‘I just want to return home when the war is over’ – Donetsk
Another moving experience was our visit to a group of refugees living in a run down ex-children’s camp from the war-torn Donetsk Region of Eastern Ukraine. One of the refugees, Natalya, told us that she and her husband, Nikolai, became frightened when when the bombing started. Their son, aged 26, was shot dead on his way back home from work. Natalya and Nikolai fled, leaving everything behind – their home, some land, a car and a vineyard. Nikolai recently had a stroke and can no longer speak.
We asked Natalya what were her hopes for the future. ‘I just want to return home when the war is over. My roots are there – my vineyard and my rose garden’. She was delighted when we gave her a Bible, saying, ‘I left my Bible behind when I fled – I’m so glad to have another one.’
‘In an instant he had lost everything’ – Dnipro
After sharing with the refugees and homeless in the city of Zaporizhe, we travelled to the neighbouring region of Dnipro. There we visited a disabled home that left a deep impression on the UK team. We witnessed a level of suffering, desolation and sadness that came as a shock even to those of us who have been working in Ukraine for many years.
One particularly moving encounter was with one of the residents, Sergey (pictured with Joshua). Having all but lost the ability to speak, the chaplain explained that Sergey was once happily married and that he had a good job and a house where he and his wife lived with their three young children.
In 2002, Sergey went on holiday with his family to Crimea and on their way home, Sergey stopped the car in a layby to get some food and drink from a nearby shop. While Sergey was away a lorry had collided into the back of the car where Sergey’s wife and children had remained behind. They were all killed instantly.
Seeing the mangled remains of his dead family in the wreck of the car, Sergey flew into a furious rage and went over to the driver of the lorry, who was lightly injured and whose vehicle had come to a stop a short distance down the road. Sergey discovered that the lorry driver was drunk and in that moment beat the driver to death in a fit of spontaneous rage. As a result, Sergey was sent to prison for ten years. In an instant he had lost everything: his wife and children, his job, his freedom and his faith in God.
Over time, Sergey also lost his health as he became depressed and began to develop an addiction to alcohol and drugs. He even lost the ability to speak. When he was released from prison, he was sent to the care home that we visited near Dnipro. The local Baptist pastor, who serves as part-time chaplain to the care home, took pity on Sergey and began to speak to him about the gospel.
In 2014 Sergey committed his life to Christ and was baptised in a local river. With his face beaming, he proudly showed us the photographs of his baptism, which depicted him entering the water in his white robes on a beautiful, sunny spring day. As we were viewing the photos, the pastor also explained that when Sergey emerged from the waters of baptism he began to speak words of praise and thanksgiving. This was the first time he had spoken for over ten years.
It was a privilege to meet Sergey, to pray for him and to bring him a large supply of essential Western-quality medicine, which will hopefully help him to recover further. There was something simple and Christlike in Sergey’s rugged appearance. He was clearly very ill, but beyond the emaciated appearance, it was almost as though we perceived the face of Christ in the countenance of this man who had suffered so much in life.
God is doing great things in Ukraine amid the tragedy and pain
As is often the case with these kinds of ventures, we ended up being served by those we met in Ukraine even more than we were able to serve them. I am also amazed at the impact we were able to have. I always take it as a sign that God was with us during the trip when the outcomes and the blessings that we were able to impart far exceed the effort and resources that went into the planning and organisation.
God is doing great things in Ukraine. The nation is suffering terribly, but there are signs of hope that can be perceived amid all the tragedy and pain. The anecdotes above offer just a tiny snapshot into what we experienced on the trip. I really hope that readers of this article will be able to visit Ukraine and see for themselves the great things God is doing among His people in this remarkable country.