A Few Days in Ukraine

In this blog article, I would like to share a day-by-day report of what we experienced, saw, heard, and felt as we spent some much-anticipated time in Ukraine with our staff, team, volunteers, and people. While only in Ukraine for a couple of days, it felt like every day was a week’s worth of time and a lifetime worth of trauma and pain.

Day 1: West Ukraine

After spending the night in Poland, we drove across the border into Ukraine. As soon as we cleared customs, sirens went off for all of Ukraine. I didn’t realize before that when the siren warnings go off, it means missiles have been launched, and you have five minutes to get to shelter. While there is no way of knowing preciously where a missile will hit, the general region is known. Sometimes they are struck down in the air, but they will often hit some location. Over 2,000 missiles have been launched at Ukraine from Russia in the 70+ days of this war so far. Not all people take cover every time. Sirens go off about 2-3 times within 24 hours. Even after we arrived at our “safe housing” location, we were jarred from our sleep at 2 am by the siren alarm and listened to children’s feet scurrying off to the basement out of caution. It struck me that while our “safe housing” is unlikely to be hit, there is no entirely safe place in Ukraine.

Before settling in for the night in Ukraine, we listened to people’s stories that we helped evacuate and provide for at these “Places of Hope” locations. At the peak, we had four areas inside Ukraine itself, but we were down to one location by the time we arrived. However, we are looking at re-opening a second one to assist with increased requests coming from cities under attack now, such as Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Odessa. We have helped evacuate over 1,000 people to various places throughout this war, including other countries and providing food to hundreds of others as well.

In hearing the first wave of stories, a repeated theme of profuse gratefulness emerged in our proactive steps before the war to evacuate people if needed and provide locations to take care of people. Due to that preparation, hundreds of lives were saved. Not many others took those pre-planning steps and found themselves in an even more intense situation and crisis when the war started. We also heard stories of those who stayed behind a few days or weeks or entire month and faced harrowing situations. Many were lucky to make it out alive. Tragically, many others did not.

That evening I spoke to the group present at the daily chapel service. My message to them was we wanted to come to be present with them and let them know they are not alone. I shared how although I had no words that could make their suffering or loss less, we do have a Savior who not only identifies fully with us, is present with us in our pain, but endured the worst evil and trauma of all the world on the cross on our behalf. More importantly, Immanuel, God with us, is with them. As I spoke, various people teared up at different points. It was an emotional time for us all.

Day 2: Kyiv/Various towns on the outskirts

Upon being awakened by sirens at 2 am, we didn’t get much sleep, as we needed to leave by 4 am anyway to drive about 6 hours to the Kyiv area. Once again, as we neared Kyiv, sirens went off in that area. However, as we moved around various parts of Kyiv, I was struck by how severe the destruction was around the neighboring cities, but not the middle of Kyiv itself. It was amazing what the Ukrainian army could do to prevent the Russian military from reaching the capital. It is a true David verse Goliath situation.

Our first stop was at a partnering church, where I preached a message on how God brings forth some of the most beautiful realities out of the worst darkness. From creation itself (Genesis 1:1-2) to Moses seeing the glory of God inside the “thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 21:20), to our being a light and witness in a dark world (Isaiah 60:2), to the salvation Jesus brought us on the cross (Mark 15:33), God is not afraid of darkness and neither do we need to be. Without diminishing the horror of the darkness of this war, it was a reminder to focus on knowing God more intimately amid the deepest darkness. As we later began touring around various towns and residential locations, this reality would be symbolized through spring beauty breaking through even the most war-destroyed areas. Reminders that this world is full of death and darkness but it is also a world of life and beauty that resiliently finds a way to keep penetrating and breaking forth the harshest environments. A reminder of the future restoration of all things when Christ returns.

It was a joy to be with this partnering church. It was primarily men during the service as most women and children evacuated the country while they stayed behind to fight and feed people in need. They were also mostly men from a rehab center where over 1,000 have gone through since about 2005 recovering from various addictions. They were full of passion for Jesus! Four men came forward as well after the message to receive Christ. Many people are coming to faith in Christ during this dark time in Ukraine. We heard several other testimonies besides experiencing this in real-time at this service.

