This war is intensely personal
In IRPIN, about 15 miles north of Kyiv, we met Fathers Vitaliy and Myroslav at the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of the Nativity of Mary. The priests and 30 members of their community lived in a hastily built church basement for two weeks during the vicious ‘battle for Irpin’ (February 27-March 28) when the area was held by the army Russian. In Bucha and Irpin, around 1,000 people were killed, including 31 children. At least 280 civilian bodies have been discovered in mass graves and a war crimes investigation is ongoing.
The priests held shrapnel in their hands and showed the bullet holes in the church walls and shattered windows. Each night during the battle, a priest would sneak into the church above to collect guests from the tabernacle. Every day, the hidden group celebrated mass, as if it were the last.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, had prayed over the bodies as the mass graves were opened in Bucha, which he described as ‘an open wound on the body of Ukraine’ . We met Archbishop Shevchuk at the sprawling complex of the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ on the eastern bank of the Dnieper. “Every night we hosted 500 people while we were surrounded by battles,” Shevchuk said. He described the weeks the community lived in underground spaces. “We had a real zoo with all the pets, like Noah’s Ark.”
Russia’s military offensive is not a battle between armies. It’s intensely personal. Individual houses in neighborhoods are locked up as missile targets. The names are on kill lists, much like the counter-terrorism strategy the United States has used in Afghanistan for over 20 years.
“Now the mass graves of Irpin and Bucha have been exhumed and reburied,” Shevchuk said, “but to see a whole family killed – mother, father, little children, even their parrot killed! Why do this?” He added, “I too was on the list of people to be killed. I looked at this family and knew it could be me. Now this place is a place of pilgrimage for people of all faiths Those who were killing us came here to adopt the “final solution” to the “Ukrainian question”.
Shevchuk’s reference to the “Final Solution” refers not only to the 1942 Wannasee Conference where Nazi Party and German government officials engineered what they called the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”, but also to a February 2022 comment by Petr Akopov, a columnist for RIA Novosti, a Russian state-owned national news agency, in which he referred to Putin assuming his “historical responsibility” of not letting the “solution of the question Ukrainian to future generations”.
Shevchuk explained to us what this policy looked like in the places he had visited in eastern Ukraine. It was deeply disturbing and traumatic.
“Sexual violence has become a weapon of this war,” the Archbishop said. “I met these victims and the counselors who were trying to help them. There are common elements in what they told me: Rape has always been public with the intention of publicly humiliating women, men and children. The rape was intended to sow terror and humiliate the civilians forced to watch. Now we have learned that Russian soldiers were not only authorized to rape, but were ordered, under threat of death, to commit these acts of war crimes. »
A wider range of tools
“HUMANS CAN INITIATE war, but then we become slaves to war,” Archbishop Shevchuk told us. “Only God can stop this war, and we must cooperate with [God].”
At the Central House of Artists, a cultural center in the city center, we met a handful of Ukrainian peacemakers struggling to implement the “cooperation” that Shevchuk spoke of.
Russian-American Andre Kamenshikov is Ukrainian director of Nonviolence International and regional coordinator of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict. For 22 years he was based in Russia and worked on peacebuilding in conflict areas of the former Soviet Union. In 2015, he moved to Kyiv due to an increasingly hostile political climate in Russia.
“Ukraine has given very strong examples of nonviolent action,” Kamenchikov told us, “especially in the occupied territories. There were large demonstrations even under military occupation. We need training on a wide range of non-violent responses to the very repressive actions Ukrainians are facing. People need a wider range of tools. Where people resist, they can benefit from increased security by connecting with international allies.
Civilians replaced traffic signs to confuse Russian military vehicles. They blocked the roads with cement blocks and built “Czech hedgehogs” with iron I-beams to deter tanks. They have set up complex systems of humanitarian aid with bordering countries to distribute food and medicine to the forgotten pockets of the country.
“During the first weeks of the invasion, it was likely that Belarus would join its army with Russia. But there was such popular resistance that the Belarusian army did not invade and in fact resisted being used by Russia against Ukraine,” Kamenchikov said. “We need a broader range of responses to organized violence than ‘do nothing’ or ‘kill to the last’. Turning a criminal into an enemy does not useless.
Tatyana Bilyk, co-founder of the League of Mediators of Ukraine, has devoted her entire life to peacemaking. Now she told us, “It is our family’s honor and my greatest pain that my son is fighting to defend our country.
Prior to the war, Bilyk’s work focused on mediating conflict within families. She brought her training as a psychologist in the field of social services to Ukraine. “My job now is trauma counselling, especially for widows,” Bilyk said. “It’s not marriage counseling anymore. It is mourning. How will these women survive? It is an aggravated grief and healing from a horrific sexual trauma. Our training did not prepare us for this.