April letters from Ukraine

16 April 2021
Members of the Dominican Order in Ukraine carry supplies near their priory in Kyiv, Ukraine. Image: Supplied


Catholic Outlook has been fortunate to receive messages from Fr Jarosław Krawiec OP, the Provincial Vicar of the Dominican Order in Ukraine, which he has written to Dominicans throughout the world. In these letters, Fr Jarosław shares information of day-to-day life in Kyiv and provides updates on Dominican activities of charity and assistance across Ukraine. Below is a series of letters written by Fr Jarosław between March 15 and April 5. They have been translated from Polish by Jacek Buda OP.

Related: Dominicans on the ground providing support in Ukraine

Related: Letters from Ukraine

Related: Dominican letters from Ukraine


Saturday, April 2

Dear sisters, dear brothers,

Yesterday Kyiv had one of its quietest days since the beginning of the war. I didn’t hear a single siren, although when I looked at the “Digital Kyiv” app, I found out there had been two air raid alarms. Only two; other days there had been as many as twenty. Yesterday you couldn’t hear repeated explosions, but only something like a distant “thunder” from time to time. No wonder a lot of people have appeared on the streets. The mood is peaceful now, which is reinforced by the news of the withdrawal of the occupying forces from the outskirts of Kyiv, which allows everyone to relax a bit. Let me add here that this news came from the Ukrainian military; nobody here believes any of the Russians’ declarations and promises anymore. It’s not surprising that after so many lies, trust has completely disappeared. Unfortunately, when I sat down at the computer this evening to read the news, my hope for a quick end to the fight for the capital subsided a little. Yesterday Vitali Klitschko, the city’s mayor, appealed to all who have left Kyiv not to rush their return, since the risk of death is still very high. “It is better to wait for a couple of weeks and allow the situation to unfold,” he added. Either way, we’re still enjoying the silence around us.

Kyiv is becoming more alive with every passing day. Just like nature in the springtime. Over the last few years, coffee stands have sprung up in many Ukrainian cities. In our neighborhood, you can find them on every corner. Most of them are serving coffee today, although only one was open just two days ago.

On Thursday evening I was having tea in the refectory of the priory with two Polish journalists. Someone who knows men would have thought that our glasses contained something other than tea. But I can assure you that it was nothing else, since it was only on Friday that the prohibition in Kyiv was lifted and alcohol could return to store shelves. I haven’t done any shopping recently, so I don’t know if there were long lines at the liquor stores. For us priests, the lifting of the prohibition has some especially positive aspects. There finally won’t be a problem with buying wine for Mass.

And this is no laughing matter since — as you all know — in order to celebrate Mass it’s not enough to have good will and an ordained priest, but you also need bread (hosts) and wine. Both are becoming very difficult to obtain since alcohol disappeared from the stores and the sisters who used to bake hosts were evacuated from the warzone. Luckily, Brother Jaroslaw from Warsaw took care of the Kyiv priory’s need. He added a small box, filled with everything needed to celebrate the Eucharist, to one of the humanitarian transports from Freta. It’s great to have brothers like this!

Let me return to my two journalists. Since one of them is a writer and the other a photographer, they aren’t in competition, so they started traveling together to the most critical areas of Ukraine. If I didn’t know that they only met each other two weeks ago in Kyiv during the conference with the prime ministers of Poland, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, I would be absolutely convinced that they’re old friends. What made them so close was their common experience. They have just returned from Chernihiv. It is one of the oldest cities of the ancient Russ, located in the northern part of the country; it was surrounded by the Russian army and greatly damaged. I hope that the Orthodox monastery of Saints Boris and Gleb, which was built in the 12th century and belonged to the Dominicans in the 17th century, is still standing in the city center. I remember how my friend was telling me a couple weeks ago about a phone call she had with her acquaintance in Chernihiv. He sat with his family in the basement and was calling all of his friends to say goodbye. I hope that he somehow survived.

Russians destroyed the bridge that was used to deliver humanitarian supplies to the city. Now you have to cross the Desna River by boat, which is difficult, dangerous, and very inefficient. The journalists told me a little about what they saw. They also told me about how they try to describe and photograph the war. It’s a difficult subject, especially when one wants to show the truth. When I was listening to them, I had the impression that these are people who really care about telling the true story to the world. I admire their courage and commitment. They told me that when they were returning from Chernihiv, their driver became very angry when he saw some guys fishing on the bank of the Dnieper. “How is it,” he was yelling, “that in Kyiv people are going fishing, and 130 kilometers down the road at the same time, people are dying of bullets, bombs, exposure, and hunger.” You don’t even need 130 kilometers. It suffices to go 20 kilometers to Irpin, Bucha, or Vorzel to see hell. War makes for a bizarre and unjust world of radical contrasts.