After the service, with some of the leaders of this church, we visited various families and locations to deliver food packages filled with food items, hygienic items, medicine, and a New Testament Bible. We saw the site where pictures in our news had shown a long line of Russian tanks coming towards Kyiv but were stopped by the Ukrainian military and turned back. We saw the destruction to civilian homes they caused along the way. We heard of Russian soldiers looting, stealing, and robbing houses, taking whatever they liked out of greed, and destroying whatever they wanted out of jealousy. We heard from one family, including a young mother with children, how they huddled in the basement as tanks rolled through their yard and even shot at their home.

After delivering food items, we moved on to Irpin, where we would be spending the night with one of our ServeNow volunteers. As we entered Irpin, where most of our staff, team, and volunteers live, I was struck by the destruction’s severity and scope. 70% of Irpin’s buildings are destroyed or will need to be torn down. These include hospitals, apartment complexes, homes, orphanages, and more. It also included our own Ukrainian National Directors’ home. This was the first time they were visiting their home together. While both had been there separately before, it was an emotional moment for them together as a couple. Their roof and an entire half of their second floor, a section I and other guests used to sleep in while in the area, were destroyed in the fighting. The whole house will need to be torn down and rebuilt as it is structurally compromised. Bullet holes were also everywhere, including through their oldest son’s bedroom wall, where he usually slept.

The home we stayed in that evening was also bullet-ridden but fared better than many homes in Irpin. It was an interesting experience sleeping in a house full of bullet holes. That evening I even woke up unable to move for a few moments, startled by a nightmare I was having of evil clinging to me and suffocating me so that my body was reacting momentarily in a paralyzed way. It wouldn’t be the first or last nightmare I have had around this war. I was getting just a tiny glimpse of the trauma Ukrainians are living through in more than just a nightmare during the night, but a nightmare in reality.

Day 3: Irpin/Bucha

Day 3 was a full day going around Irpin to meet with people to hear their stories and deliver more food items to those in need. It was only this day that many were having electricity restored. Officials were discouraging people even from returning as early as many did. But as we watched people walking the streets or out with their dogs in parks, we could see the stubborn determination to resume life as quickly as possible despite the destruction, danger, and challenges.

Our first stop was to see our new bakery training center/café that was due to open end of March. Renovations were nearly complete, and the next step was going to be installing the bakery equipment. The business beside it did not fare well. But besides windows blown out, our section was spared any significant damage. We also confirmed that the ventilation system was not damaged. The building itself, which contains several businesses on the ground level and apartments several stories high above, was not structurally damaged and will not need to be torn down like many others. This seemed miraculous to me for several reasons. Besides many other buildings suffering far worse damage, a missile had landed right behind this building and destroyed homes on the other side.

Additionally, before we secured this location, we had been looking at another building. When we drove by that building later, we saw it was destroyed. The owners went with another buyer due to some delays we experienced. My hope and prayer are that we will be able to open this bakery café in the near future so that it can serve as a symbol of hope and restoration to a city that has been among the worst destroyed in Ukraine.

After touring our bakery location, one of our visits was with an elderly couple in their 70s. They had remained in a fiercely contested part of Irpin because some neighbors in need around them were unable to evacuate, or in one case, a disabled person was left behind by relatives. This couple decided to risk their own lives despite their age to aid their neighbors, which was an act of true heroic nature. They had 12 people in their cold, dark basement/workshop for a month, crammed together in a tiny room with no heat or electricity. Snipers were set up outside, perched in a couple of locations. Russian soldiers came by eventually and found them in the basement, which was the moment they thought they would be shot. However, the wife, a former schoolteacher, tried to strike up a connection with one of the soldiers. She discovered he was from the same obscure town she was born in Russia! This connection might have saved their lives. As we talked with them, it felt like we were talking to Holocaust survivors. It was hard to believe this had happened just one month prior.

We visited many locations in Irpin that were destroyed just a month ago. A family home for orphaned children. A famous bridge you may have seen on the news that Ukrainians blew up to keep Russian tanks from being able to get to Kyiv and where hundreds of people huddled waiting to be evacuated. A junkyard of destroyed Russian tanks. Haunting stockpiles of bullet-ridden civilian cars destroyed and already crusted over with rust from the intensity of being on fire and then exposed to snow/rain. In one car, we saw a little kid’s bicycle. Shoes, burned clothes, books, food items, and trash littered vehicles. A couple stopped to talk to our director. They were searching for their car that missing relatives were in trying to evacuate. They had not heard from them still a month later. It was haunting and horrifying to see how many civilian cars and vans had been openly shot upon with families inside simply trying to evacuate. Every vehicle with its own story. Every car with people full of hopes and dreams but having met a premature end. Atrocities of an unnecessary and unjust war on Ukraine.

