By Reinhard Backes
Officially, there is a truce between the pro-Russian separatists, based around Donetsk and Lugansk, and the Ukrainian army. That at least was the agreement between the governments in Kiev and Moscow, prodded on by international mediation. But in Mariupol, a city on the Sea of Azov, reality is very different.
“We are woken up at night by explosions, and the fighting is continuing, despite the truce. The people here feel utterly helpless; they are coming into the churches, praying and weeping.” Those are the words of Father Leonard Aduszkiewicz, a Polish priest of the Order of St. Paul the First Hermit, in an interview with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
He wants the story to be told: “Perhaps people will believe a priest who has seen and witnessed for himself just what is really going on here.”
Mariupol is less than 30 miles from the Russian border and is home to around half a million people. Before the current crisis began almost everything produced here was exported to Russia. Now the gates of the steelworks and factories are closed, and people no longer have any work. Instead there is fighting. Apparently, Russian separatists want to capture the city in order to create a corridor connecting the region to the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia just a few months ago.
“We are pastors, and we are concerned for the people here, both civilians and soldiers. We hear confessions, celebrate Holy Mass, hand out food, clothing and medicines,” says Father Aduszkiewicz, who with fellow Paulist Father Pavel Tomaszewski also ministers to Ukrainian soldiers, who are forced to live in very difficult circumstances. “They are badly equipped and living in trenches,” Father Tomaszewksi explains; “They come to confession, seeking spiritual support, and also ask us to make contact with their family members and to send pictures of them to their mothers and wives.”
The war is conducted with the utmost ferocity. Funerals are due to take place for 55 young soldiers whose bodies can no longer be identified with certainty because they are so badly mutilated. The funeral service will be attended by Greek-Catholic priests, Orthodox priests of the Kiev Patriarchate as well as Protestant pastors. Father Aduszkiewicz adds, “Christians are praying for peace. Around a thousand people took part in an ecumenical march for peace in Mariupol. Everybody wants to see an end to the fighting.”
The people in Mariupol are troubled and frightened, avoiding certain areas of the city for fear of snipers. Members of religious orders in their white habits have to be especially careful to avoid becoming convenient sniper targets. They only use their cars for distributing aid parcels, because they are fearful that the vehicles might otherwise be confiscated. But only limited supplies are getting through to the city. With winter fast approaching, locals are facing the prospect of the rationing of electricity and gas—Russia has already cut off the supply of gas.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)