People live in constant fear. And priests can perform their ministry only in a complete discretion – it is how ceasefire in Ukraine looks like

It was to be an ordinary pilgrimage to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska for several-days. So, Wiktoria Charczenko took only the most necessary things. Everything was packed in a small red rucksack and in a smaller blue bag. Pilgrims left from Donieck in the beginning of July. When they were to return, there was a war in the region. A husband and 6.5-year-old son of Wiktoria ran away from a flat and found a shelter near Mariupol. – Mum stayed in the family house in Ługańsk. It was difficult to be in touch with her, I did not know if she was alive – says Mrs. Wiktoria to ‘Niedziela’ and she adds: - Then I made a decision that I would stay in Poland for some time, in order to bring help to my compatriots from here.

‘Polish hospitality’

From Kalwaria Zebrzydowska Wiktoria Charczenko went to Warsaw where in the headquarter of the Polish Episcopal Conference Office, she found Fr. Leszek Kryża TChr. The priest managing the Office of Team for Help to the Church in the East recognized Mrs. Wiktoria when he was visiting Ukrainian parishes run, among the others, by co-brothers of Society of Christ. Fr. Kryża asked the woman to help him organize the action ‘Polish hospitality’. – This initiative is based on our inviting mainly children to Poland, as well as whole families experiencing the war in Ukraine. For, we want them to forget about the tragedy for a while – says Fr. Kryża.

The task of Wiktoria Charczenko is finding people who need help. In her work she uses her personal contacts and information which she receives from priests performing their ministry in Ukraine. For far, 100 people have received help from the ‘Polish hospitality’. But the program is still going on. At the end of September one Ukrainian family arrived in Częstochowa, whereas others finished their stay in Koszalin. And readiness for hosting other families was expressed by next 200 people.

What do guests say? – They are depressed by their life in constant restrain – says Wiktoria Charczenko and she emphasizes: - When I talk with them, they repeat more frequently that only God knows what will be next. And they have hope for the end of the fights only in Him.

Officially, in the region of the conflict, the ceasefire obliges. But the reality is that on both sides of the frontier there are armed soldiers who are shooting from guns and tanks all the time. Bullets fall also on houses and flats. Factories are being destroyed, cars and buses are being shot at. It is impossible to live normally in these conditions. Children cannot go to school or adults to work. Families do not have any money either for food or for paying bills.

- The situation of people is tragic – says Wiktoria Charczenko and she adds: - Bridges and roads have been destroyed. In Donieck about 60 per cent of mines were flooded by water. In many places electric and telephone lines have been broken. Only last week my mum called me with whom I had not had any contact since the end of July. She told me that the street in which I had been brought up, had been completely destroyed by bombs.

Incognito ministry

When the fights started in the camps in Donieck and Ługańsk, many inhabitants decided to move to the western part of the country. This decision was made mainly by people having their families on areas not comprised by the conflict. Catholic priests decided to stay with those who had stayed. But, today, in most parishes there are no priests.

- Even separatists used to come to parish priests with the warning that they would be imprisoned. They told them that these were commands and, although they did not want to arrest priests, they would have to do it – the auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Charkowsko and Zaporowsko, Jan Sobiło, reports to ‘Niedziela’.

Separatists did not tell a lie. Two priests who stayed in parishes, were kidnapped. Bishop Sobiło and representatives of the Embassy of the Polish Republic in Donieck negotiated their release. – This kidnapping allowed me to see that the scenario of the conflict had been written by the bad spirit of conflicts, because conflicts are also in families, for example, a husband supports Ukraine, while his wife supports Russia – bishop Sobiło says.

Before the war in the district of Donieck and Ługańsk 20 Roman-Catholic parishes had functioned. At present there is one of them – in Mariupol. The fact that priests left other parishes, in order not to become hostages in the hands of separatists, it does not mean that their pastoral ministry has been stopped.

All the time priests are in phone contact with the faithful who stayed in their places; as well as with those who moved to the west of the country. Thanks to priests serving in Ukraine, also the Warsaw Office of Help to the Church in the East has a better knowledge about whom and how to help.

Media do not speak about it but priests still bring spiritual ministry on areas comprised by the conflict. How do they do it? – Because of the danger which is lurking for them, they do not do it officially, but incognito. In this way, they reach to families which asked for their visit – says bishop Jan Sobiło.

Polish Diaspora in Donieck

Believers of Roman-Catholic faith in the east of Ukraine are a national mixture. Its important component are people of Polish origin.

Although official data – such as the census carried out before the war – say that in the districts of Donieck and Ługańsk there are over 6.4 thousand Poles – in the opinion of experts – this number is much higher. – In Donbas there may be about 50 thousand people of the Polish origin – says Jakub Wołąsiewicz, the former general consul of the Polish Republic in Donieck. According to the diplomat, differences between official and real data come from the fact that a big part of Poles do not know their roots. And there is nothing surprising in it.

Donbas is a region which was populated for good not earlier than 200 years ago. Poles arrived there not only from the area at the Vistula, for example after the January Uprising, but also from France and Belgium – in order to work in mines. It were descendants of these emigrants who do not speak Polish and they have just started uncovering their roots, thanks to, among the others, foundations and associations of the Polish Diaspora functioning in both districts. – In Ługańsk and Donbas there are 9 such organizations – says Anita Staszkiewicz from the Association ‘Polish Community’.

After the outbreak of the conflict, the Ukrainians of the Polish origin were in a particularly difficult situation. They do not usually have families in other parts of Ukraine at whose houses they could find a shelter. And those who have not uncovered their roots yet, cannot apply for the Charter of a Pole, which would allow them to go to Poland.

This is an important challenge for the government so that they could receive the right for a new situation. And it is unprecedented because such a big group of our compatriots have not lived in another country before, where there is a war.

And winter is very soon

The challenge which the Church in Ukraine is going to face is renewing normal work in parishes.

- Even after the end of the conflict it will be difficult, because nearly all parishes in Ukraine are not able to earn for their maintenance – says bishop Sobiło and he emphasizes: - The Catholic Church in the East has lived for over 20 years thanks to the help from Poland. A good solution would be partnership of Polish and Ukrainian parishes which was mentioned by archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki.

There are also today’s challenges. The chief of the Office of Help to the Church in the East is concerned about attempts how to help in settling bills or purchasing medications. – And we are going to face winter soon – notices Fr. Kryża. – Therefore, now we are collecting finances for these purposes.

Wiktoria Charczenko is going to return to Ukraine before winter. – I miss my husband and son. I hope we will meet soon – she says.


„Niedziela” 43/2014

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl