The friars in Ukraine four months after the start of the war: “Let us pray and help people”. 

Four months after the war in Ukraine began, the friars stand by the people, exhausted by the suffering and lacerations brought by the conflict. The Order of Friars Minor, from the very beginning, has been active in offering welcome, listening and help to the people in the conflict zone and the neighbouring countries.

“In the first days of the war, there was great disorientation, a crowd fleeing, from every corner, from east to west. Right from the start, we put ourselves at the service of the local population, helping, listening, and providing initial assistance. Just today, 32 aid packages were delivered. Since the beginning of the conflict, more than a thousand life-saving parcels of food, health kits and hygiene and first aid materials have been offered to the people and soldiers who requested them”. The Minister Provincial of Ukraine, Br Daniel Botvina, who lives near Kyiv, continues: “I know many people who died in battle. I remember a woman in her 60s showed me her house, but she told me it is gone now, completely demolished. I remember a mother with a seven-year-old girl from Zaporizhia: she told me that once the Russians entered the villages, they made a list of empty houses, took these houses, occupied them, and now the Russians live in them. The Russian soldiers take the empty houses and give them to their families. Now we live in the moment, fearing that we might die at any moment. I have no thoughts for the future. Let us pray and help”. Br Daniel ends his description by thanking the whole Order infinitely, all the benefactors and all those who have been close to him and the friars in Ukraine: “I want to thank the whole Order and every single benefactor for every single act of generosity. I have felt great closeness from the Minister General and every friar in our order”.

In Ukraine, the friars minor are present with 17 houses and 60 friars. Since the day after the beginning of the conflict, many benefactors, friars and friaries from every corner of the earth have responded generously to the appeal of the Minister General, Br Massimo Fusarelli, enabling an ever-greater response to the needs of people, families and children.

In the basement of the Konotop friary

In Konotop, on the border with Russia in a predominantly Orthodox area, in one of our friaries, the two friars present experienced the Russian invasion and managed the aid to the population for some periods barricaded inside the structure, housing several families in the basement of the friary.

“We have done the shopping for people, especially the disabled and the elderly, for those who could not escape, and we have delivered food and parcels house to house to more than 1,500 people, risking our lives. Every day we offer bread to 200 people who stop for Mass, even if they are not Catholic, just to feel part of a living community. Among them is a young man named Arthur, father of three children, who, near Konotop, while driving his car home, was hit by five Russian bullets. With his last strength and praying, he reached a field hospital where he was miraculously saved”. Thus, Br Romualdo, one of the two friars, recalls: “During the mass in the basement, we only had one candle lit, the gunfire made the walls tremble. I heard the Russian tanks near the friary, I prayed even louder, and we huddled around that candle, a symbol of life and hope”. Today Konotop, a town of 80,000 inhabitants in the Sumy region, seems to have reached an agreement for a peace truce through its mayor.

Support for the people of Kyiv

In the capital, Kyiv, four months after the start of hostilities, there is an atmosphere of apparent calm, interrupted by sirens and running into the basement. However, fighting rages today in the east and south of the country, and many Ukrainian citizens are returning to decide to fight. According to Frontex data, 2.3 million people have returned to their country since the beginning of the war.

In Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv, we have seven friars, continuously helping 50 families every day, some 600 since the beginning of the conflict. The desire to fight alongside the Ukrainian forces is growing among ordinary people. Our houses are open to all. I remember the story of a mother, partially paralysed and with two children: she let her husband go to fight, realising that the need to defend her land was her greatest desire. Wife and husband talk for 10-15 seconds every week with quick, rapid messages: ‘it’s raining’ or ‘it’s not raining’ means, bombs are falling, or bombs are not falling’. These were the words of Br Cristian, a Ukrainian who had returned to his country for a visit when the Russian invasion suddenly began. Br Cristian was in Rome, but now he cannot return, he does not want to, in order to stay close to his people. He went to Ukraine for the funeral of his dad. He is in the city of Zhytomyr, where he documents the destruction of the war and helps people. “The kindergartens here are reopening, but only those with basements for shelter from the bombs. Often it is the parents, with the teachers, who dig the necessary shelters with a shovel so their children can be educated”.

The closeness and help of the friars

According to the UN agency UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), 7,567,024 refugees from Ukraine have crossed into neighbouring countries in search of safety. A further 8 million people are internally displaced within Ukraine. Even today, an estimated 15.7 million people urgently need protection and humanitarian assistance. The Order’s friaries are active in supporting and sustaining Ukrainian refugees in Italy and countries neighbouring the site of the conflict, especially in Poland. More than 130,000 displaced people are finding help in Italy,and the Franciscan friariesoffer assistance and help to more than 200families every day, especially women and children.

The Minister General, Br Massimo Fusarelli, immediately showed closeness, listening and solidarity with the Ukrainian people and all the friars in the area. Br Massimo visited friaries in Ukraine and was part of an international delegation of religious leaders for an “Interreligious Pilgrimage of solidarity with the Ukrainian people”, representing the Catholic world and delivering a message of solidarity and hope from the Holy Father, Pope Francis. These are his words: “During Holy Week, I had the unhoped-for opportunity to visit the western part of Ukraine, meeting friars and refugees. Meeting people, listening to their stories, seeing their faces and contacting their pain allowed me to understand and see things from another point of view. I was able to experience the concrete help we are providing and the solidarity that every single benefactor has allowed us to give, providing life-saving food and medicines. Today, a great pain remains in me, the pain of the weakest, of children and their mothers protecting their little ones from an uncertain future, from bombs and the sound of gunfire. However, I carry with me the pride of a people that does not give up. The aid we are providing, food and medicine are lifesaving. Ukraine is the conflict today, but there are other conflicts, other suffering and deaths. In Africa alone,28 conflicts are goingon that are little talked about. This is a test case for reacting to the issues of charity, peace and justice”.

Francesco Stefanini