Kherson: A story of resistance against fear and despair

Russian troops occupied the city of Kherson, in southern Ukraine, at the beginning of March 2022. Nine months later a Ukrainian counteroffensive forced the Russians to retreat from the region of Kherson in early November. Due to lack of electricity and heating, and as winter approached, that same month the Ukrainian state evacuated all those who were willing to leave. Russian troops took up positions on the opposite bank of the Dniepr. By the end of January 2023 an estimated 40,000 people were living in Kherson. For months, the city was subjected to daily missile and artillery strikes. On 6 June 2023 the nearby Nova Kakhovka dam was destroyed. Aid to the Church in Need spoke to one of its project partners, Father Ihnatij Moskalyuk OSBM, priest and rector of the Basilian monastery of St. Volodymyr the Great in Kherson, who remained in Kherson  throughout this time, with his colleague, Brother Pious, to help the local population.

A priest helping in Ukraine
Father Ihnatij Moskalyuk with the community in Kherson, Ukraine

How has life changed since February 2022?

It is not easy to describe how my life has changed since 24 February 2022. Since the war began, I live in the knowledge that each day might be my last, and when I go to sleep, I don’t know if I will live to see the sunrise. This is my life, day after day.

Psychologically, at the beginning I found it hard to deal with this situation, but then I began to ask the Lord, during adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, to give me an answer. That was when courage started to flow from my heart, and I told Brother Pious, who remained with me during the occupation, that from that moment on we would live as we had before the war, which is to say, dedicating ourselves to prayer and to helping the people who had remained in Kherson. Those who stayed behind were the elderly, the sick and also the young who had nowhere else to go, as well as those who had been caught in Kherson by the war. We cannot leave these people alone.

What impact did the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam have on you and on the surroundings?

When we learned from the news that the Nova Kakhovka dam had been destroyed, and that the waters in Kherson could rise three or four meters, everyone was scared. What would happen? What would the flooding be like? But we faced this new situation just as we had the beginning of the war: nothing could shake our trust in God, in our Lord. And so, we really began to trust in God, and to put all these things that were happening, and anything that might happen because of the flooding, in His hands.

A priest helping in Ukraine
Volunteers from the parish transporting goods to help the needy

Of course, it was terrible to see buildings being destroyed before our eyes, animals drowning, and attempts to rescue people who had been trapped in their houses. It was terrible, but our trust in God remained firm, as did our certainty that evil cannot prevail, and that the Lord our God will give us the strength to withstand, just as we withstood the occupation. Therefore, my heart was at peace.

Did you ever think of leaving Kherson?

After nine months of occupation, I was in need of physical and spiritual rest, and when I told the people of Kherson that I was going to western Ukraine to recover a little, I remember that they would look me in the eye and ask: “Will you come back to us, Father?”. I could see their expression, and the tears in their eyes, and I would respond: “Yes! I will not abandon you. I will stay with you until the end, as long as the Lord our God wills it. As long as he wills it, I will stay with you”.

How many Catholics live in the region of Kherson?

Before the war, around 95% of our parish consisted of Greek Catholics who were originally from western Ukraine, but had been resettled following the Second World War, including their children and grandchildren. There were also those who had come to study, and stayed to work. Only around 5% of them had been born in Kherson. The Communist regime destroyed the most precious part of people’s hearts in these regions in southern and eastern Ukraine: faith in God. But now 97% of our parish is composed of people who are originally from Kherson, because the war had a deep effect on the way people think.

A priest helping in Ukraine
Adult baptism during the holy mass with Fr. Ihnatij Moskalyuk

What changed? And why?

Since our monastery helps people, distributing aid and caring for them, they feel loved, respected, they feel they are important to us. This leads people to question themselves, think about their lives and ask themselves: “Why am I here on earth? Who is God? What has God done for me? How can I thank Him, and what conclusions can I draw?”.

People ask these questions, and they search for answers. Now there are many people who come to our monastery to ask for the sacraments of baptism, marriage and confession. Every day we have around 25 or 30 people receiving communion at Mass, including young people, and children. This fills us with joy. The sacrifice that Brother Pious and I made during the occupation is now bearing fruit.

What can we do to help you and your community?

As religious, in our monastery in Kherson, Ukraine, we don’t need anything. Thank God, the monastery has not suffered damage, and was not destroyed. Everything works, we have food, we lack nothing, thank God. But my heart aches for all the people who have lost their homes in the war, who are left out in the elements, without a roof over their heads. My heart aches for them. I also feel for all those who stayed in their homes because they couldn’t leave, because they were old, or weak, or bedridden due to illness. That is what hurts me.

A priest helping in Ukraine
Distribution of humanitarian aid by the Basilians

These people need food, they need toiletries, nappies, detergent, personal hygiene products. We manage to get food, one way or another, but everything else is in short supply in Kherson. Nonetheless, I thank God for everything. Some things we receive from volunteers, people give what they can, and we distribute it. So, I thank God for all those who have a generous heart and are always willing to help. And I thank God because he permits our hands to be His hands, and because he sends us out to those who need Him most. I am grateful for that.

I would also like to thank ACN, especially, for helping us to purchase a vehicle, which is indispensable for our pastoral work, especially now, in this difficult situation in Ukraine.

Isn’t it very difficult to be grateful at a time like this?

During the occupation I learned to trust God more. Before I also trusted him, but not as strongly as I do now. Now I thank God for every new day, and for allowing me to live for Him and for others. I thank God that I can sacrifice my life as a priest every day. The greatest miracle of these times is that I am healthy and God has protected me from all evil. It is also a miracle that our monastery and our church have been preserved, and that we have a place to pray, and that our church is not empty, but filled with people. I thank God for that, and for having given us a patron in Saint Joseph, unto whom I entrust our monastery and our city. I give thanks to God and to Saint Joseph for watching over us.

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