I was recently amused by a story of the heavy fighting that’s going on in the basement of our priory. The enemy isn’t the Russians, but mice. They began their occupation of our basement a few days ago, and it seems that they like human company because the basements are serving as living quarters for some of us. Dominic, along with a couple boys, tried different methods to get rid of them. They even managed to buy a mouse trap. But the animals meticulously avoided it. They weren’t even tempted by a delightful Polish kielbasa. They only died when Dominic used salo, a specially prepared bacon that is one of the most traditional delights of Ukrainian cuisine. How can Russia try to win this war if even the mice in Ukraine know that the best stuff is Ukrainian.

I’ve often mentioned older people who need help. Let me mention today our Dominican elderly from Fastiv who offer help. Sister Monica, who is not much younger than our Holy Father Francis, has lived in Ukraine for many years. She used to be a mother superior, which means she was the head of the congregation of the Dominican sisters of the missions. Father Jan is not much younger in his missionary ministry. For many years he worked as pastor of the Chortkiv parish, and his generous heart is still remembered by many there. Both Sister Monica and Father Jan have the same stubbornness, which seems to grow with every passing year. Obviously by this I mean stubbornness in their zeal for the people they serve. For weeks already, the corridors of the sisters’ monastery in Fastiv are filled with boxes of humanitarian supplies. Like every year before Easter, our Dominican elderly get in a car and go to the surrounding villages to visit the sick and elderly parishioners. It is an opportunity for these people to go to confession and receive Holy Communion, but also to simply have a conversation with a sister or a priest. They have known each other, after all, for many years. Until very recently, the driver of the sisters’ Lada was Sister Monica. This year, she is helped by one of the parishioners. It will be much easier that way, since they have big packages of food to deliver. It should also be safer since, knowing our seniors, they would go to the places still occupied by the Russians. It’s good that we have people as beautiful as Sister Monica and Father Jan in our Dominican family.

Let me finish by mentioning Zakarpattia. It’s a region of Ukraine bordering Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Poland. A couple of our older brothers are from there, including the bishop of the diocese of Mukachevo, Father Nicholas. He told me recently that they estimate Zakarpattia has received between two and three hundred thousand refugees. Before the war, the region was inhabited by about one million people. Bishop Nicholas supports us enormously, and not only us. He helps coordinate humanitarian supplies for Fastiv; he also encourages many Ukrainian believers with his wise words and prayers. Nicholas is very grateful for the presence of Father Irenaeus in Mukachevo. When we decided to temporarily leave bombed Kharkiv, Iraneaus ended up in Zakarpattia, along with a few parishioners. He now lives in the monastery of the Dominican sisters from Slovakia and ministers very zealously in the Mukachevo cathedral. He also travels with his priestly ministry to the neighboring villages. When I talked to him today, he had just finished a meeting with the local community of lay Dominicans. I see in this whole story the loving Providence of God.

Last night I received news from Father Wojciech in Lviv: “Janek is just leaving for the battlefield, so please remember him in prayer.” He meant our lay Dominican from Lviv. He was recently drafted. Since he served in the army before, he knows the soldier’s trade. Please, all of you around the world, pray for Janek, his wife, and his little son. May he fight bravely for Ukraine and return home safely!

With warm greetings and request for prayer,

Jarosław Krawiec OP,
Kyiv, Saturday, April 2, 5:20 pm


Tuesday, April 5

Dear sisters, dear brothers,

On Sunday, the world learned about the horrible war crimes committed against the defenceless civilian population in Bucha, the city located less than 20 km west of Kyiv. Until recently, it had been an oasis of peace. Now this beautifully located town has become part of the history of human wickedness. That evening, I was listening to the Ukrainian radio. The things that the Russian bandits did — I call them bandits because I wouldn’t call people who are murderers and rapists soldiers — were compared to the events at Srebrenica. During the Bosnian War in 1995, a massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims was committed there. Sadly, Bucha is not the only such place in this war. Yesterday I visited Fastiv. When I walked down to the cafe at the Center of Saint Martin, Father Misha was assigning daily duties to the volunteers. Sister Augustine, with a notebook in her hand, was writing down how much, to whom, and where things needed to be delivered. Somebody asked about the Makarivs, to which Misha responded: “They are burying the dead today.”

Many people since the beginning of the war had been buried in mass graves because cemeteries were not available, and the number of victims was very high. I was listening to a story told by a police officer who had driven on the Zhytomyr Road immediately after it was retaken from the hands of the occupying forces. Until very recently, this road was one of the main highways outside of Kyiv leading west. The cop told me how he tried to reach the families of people who were executed to tell them where their loved ones were buried. Thanks to that information, they might be able to find the bodies and prepare a regular funeral. Yesterday I spent most of my day in the car on the way from Kyiv to Khmelnytskyi. I was passing by a few cemeteries in the villages and small towns. One could see fresh tombs decorated with plastic, colorful wreaths that are so popular in Ukraine. I don’t know if the tombs contained victims of the war. But it’s very likely; just like in Zhovkva, where Father Wojciech from Lviv visited yesterday. I must add that I’ve always been very moved by the way the Ukranians say farewell to their soldiers, how they treat them like real heros. When the coffins with their remains are being transported, people come out on the streets and kneel. The same pictures could be seen in 2014 when all of Ukraine was saying farewell to the so-called “Heavenly Sotnia,” the people who were killed in Kyiv at Maidan Independence Square during the Revolution of Dignity. I took part in one of these farewell ceremonies a few years ago in Ivano-Frankivsk. I will never forget it. The protests that happened at that time at the Maidan and President Yanukovych’s removal from power could be considered an impulse that was used as a cause of the aggression of Russia against Ukraine. This war has already lasted for eight years, and its victims could be counted not in thousands, but in tens of thousands of people.

