat. It foments cynicism and distrust of government. It erodes the tax base. It diminishes the quality and impact of government services and policies. It essentially is a form of enforced poverty because a few insiders — let’s call them oligarchs — have captured law and policy making through their proxies in parliament and government.
This is what makes Ukrainians stronger in a sense by becoming more self-reliant. Despite all the challenges and obstacles, they trudge forward, not asking much in return.
Another observation was the fallibility of the human spirit. In particular, among priests.
I have seen priests who, like all of us, are vulnerable to feelings of hate and a desire to kill. I’m referring to the Rev. Serhiy Kulbaka, who nearly died during 12 days of captivity and who wanted to shoot his captors upon being released. I’ve spoken to military chaplains who suffer from post-traumatic stress. I heard Father Andriy Naihrnayak say that men of the cloth are being constantly tested by people who turn to the church but who harbor pro-Russian (anti-Ukrainian) views who are also hostile towards the church. Psychologically, priests hear the troubles of refugees during retreats, confession, and during one-on-one meetings. That takes a toll on them.
Priests are the same as anybody else and they also fight temptations of giving up, of losing hope or faith, or in Father Kulbaka’s case, temporarily losing their humanity.
But one of the lessons of the displaced in Ukraine is that humanity often prevails, and the human spirit can and does triumph.
As I noted in my story:
At first [Father Kulbaka] couldn’t find the strength to even pray, let alone “love or bless” someone. He realized his emotions were eating away at him.
“It was a different form of imprisonment,” he says. “So I forced myself to pray.”
“…It was a miracle in a sense. My health started to vastly improve. When I reached this feeling of deliverance, of being in total serenity, my blood pressure and sugar level normalized.”
After recovering at a monastery for three weeks, he traveled to Lviv. Last year, he suffered a stroke, which further debilitated him. Now, having regained much of his strength, he serves a new flock, focusing on displaced families.
“I now harbor no negative emotions towards my captors — I would embrace them if I saw them. I pity them because I understand that their state of being wasn’t normal. I absolutely forgave them. God freed me from all this so I want to give back,” Father Kulbaka explains.
Read more about The Displaced from Ukraine in the current edition of ONE.