The Body and the Blood: Communion in a War Zone

2_1_DonbassWe crowd around a table that is too large for the entryway-turned-dining-room of the community center in which we find ourselves. Like many social institutions in Kiev, this one has been converted into a shelter for families fleeing the war in Eastern Ukraine. Some families fit into a single room, while others occupy rows and rows of bunk beds in a large common hall, blankets draped over the bunks to create some semblance of privacy.

Sergei and Ira are recent arrivals to the center from the Eastern city of Karlovka and they graciously sit with us to share their story as people come and go, squeezing past our chairs to get by.

“It was like the movies,” Sergei says, “huge explosions in the city, in the streets, in the air, next to schools.”

He tells us that at first the conflict was merely differences in opinion, “it was only political – who is for whom, who is against – but then suddenly there were shootings and bomb attacks in the city.”

He describes the scene after the first raid, “I came out of my home and I saw the broken buildings and bus stops and blood everywhere and people – different parts of their bodies were just scattered on the street.”

He shakes his head as if to clear away the memory. “It is very hard to explain in words all that is going on there.” We nod silently, knowing that we cannot fully comprehend what they have lived through even if there were words for it all.

Destruction in Donbass. Photo credit: Sasha Khomych

Destruction in Donbass. Photo credit: Sasha Khomych

“Five minutes after the attack,” he finds the words, “a Russian TV channel was there recording everything–”

“–So they knew it was going to be happening” Ira breaks in pointedly.

Sergei nods, “my son was also recording everything on his camera, all the damage. He sent the video to his brother on Facebook and in that moment the Russian TV channel approached him and asked for the video, they asked him to partner with them and share the footage he had taken – they proposed it like a job.”

Sergei told his son that he had to refuse the proposal, “and in that very minute he refused, suddenly his Facebook account was blocked.” Again he shakes his head.

As shelling became a regular occurrence, people began to live in their basements. “But Ira and I were the strongest in spirit,” he says with a grin, “because we still slept on the second floor. We believed God would protect us.” But one night he awoke with a strong feeling of fear, “so at 5 a.m. I woke up Ira and said ‘we need to go underground.’ and she said ‘I don’t want to sleep down there, it is dirty and uncomfortable and there are mice.'” She nods vigorously from the other side of the table and I nod back – I wouldn’t want to sleep there either.

But Sergei insisted that they needed to go so she relented, asking if at least they can get dressed first. “then we heard the first explosion near us and we just jumped to our feet and ran fast,” she says with a chuckle. The bomb hit their neighbor’s house, sending debris into their home. Sergei shows us photos of the damage done to their house, including the shattered second-story bedroom window they had been sleeping under.

“The next day we were eating in the hall and were ready to run at any moment,” Sergei demonstrates, sitting at the edge of his chair, taking quick imaginary bites and looking around furtively. “Just after breakfast we heard the same – bombs exploding. This kind of thing became normal. You are walking and then you are hiding from bombs.”

Sergei & Ira in their room at the shelter

Sergei & Ira in their room at the shelter

“This is about the physical life,”  Sergei changes the subject, “but if you talk about the spiritual life, it is very good because people are coming together to pray.”

Their church became a refuge for citizens and during bomb attacks they would gather together and pray. “The last time I was at the Sunday service, there were only 8 people,” Sergei tells us, “and when we were breaking the bread and the wine for communion we heard a loud explosion and someone said ‘Sing louder, so we don’t hear all of that!’ so we started to praise God louder and the fear vanished. We didn’t preach, we just sang out loud. I said, ‘brothers and sisters you will remember this communion for the rest of your life because in any moment you can just go to heaven!'”

They laugh at the memory, but their smiles fade as they continue their story. “Bus stations are ruined, all bridges are ruined,” Sergei says, “So the city and the infrastructure are almost destroyed and all channels for water, for gas, all the time they are repaired then ruined, repaired then ruined, always the same story.”

The story of desperation starts to unfold. Shops, social services, most of the city shut down and there was no longer access to food or medication. They had to rely on the kindness of others from neighboring cities to bring food and medicine in when they could. Ira tells us of one city that, after the fighting moved out of their territory, they built a monument, not to victory, or Ukraine, or Russia, but in memory of all those who died of hunger.

But the destruction and the hunger were not the worst part. It was the fear and lawlessness that came to reign. “The militia can just arrest anyone on the street that they want. So your wife is not your wife anymore, they can just….” he trails off, “They can just take you and you will be sitting underground for days with a mask over your face. There is terrible torture. It is like the oppression during the Soviet Union and the regime of Stalin.”

They tell stories of people who were found dead and disfigured because of torture. They had a neighbor whose son was an activist protesting what was happening in Karlovka “One day he received an SMS with a video. It was a video of his friend who was tortured by terrorists and his friend was cut all over and it was horrible. They said to this guy, ‘we give you 24 hours and if you come to us you will die fast but if you will not come to us then you will have the same story as your friend.'”

He pauses again. “So we understood that now in the city is a group of people who can do with you whatever they want and the life of a person is worth nothing. So we understood that to stay in Karlovka was too dangerous. We were trying to stay to help people but we saw that the time was changing and we needed to leave.”

“I had a dream,” Ira says, “that we got to the last doors of the train, the last wagon, and as the train was moving we jumped on it. I feel like it was like a chance from God to get away from that place. We always do things in time, but in the last minute. So it was the last opportunity to leave and we took it.”


Sergei serenading us

They tell us that many people have cared for them since coming to Kiev, that many have provided food, clothing, shelter and friendship. But not everyone is kind or understanding.

“People who have always lived in Kiev have an attitude toward people who are coming from the East,” Ira explains,  “they think we are all separatists so they look down on us and don’t want us coming to other parts of Ukraine.”

That prejudice, mixed with desire for economic benefits, has led some people to lobby for the expulsion of the families from the building. “People want to make money on this property here and they don’t want the families staying here to be here, they want this property for business purposes.” So far the attempts to shut the place down have been unsuccessful, but the threat leaves Sergei, Ira, and the many other families staying there feeling more vulnerable and unsettled than they already were.

“But in God’s mercy everything is OK. They are trying to shut it down but so far everything is OK.” Ira’s bright smile matches her husband’s confidence as she nods her agreement.

Already the melody from Sergei’s guitar has been mingling with our words and as the conversation draws to a close, he serenades us with several songs including a haunting Prayer for Ukraine.


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