I’ve learned over the years that missionaries, and especially missionary kids, come to identify with more than one country, one history, one culture, one language. We are a combination of the traditions of two (or more) “home” countries. We become passionate for a land that was not ours at birth, eager to celebrate in her victories and grieving her losses.
This past week we remembered the sacrifice of Ukraine’s “Heavenly Hundred,” the brave men and women who gave their lives to stand up for freedom in a revolution just three years ago.
I want to tell you the story of this revolution and the war that has followed, because they have impacted all of us here in Ukraine and continue to shape our lives. These events have devastated and moved me as a missionary. In writing this post, I was transported to a time of terror, grieving and disbelief. I relived personal experiences and conversations with loved ones that I would have never thought possible to have in my life. I’ve wept again and been filled with insurmountable pride in “my” Ukrainian home.
But this post isn’t about me – it’s about honoring those who have sacrificed so much and those who continue to lay their lives on the line every day for Ukraine. I recognize those women and children who have given husbands, fathers, and brothers for the sake of Ukraine and freedom.
Throughout Ukrainian history, there has been ongoing tension between political leanings toward Russia or toward the western world. In 2013, Viktor Yanukovych was president of Ukraine. Throughout his administration, Yanukovych made key decisions to align Ukraine closer to Russia, and in late 2013, he abandoned a long planned association agreement with the European Union.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens took to the streets of Kyiv to peacefully protest this decision and to accuse the government of corruption. At one point, an estimated 700,000 were gathered in Kyiv alone. Other major cities saw similar gatherings. The movement was called Euromaidan.
They set up tents and field kitchens, and thousands lived on the streets in protest through the cold, winter months of November into the new year. Their days began with prayers offered by clergy of various denominations. Activists, scholars, students, and others spoke to the crowds, and popular musicians gave concerts. Doctors were on site to treat the ill, and volunteers cooked and served hot food and tea.
Beginning at the end of November, Yanukovich’s administration sent police, military, and mercenaries to stir up violence among those gathered. Peaceful protestors were beaten mercilessly and even shot by snipers at their own government’s orders. As violence and tensions rose, the protestors pulled up the cobblestones from the streets to build barricades and used burning tires, molotov cocktails, and even their own bodies as weapons to defend themselves against the attacks.
The situation culminated on February 18 – 20, 2014, and in just one of those days, at least 77 protesters were killed by Yanukovych’s snipers in the streets of Kyiv. Outrage at such dictator-like abuse of power rose, and Yanukovivh finally fled to Russia. Ukraine mourned the deaths of those who had sacrificed for their nation’s freedom and sovereignty. At least 100 had given their lives. Public funerals were held for days afterwards, where hundreds of thousands attended and watched via internet to honor these brave men and women. They are now lovingly remembered as Ukraine’s “Heavenly Hundred.”
The following are quotes from two survivors of those tragic days of Euromaidan:
“I’m going back to my group, and suddenly a man near me falls and begins to howl in pain. It dawns on me – the bullets are real, and that man up there, the sniper, is a professional. I duck, cover both of us with a shield, and begin to pull the fallen man down the street. The next shot goes through the shield. Straight into the cobblestone. I realised later that the shooter was aiming for the centre of the shield, expecting to hit my chest or stomach. But, because there were two of us behind the shield, he did not find his target at the centre.”- Oleksandr Nevidomyi
‘Do you know why Maidan survived? Because following the gunshots and the explosions, instead of running, the wounded were dragged back, and everyone made a step forward shouting: “Still standing, still standing!” Under the bullet fire and the grenade blasts, under Putin’s hate, “still standing, still standing!”’ – Victoria Arbuzova – Powell
In the days that followed, Yanukovych was officially impeached, elections were held for an interim president, and Parliament signed a series of changes into law that limited the powers of the presidential office and ensured more liberty for the Ukrainian people.
There are still changes that need to be made; not everything was solved by Euromaidan. But each year at this time, we recognize those heroes who gave their lives for freedom and to fight corruption, to lay the foundation for a better life for the next generation in Ukraine. During this week, we hold memorials. Even in stores you can hear the mournful tones of the funeral dirge that played for hours on end that horrific day three years ago. And all year round, there is a patriotic greeting that every citizen knows and loves – “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!”
From Revolution to War
Since the time of Euromaidan, war has arisen, as Russia seized and annexed Crimea and then seized a number of cities in the eastern parts of Ukraine. Ukraine launched a military operative in defense, and the U.S. and E.U. levied sanctions against Russia. Since that time, several ceasefires have been brokered, but each has been violated repeatedly in eastern Ukraine. As a whole, the costs of this war have been devastating for the Ukrainian people. At least 10,000 have died, 23,000 have been wounded, and 1.8 million people have been displaced.
Most recently, Russian-separatist forces launched an attack in and around a town called Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine. At least eight Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 26 others injured. The civilian population of some 17,000 people, including at least 2,500 children, were left without water, electricity or heat in temperatures below freezing. Ukraine is sending humanitarian aid into the town, but thousands are being evacuated as refugees to other towns. There continues to be a buildup of both Russian and Ukrainian military presence in that area.