We ended the evening visiting a mother and her teenage son who had recently returned to their apartment in Irpin. She told us how they survived a month in hiding before evacuating. Through tears, she described how parents would lay on top of their children to protect them from shooting, how soldiers made them run and then shot at them as they ran to scare them and sadistically mock them as if it was a game. They were so low on water that they could only wet their lips from time to time out of fear of running out completely.

Day 4: Bucha/West Ukraine

On day 4, we participated again in a feeding program in a town that had been under Russian occupation for a month. Many elderly people especially were present to receive warm food and other essential items. Many were on the verge of running out of food during the month of Russian occupation. Electricity still was not restored while we were there, so hot meals were greatly appreciated. The church we partner with had immediately come into this area to begin providing food after the town was liberated from the Russians. They first preach the Gospel in the open park area before starting their feeding program. We also gave copies of some of The Basic Series books to those who desired. A young boy held hands with his mother with one hand and read The Basic Things You Need to Know About Jesus booklet with the other hand as they walked away.

After the feeding program, we went to more towns and heard some of the most horrific stories. One town told us how Russian soldiers came from house to house looking for young girls to rape. A three-year child was among those. A mother in anger and tears told us of a nearby building being bombed with people inside, including her son and daughter-in-law. She was still holding out hope they somehow survived. The bodies will take 45 days to ID. It struck me how none of these locations had any military objective. They were simply war crimes of the worst kind and nature.

One of the families we visited was a young mom who gave birth to their second child when the war began. However, the hospital she was in had everyone evacuate and get on a train out of the city. Imagine having just had a C-section and giving birth to a baby only to evacuate on a train with nowhere to go for hours! This was one of many mothers and children we could take care of at our safe housing location. Just before we arrived, she had been able to return home to her husband and other daughter. Her husband told us of the ordeal he went through during this time back home. Upon going out one night to get milk for his family, Russian soldiers stopped him and his friend and beat them up, pouring out all his milk and threatening him. This whole family is lucky to be alive. We are born into a violent world, and the world can be such a violent place. But this mom and her daughter and family have come to represent a symbol of hope and life during a time of despair, death, and destruction.

It was a sober and heavy drive back to West Ukraine. While we did share more laughter than I anticipated and somehow found humor perhaps as a defensive mechanism and way to cope with the overwhelming horror of war, there is a heaviness of deep sorrow and trauma caused by such terrible destruction and loss of life.

That evening we arrived back in time to hear more people’s stories. One of them included a woman from Mariupol who didn’t think she would survive. Another included a woman in her 80’s who had lived through World War 2. In our location, she didn’t feel alone anymore. She was grateful that there were people there to help in this new war. Everyone in fact commented on how meaningful it has been to go through this together and know they are supported by many around the world.

Day 5: Lviv/Back to Poland

We were able to join the group for breakfast before heading to Lviv for some shopping and COVID test before heading back across the border to Poland to spend the night for our morning flight home. In Lviv, we saw a city trying to go about everyday life. It might be one of the few Ukrainian cities that felt normal and hasn’t experienced the destruction of other cities. While people tried to go about their everyday lives, you could still feel the underlying tension of the reality of a country at war and vulnerable at any moment.

We once again had no trouble crossing the border despite it taking several hours. We arrived in Poland in the evening and enjoyed the time walking around downtown Warsaw and having dinner outside in the main square. It was a reminder of what life is like for those living in peace, at least for now. It was also a reminder of how fragile peace can be. And it was a reminder that even as we sat enjoying a beautiful, peaceful evening meal, thousands of others are still facing the worst realities of war and wondering if they will survive another day. We have more work to do. We have more people to serve.

***It is costing us $25 a day per family to provide food, safe housing, evacuation efforts, and other needs as they arise. If you would like to partner with us in serving those most in need in Ukraine, you can donate on our website: www.weservenow.org, indicating “Ukraine War Relief” in the memo.

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