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“The war came to us”

Reporter Gregg Brekke spends time in Kyiv and the surrounding areas.

Dasha Habovska plays with her son, Christian, in their room at the St. Martin Center in Fastiv, Ukraine. Thay are two of the hundreds of internally displaced persons (IDP) living in the city following the Russian invasion and bombardment their home in Kherson. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

This article is the fourth in a series of dispatches from Ukraine. Follow Presbyterian Outlook or sign up for email updates so you don’t miss a story.

We left Lviv on an overnight train to Kyiv. Our sources in the country say most of the long-distance trains east of Lviv run at night when missiles are rarely fired. It’s been two weeks since the last barrages targeted Ukraine’s capital and they think that pause will end soon.

The train pulls into Kyiv’s station shortly after 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday, February 8, and even before we can collect our bags to depart, our driver Stas Nepokrytyi has boarded to help with our luggage. His wife Iryna Chernikova will serve as our translator. Stas is the son of a woman who works for a ministry in Ukraine established by a Presbyterian named Nita Hansen (more on her in the next installment.) Before the war began, he was an attorney specializing in land acquisition for large farms. Iryna was a flight attendant for Ukrainian International Airlines, which stopped all flights following the Russian invasion last spring.

Anastasia Tomchuk (green sweater) with her six children at a center for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in Fastiv, Ukraine, following the Russian invasion and bombardment their home in Zaporizhia. Her husband, Alexander (gray sweatshirt), is on a weekend visit and must return to his work in their contested hometown. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Our hotel fortunately lets us check in early so we can shower and get ready before a full day of interviews and travel. We begin with a quick tour of Kyiv. It’s such a beautiful, old city. The architecture is a mix of old Europe and Russian influence, with a few Soviet-era structures and monuments.

We meet first with Dominican Father Petro Balog who founded the St. Thomas Aquinas Institute of Religious Studies in Kyiv. He was recommended by the sisters we stayed with in Mukachevo and is passionate about the intersection of theology and practice – the praxis of belief – especially in the context of humanitarian aid being given to people affected by the war.

To that end, he’s connected us to a ministry in the town of Fastiv, about 50 miles outside Kyiv. There, Father Mikahailo Romaniv and Kateryna Chvalova assist internally displaced people with food, education and housing. Around 100 families currently receive assistance, but the ministry has served over 1,500 families who’ve passed through Fastiv since the beginning of the war.

The church renovated a building on its grounds formerly used as a hospital into long-term residences for mothers and children. One of the residents, Dasha Habovska, left the embattled area around Kherson with her newborn son, Christian, who is now a curious and giggly 14-month-old. Christian’s father is in the army and Dasha says she worries even though they’re in regular contact.

Sister Yanuariya Isyk, a member of the Order of St. Basil the Great, in the chapel located near the apartment she shares with other sisters in Kyiv, Ukraine. Tanks rolled through her neighborhood in the early days of the Russian invasion and Russian soldiers went door-to-door in her building, looking for young men. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Anastasia Tomchuk was pregnant when she left the heavily contested southern city of Zaporizhia with her five children at the beginning of the war. Her husband, Alexander, is in Fastiv for a visit. He’s seeing his nine-month-old son for only the third time. He’s their sixth child and he was born in Poland before Anastasia returned to Ukraine and the shelter. She laments leaving Zaporizhia and that her husband continues to work there, and she is hopeful the war will be over soon so they can all return.

Our second day in Kyiv begins with meeting Basilian Sister Yanuariya Isyk who remained in the city even as Russian tanks rolled through the streets surrounding her neighborhood. She provided food and clothing, along with spiritual support, to those who remained and for people in the shelters during the early days of shelling. A bullet hole in the window of her apartment’s third-floor stairwell is a reminder of the Ukrainian sniper round that killed a Russian soldier who’d holed up in the building during the siege.

Stas Nepokrytyi walks past houses with fences shot through with bullet holes and shrapnel tears in the city of Irpin, Ukraine, 20 miles from Kyiv. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

We then venture further north, to the hard-hit cities of Irpin and Bucha just 20 miles from Kyiv. It feels important to see these areas — civilian zones indiscriminately targeted by Russian forces. They hold no military importance other than being on the route to Kyiv. But the damage remains as a reminder of the campaign that terrorized and displaced so many people.

Outside one of the roughly dozen bombed-out, bullet-riddled and burned high-rise apartments in Irpin, we begin speaking with brothers Basil and Nicolai Knutazev. The brothers are retired and worked at a building materials factory here. They received apartments in buildings across the parking lot from one another as part of their pensions. Residents had evacuated prior to the bombing and shelling of their apartment block and fortunately, nobody died in the attacks.

Basil and Nicolai Knutazev stand in front of Basil’s apartment building in Irpin, Ukraine, that was destroyed by Russian artillery in the early days of the invasion. Nicolai, who’s apartment was across the parking lot, was also destroyed. All the residents had evacuated and nobody was injured in the shelling. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

But it’s little consolation to the brothers who have returned to see if it’s possible to salvage anything from the rubble and ashes of their apartments.

“Why would they attack us?” asks Nikolai. “These buildings were full of pensioners and young people and families. We didn’t provoke this. The war came to us.”

In nearby Bucha, people are rebuilding homes damaged and destroyed by Russian tanks and personnel as they drove down the town’s main street. Though the Russian troops have been gone for nearly seven months, there’s an air of uncertainty.

The parents of Iryna, our translator, live in Irpin and have also returned following the withdrawal of Russian troops. Shrapnel tears and bullet holes in the metal fencing around their home are eerie reminders of the recent shelling and troop advancement here.

The center of this apartment complex in Borodyanka, Ukraine, collapsed when it was hit by a Russian missile on April 5, 2022. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

We see more damage in Borodyanka, where an exploding rocket split an apartment building in half and further bombing destroyed several nearby apartments. The word “wasteland” is not enough to describe the damage here as every home and storefront is marred by bullets and shrapnel and fire. People are returning, but the long work of physical and mental recovery has just begun.

When we asked Sister Isyk earlier in the day what it would take to bring social and spiritual healing to Ukraine following the war, she paused for a long time before answering.

She started her answer by saying forgiveness can happen quickly — it’s what people of faith are called to do. “But real healing and restoration will take generations, maybe even 100 years,” she said.

Responsive prayer

Creator God, author of restoration, we pray for the people in Kyiv and the surrounding regions — those currently living there and those displaced.

In reading this article, we bear witness to the hatred, destruction and loss that physically marks this region. We name it. We lament it. We acknowledge that we are all have the capacity to enact evil.

We also bear witness to the spirit of resilience, creativity and hope that continues in the Ukrainian people. We see the helpers at work and know that goodness remains — goodness that comes from you.

So, Heavenly Parent, we pray for Kyiv, Fastiv, Irpin and Bucha and the surrounding areas as they rebuild, even as the war wages on. We pray for peace. We pray for the long work of restoration. And we give thanks that our God is a God who shows up in desolate places. Amen.

Prayer by Outlook Digital Content Editor Rose Schrott Taylor