On the way to Khmelnytskyi, when the navigation app on my phone led me through a variety of tangled streets, I noticed mothers strolling with children in the villages. I’ve never seen this before to such an extent, and I’ve driven hundreds of thousands of kilometers on Ukrainian roads. I spoke recently with the Polish ambassador in Kyiv who told me that during war, one notices children with a particular intensity. He is absolutely correct! It could be that we do this because of some subconscious compassion, some particular concentration of attention on these little persons who wander now with their mothers and grandmothers through the quieter parts of Ukraine and the world. Others sit in dark, cold basements of Mariupol like shadows, to avoid being found by the murderous army. One can see many cars heading toward Kyiv. The withdrawal of the Russian army and another peaceful day in the capital clearly caused some of the inhabitants to return. I saw city buses yesterday morning on the streets of Kyiv and a notice saying that one can cross the Dnieper on the subway. It seems like a small detail, but for the daily lives of normal people, functioning public transportation is essential. The mayor of the city, however, advises the citizens of Kyiv who are now living in safe neighborhoods not to rush their return, for at least a few more days. The city is still not completely safe.

Many humanitarian convoys are going in the direction of Kyiv, and from there, farther to the east, north, and south. They consist of long lines of trucks, just like the one I passed in Letychiv that was bringing aid from Turkey; but they also include vans and passenger cars with volunteers. There are also coach buses regularly shuttling people from Poland. One particularly drew my attention. The sign behind the windshield said, “Slupsk — Mariupol.”

I could see cars filled with people and luggage, sometimes attached to the roof, with registration plates from the regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kharkiv. How far they’ve already driven! They have decided to leave, as people from these regions are strenuously urged by the authorities, since heavy fighting might take place there very soon. Two buses filled with people from Mykolaiv and Kherson left Fastiv yesterday. Sadly, the Russian army uses civilians as living shields; that’s why the authorities ask people to leave and allow our army to fight the enemy with dignity.

In the outskirts of Khmelnytskyi, a smiling young volunteer girl was pointing to a thermos, offering hot tea to passersby. It’s a very simple gesture but very important for these people, because it means that someone is awaiting them.

Since the very beginning, one of the weapons of this war has been words. I will not describe Russian propaganda, since everyone knows it well. Instead, let me mention some signs and billboards on the highway. In many places in Khmelnytskyi, I’ve seen posters in English saying, “Russians are killing our children.” There are also religious themes. On one of the billboards along the highway, the soldiers of the occupying army were depicted as servants of the biblical Herod. Some time ago, on one of the barricades in Kyiv, I saw a copy of the so-called “Saint Javelina”, which is an icon of Our Lady adorned with Ukrainian symbols and holding, instead of the Child Jesus, an American handheld anti-tank missile, the Javelin. I understand the perhaps noble intentions of the author of this painting, but I really don’t like it. I think the same way about the saying that’s been painted and repeated almost everywhere since the beginning of the war: “To the Russian warship, go ___.” Many wise Ukrainians who I respect enormously started protesting against vulgarity in public debate. Eastern Rite Bishop Taras Senkiv said it best: “It’s not an instrument of war; it’s a sign of defeat.”

I am sending today’s letter in the morning from the priory in Khmelnytskyi. I came here to meet with Brothers Jakub and Wlodzimierz. This place has become a shelter for refugees from Kyiv and Kharkiv, like many religious houses that have opened their doors to become homes for people escaping from war. We are not only giving to them. Especially since most of these things we offer we have received from others. But as I discover over and over again, it is they who are a gift to us. I experienced this for the first time a couple months ago when our Kyiv community hosted refugees from Kabul. It’s a little like the poem “Justice” by Father Jan Twardowski, which I’ve been carrying with me throughout my life:

If everyone had four apples
If everyone was strong as a horse
If everyone was equally defenceless in love
If everyone had the same thing
No one would need anyone.

It looks like we live in the time of God’s Justice, when we need each other.

With warm greetings and request for prayer,

Jarosław Krawiec OP,
Khmelnytskyi, Tuesday, April 5, 8am


If you wish to provide monetary support to the Dominicans in Ukraine, this document has information on where to send money, otherwise, you can support Caritas Australia’s Emergency Ukraine Appeal by visiting caritas.org.au/ukraine.

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