March 2022. The Polish/Ukrainian border.
I arrived in Ukraine in March last year as the Russian invasion of Ukraine had just started. By the time I came, the Russian army had made it to the outskirts of Kyiv. We all expected a quick overtake of the city and, consequently, the country. However, one year has passed, and I have instead witnessed, almost all over Ukraine, the humiliating collapse of the Russian army.
Nearly one year ago, my first mission in Ukraine was to assist stranded refugees attempting to reach West Europe. One night alone, eighty-two thousand refugees arrived at the border post where I was stationed. Early on, I became aware of how unprepared the Russian army was. For instance, while evacuating, a young woman from Chernihiv shared how she helped two young Russian soldiers. These soldiers had abandoned their armoured vehicles after running out of fuel. While attempting to escape, their commander and other soldiers were injured; a few died from hypothermia. In a kind voice, the refugee lady shared how she had cared for these two soldiers, who had shown up cold, tired and hungry at midnight at her doorstep. She provided food, clothing, and a place to sleep. Once they recuperated, they abandoned their military gear at her barn and started the foot journey back to Russia.
Several weeks later, when the Russian army had withdrawn from the outskirts of Kyiv on our way to deliver humanitarian supplies, we encountered countless abandoned military hardware. This Russian invasion, intended to last one week, has become one long year of relentless fighting. By all accounts, the Russian military has received the most humiliating setbacks at the expense of indescribable suffering from the Ukrainian civilian population.
"For by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory." -Proverbs.
Feb. 2023. Kherson, Ukraine.
Almost one year has passed since my first arrival in Ukraine. I am happy to have come to serve. The experience has, in many ways, tested my endurance and faith in ways it has never been tried before. One day a pastor asked me: "What is your mission in Ukraine?" I considered my response since I have done many different things, from delivering relief supplies, teaching emergency response, and attending to the wounded to rehabilitating damaged homes. Later that day, my answer to him was. "My mission in Ukraine is to be here..." Something prevalent as I serve Ukrainians is their encouragement and gratitude for my presence. I regularly meet someone expressing deep appreciation because I have come from Costa Rica to support them in their struggle.
Last fall, when I returned to my third mission trip, I arrived just when the military offensive began towards the province of Kherson. I was privileged to enter the city soon after liberation from the Russian occupation. Entering this city has been by far one of the most elating moments in my life as thousands of people came out to meet us and celebrate.
After the liberation, I stayed in the city, supporting a local Christian church. However, things have changed since the Russian army fled the city in haste, and celebrations died, giving place to relentless artillery warfare. The Dnipro river borders this town, and the Russian military has set up camp across the river. Artillery combats, rockets and missile attacks are rampant every day. Yesterday, two homes were destroyed by rockets killing one person. As for me, the most pervasive weapon I have seen in this war is a rocket which, upon exploding mid-air, disperses dozens of incendiary phosphorus shrapnel. Most people have evacuated the city, leaving behind the most vulnerable or those whose livelihood depends on staying.
Despite overwhelming conditions, the Christian community church I am connected with continues caring for the needy. I support this church in emergency preparedness. Last week we programmed a class on first aid with massive casualties. The walk from my hotel to the church takes up to half an hour. I encounter many new hits of artillery fire daily while commuting to the church from my hotel; I walk slowly since I carry my heavy bulletproof equipment. The church was holding an outreach/relief event. While this was happening, five small children were happily playing; suddenly, artillery rockets started exploding around the church; one rocket exploded so close that I could see the whole building shaking. Only a few days before, missiles had destroyed the office facilities. Amazingly, no one seemed to panic; no one came to retrieve the children in haste. Remarkable how human nature works as these people have adapted to a "new normal." As for me, even more unnerving since, while returning to my hotel, I realized that the rockets had fallen on the same path I had walked only twenty minutes before. This is the same route I walked when twelve rockets landed on Christmas day at the central market, killing or wounding almost one hundred. One of the most pervasive faces of this war is the relentless attacks on civilians. Sadly, one international volunteer medic was killed only recently, while the other two medics were severely wounded while attempting to assist civilians.
