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  • Writer's pictureNery Duarte

My Ukrainian journey. August/22

"War is an unmitigated evil. But it certainly does one good thing. It drives away fear and brings bravery to the surface." - Mahatma Gandhi

Last spring, soon after the Russian army had been defeated in the outskirts of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, we delivered humanitarian assistance to the cities of Bucha and Chernihiv. As we transited with our humanitarian caravan, we came across countless abandoned or destroyed Russian military vehicles. The smell of rotten blood still permeated the air as some bodies had yet to be recovered. We also encountered grossly expired Russian military rations and medical supplies, poor-quality winter gear, and unexploded ordinances. The view of blood stains on civilian cars caught in the crossfire was overwhelming. Debris from the relentless bombing had yet to be cleared. I closely inspected some abandoned Russian military vehicles and was surprised to see how poorly maintained the hardware was. I asked myself, "Are the Russian authorities fully aware of the bad shape of their field army hardware?" Probably not. Otherwise, they would have never sent it to this war.

I felt sorry for those young Russian conscripts sent to fight this unreasonable war. I predicted that things could not go well for the Russian army under these overwhelming circumstances. As predicted, it hasn't…

Four months later, during my second mission trip to Ukraine, I found Ukrainians holding very well on the front lines. I had the opportunity to deliver medical and relief supplies for refugees into the southern port city of Odesa and the northern province of Kharkiv. I was impressed that despite the sound of relentless artillery in the background, the steady blare of air sirens, and the odd rocket hitting civilian targets, people tried their best to move on with their everyday lives. Soon after the military victory at Sneak Island, I attended the celebration party at the central park, which included children happily dancing to the sound of an army band. Surreal…

We travelled to the city of Mykolaiv on the outskirts of Kherson. The Ukrainian army had recently made significant gains in the occupied province of Kherson. There was an air of confidence. Days before, on the outskirts of Lviv, I was given a ride by a man delivering supplies to his two kids deployed at the front lines. His son was a surgeon, and his daughter a nurse. Every time we stopped at checkpoints, this man took it upon himself to announce he was giving me a ride and that I had come from Costa Rica to support the Ukrainian people. After this impromptu announcement, soldiers would come to greet me.

I also travelled to the northern province of Kharkiv. Most civilians had abandoned the town as the Russian army was camping nearby. The day I arrived, the city received a barrage of air missiles. Several ordinances had hit civilian infrastructures, one falling near my hotel, killing a family of four. I travelled around the city looking for a contact to arrange the delivery of relief assistance, and I was surprised to come across lying on the road a seven-meter-long unexploded missile. I shivered at the thought of the possibility of the rocket unexpectedly exploding. Before this, in an encampment towards Chornobyl I had accidentally laid my sleeping mattress on top of an unexploded mortar.

While in Kharkiv, a kind old lady insisted on giving me a tour of her obliterated apartment building. As she showed me what used to be her home, she came across pictures of what appeared to be her family. It became evident that those pictures were the only things she had found in her dilapidated home. I was moved to tears.

As if I did not have enough of the horrors of war, on my way back to Costa Rica, I spent one day hiking through the former Nazi extermination camp in Auschwitz, Poland. What impressed me the most in Auschwitz was how well the extermination camp had been designed to fulfill its intended purpose: to procure the massive extinction of other human beings...

As I returned home, I stopped in Berlin to support a Ukrainian refugee family. While in Berlin, I hiked throughout part of the former Berlin wall. I could see how evil the intent of the wall was. I became much more exposed to the depravity of our human nature.

One repeating question I hear from friends is, "What is the greatest lesson you have learned from Ukraine?" After being in Ukraine on two mission trips, I am more appreciative of how blessed I have been throughout my life, which I have taken for granted. I have realized that most of my generation have experienced the same. We do not seem to realize the many blessings we all have had throughout our lives.

I am soon heading back on my third mission trip to Ukraine. Since the scenarios in Ukraine are changing so rapidly, I am not sure what I should expect. I don't know where I will choose to serve once I cross into Ukraine. I know that my service in Ukraine has been received with gratitude, and I am going back on this belief: We, the people who have embraced the message of grace and mercy, have the mandate to assist the hurting.


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