Living in a Nation at War
As you can imagine, Euromaidan and the war that followed significantly shape the needs of people here in Ukraine. They directly impact the nation, our church, and individual friends and brothers and sisters in Christ.
During Euromaidan, young people from our church served as volunteers in Kyiv, making hot tea and coffee for the demonstrators, and lending a listening ear to the people who needed so desperately to process all they were going through. One young woman volunteered as a field doctor in Kyiv.
Now that we are at war, there have been several waves of drafts for the army. Some of the young men in our church have been called in for initial health checks. Moms and wives have to face fears that their loved ones may be called up. One of our brothers, who has been a faithful church member for years, is now serving in active duty in the east. We all pray continually for his safety and are so proud of his bravery, thankful for his service.
Some of our friends serve as chaplains in the army, offering hope and encouragement to men in the most horrific circumstances. Several volunteer groups from the church here in L’viv have gone to the East to offer humanitarian aid in cities that have been ravaged by war. Others have gone to serve refugees in camps and shelters.
The last two weekends, our church has sent teams to help at a shelter that temporarily housed a group of about twenty refugees. My sister works at this ministry, which provides foster care and works with orphans, but since war broke out, they have also offered temporary housing to many refugees.
This particular group included women and their children who had fled eastern Ukraine when schools began shutting down, under the assumption that fighting would escalate in that area again. Our team helped with cooking, cleaning, and spending time with the children, who ranged from six months to eighteen years.
These refugees are part of a “present day book of Acts” type church. When the war started, a large group of believers began living together in their church, helping one another, sharing everything, and serving anyone in the community who comes to them for help, even people brought to them by the separatists. They believe that their lives have been spared partially because they do not discriminate in whom they serve.
My sister shared with me the following story, which one of these moms told her during their stay: “Her small children have grown up to the sound of bombs bursting; to the sounds of destruction. They had taken a trip to visit family in a peaceful part of Ukraine, and while they were visiting, there was a fireworks show one evening. While most children would be excited and mesmerized, hers were afraid. They had never seen fireworks. They are growing up in a place where flashes of light and loud noises are not signs of entertainment and excitement, but of sadness, fear, and destruction.” – Lindsay Pratt
After several weeks of seeking shelter, this group decided to return to the east, to rejoin their husbands and some children who had not been able to flee. They said that they felt called to return and continue serving in the midst of war. One woman plans to move with her husband to a small town on the front lines to hold a regular Bible study for the residents.
Many other refugees have fled from eastern Ukraine to the west. Some of them are women and children who have lost husbands and fathers to battle. Some of them are families who are seeking safety for their children. We now have three families and at least one individual in our church who came from the east, leaving homes, friends and family, and many of their possessions.
Others who have not been displaced and live far from the battle lines are still suffering in other ways. The local currency, the hrivna, has plummeted in the past years, while prices have gone up. The cost of gas for heating homes, apartments and water went up seven times in one winter! Electricity has increased in cost, too. The banks faced an economic crisis a few years ago, and many people lost all of their savings.
As you can see, the needs are many and great, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Here in L’viv, we walk down the street, admiring our beautiful city, and it seems on the surface that life is perfectly normal. It’s almost eerie to know that there is a war on the other side of the country, when here, shops and restaurants are open, people are going to work and school, children are playing in the parks. But when you take the time to talk with people, you hear their hearts, their fears, their sadness. People are afraid of what the future will bring.
We can all relate to fear, can’t we? We smile at the world, going about our business, but inside, we’re crying out for hope, comfort, someone to tell us it will be ok. That’s what my family and I hope to offer as we live here in L’viv. Whether it’s the mother who is afraid for her son at war, the man who’s struggling to provide for his family, or the woman who wonders if her marriage is over, we pray for opportunities to give hope. To be that someone who can put an arm around them and listen to their hearts. To encourage others that even when life is unimaginably hard, there is still a God who loves them and will be with them, a Savior who can give them eternal hope, hope in eternity with no more fear.
And that is my prayer for you today, as well, Friend. Regardless of your circumstances, whether today is the best day of your life or the worst, I pray that God gives you strength for today and fills you with hope for eternity.
“Escalation in Avdiivka, Eastern Ukraine: key facts and sources.” Euromaidan Press. N.p., 03 Feb. 2017. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.
“Euromaidan: Ukraine’s Self-Organizing Revolution.” World Affairs Journal. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.
“Recollection of Participants.” Oleksandr Nevidomyi. Artifacts of the Revolution of Dignity Museum (Maidan Museum), Kyiv, Ukraine, 22 Feb. 2017.
“Recollection of Participants.” Victoria Arbuzova – Powell. Artifacts of the Revolution of Dignity Museum (Maidan Museum), Kyiv, Ukraine, 22 Feb. 2017.
“The Daily Vertical: The Human Cost of Putin’s War.” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. 22 Feb. 2017.
“Ukraine profile – Timeline.” BBC News. BBC, 03 Feb. 2017. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.
U.S. Mission OSCE | 31 January, 2017 | Topics: Statements, Ukraine Crisis | Tags: Russia, Ukraine. “Emergency Situation in Avdiivka, Ukraine | Statement to the PC.” U.S. Mission to the OSCE. N.p., 02 Feb. 2017. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.