"For He guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones." - Proverbs
It happens when in confusion, soldiers end up hurting their own team. One day I was assisting a doctor in preparing her ambulance for a mission. Suddenly we saw a drone circling just above our heads. We panicked since we had nowhere to hide. Immediately, we saw the soldiers guarding the road post scrambling to arm artillery equipment. As this happened, a military jeep rushed with soldiers waving their arms, letting them know the drone was "friendly." We were all relieved, but I could not blame the panicky reaction of the soldiers who, with no adequate information, were rightfully preparing to defend themselves.
Another night I was with a van returning from a delivery of humanitarian supplies. Because of electrical issues, our vehicle was past curfew time. As we drove past midnight, our van died one hundred meters from the military checkpoint. The Ukrainian driver quickly went to report our predicament to the soldiers. A few minutes later, at least four very nervous-looking young soldiers walked towards the van with their automatic weapons pointing towards the driver and me! They slowly calmed down as they proceeded with the inspection. Another close call with "friendly fire" where soldiers without adequate information could have hurt their team members.
As I reflect on this, I apply it to my life journey. When our prison ministry in Venezuela became tremendously effective, as thousands of inmates were being ministered to, we started to receive opposition. Unsurprisingly, it came from "friendly fire" as members of our own side attempted to hinder our work.
Another example is my son, Jonathan, who is helping lead one of Canada's most successful outreach ministries. He mentioned that one of their recent concerns was dealing with members of our faith community attempting to hinder their ministry.
What should we do when we, as Christians, face "friendly fire"? What to do when members of our very own community of faith attempt to discredit us? My response from what I have learned in Ukraine: Friendly fire will inevitably happen. As for me, it has helped if I stay calm and do not act hastily because I know it would likely aggravate the confrontation. Trusting that once all emotions subside, the confusion will be clarified if we are on the path of righteousness. Easier said than done... I have struggled with anger and disbelief. Gratefully, at critical times, peace within me has prevailed.
"The name of the Lord is a strong tower; The righteous runs into it and is safe." - Proverbs.
It is what I have encountered the most in Ukraine: Broken glass. It is everywhere since every missile, artillery bomb, or rocket indiscriminately hitting primarily civilian targets would produce large amounts of shattered glass. Last November, a missile hit close to my apartment. As a result, I had to endure the bitter winter cold and broken glass for almost two weeks. The task of cleaning the broken glass seemed endless. Surprisingly, after nearly two months, I sometimes get cut by the broken glass still left behind in my apartment.
Applying this experience to my life's journey: "Broken glass" can symbolize painful past events that have come to shatter our lives. It can be the loss of a loved one, a disappointment, a divorce, etc. It could be anything we were not expecting and had previously affected our lives. Sadly, the loss may never be recuperated, and even more unfortunate, we have no control over when the "hidden broken glass" suddenly reappears. This I interpret as painful reminders or events which make us revisit our previous losses all over again. When those events or memories unexpectedly return, their hurt or discouragement hits us all over again... Do expect "hidden broken glass" to reappear at unexpected moments. Unfortunately, when this happens, we can do nothing except treat ourselves with dignity and respect since human nature tends to be judgmental of any weakness, even more so with our own shortcomings. As we attempt to withstand the pain or uncertainties, it helps to revisit our trust in a God of redemption—the confidence we hopefully have nourished. The question may be, "What if, along our journey, we have not retained enough faith to withstand newer adversities?" Reappearing "broken glass" may give us a renewed opportunity to refocus the direction of our journey...
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths." - Proverbs.
I am already planning to return to Ukraine this coming fall. I am returning to serve at the front lines this week and will finish my third mission tour in Ukraine in three weeks. I am heading back to Costa Rica at the end of March but stopping to connect with my two kids on my way back -Netherlands and Canada. I plan one stopover in Honduras, deliver spare parts for two community water purification filters in Puerto Lempira, do prison ministry, and prepare our next short-term mission trip.
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Kherson, Ukraine; Christmas 2022. Watercolor on paper. Artist: Andrea Duarte