Ukraine: “We are prepared for sudden and unexpected death”

With the escalation of war in Ukraine, ACN spoke to Bishop Pavlo Honcharuk of the Latin Diocese of Kharkiv- Zaporizhzhia. At over 196,000 Km2, this is one of the largest dioceses in Europe, comparable to the whole territory of Syria or Belarus, covering almost all of Ukraine’s territory east of the Dnipro River. Currently the nearly 1,000 km war front falls almost entirely in his diocese, and cities are under constant shelling. In this conversation with ACN, the 44-year-old bishop describes life in his diocese at the moment. The interview was conducted by Fr. Jurij Blazejewski for ACN.

Could you describe the situation in your diocese, which has become the main theatre of this terrible war?

Our Church is alive and active. Priests and faithful are in their places, prayer continues to flow, as does the daily liturgy in parishes. More in some than in others, depending on the location: where war activities are going on, or territories are occupied, there is no such possibility. Yet our Church serves the people, the elderly, and children, as well as helping our soldiers, who defend our homeland.

A few months ago, you described the situation to ACN as shock and pain. Maybe at the beginning of the war there were hopes that it would end sooner, now it is clear that it will still last. How do you feel in this fifth month of the war?

The first shock is over, now there is permanent tension. We’re constantly in anticipation, especially when there’s shelling and it’s unclear when and where it will hit. The day before yesterday, it was some 1,000-1,200 meters from us, in a straight line. Last night, the bombs hit somewhere very close to us. I know that I will not hear the missile that strikes me. So, when I hear an explosion, it means I’m still alive. We are prepared for a sudden and unexpected death. That means we go often to sacraments, especially confession. It is a completely new experience, a different way of life. In the morning I get up and realise that I am alive.

In addition to that pain, suffering adds a sense of helplessness, because it overwhelms you. Evil is so great and so cynical that it topples the great of this world from their thrones. Wars are very easy to trigger, but how to stop them? On the other hand, there are also great signs of God’s presence amid the whirlwind of war, in the hearts of people who are serving in various places as soldiers, medics, firefighters, policemen, as well as in other services. By looking into the faces of these people, we can witness the great, divine power of love with which God inspires them.

Bishops helping in the war of Ukraine
Bishop Pavlo Honcharuk and Bishop Vasyliy Tuchapets helping the people during the war

What is the situation in Kharkiv now? Are people coming back, or have they now begun to leave again?

The situation is constantly changing. For example, one man might come to see his apartment, but immediately leave again. In general, people are leaving because of the constant shelling in Kharkiv. There is shelling before lunch, after lunch, at night. We are very close to the front line, literally twenty kilometres. Before the war, the city of Kharkiv had a population of 1.7 million. At the moment, there are about 700,000, less than half. But other cities in the diocese, such as Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, or Bakhmut, are very dangerous places in the actual warzone. Practically everyone has already escaped, there are few people left in those cities.

What is everyday life like in a city under constant fire?

The situation of each family or each person is different. If a person’s house is undamaged, they have a place to live, and if they have a job, they have funds. If the house is destroyed, the person has nowhere to live. And if they don’t have a job, if their workplace has been destroyed, the person is left without funds. And when on top of that they have been injured…

Sometimes people have only what they were wearing because everything burned down with the house. Therefore, some people need clothes, some need shoes, or medicine, or food, some just need support, and some a place to stay. Others need someone to take their family to safety. There are many problems and tasks ahead.

Do people have access to the things they need? Is there work?

The destruction of the city is calculated at about 15%. This is irreparable damage. But the city’s infrastructure is working, it can withstand the strain. Those plants and companies that can, continue to work, people in them still have jobs, and some others have been completely moved to other Ukrainian cities. Also, hospitals, and municipal services, which are responsible for electricity, gas, water, sewage, garbage collection, street cleaning and public transport are still working. It all works. If they destroy something, in twenty-four hours you wouldn’t even know anything happened, the municipal services clean everything up and take it away. The fire department, police and other services are fully working too. People try to live normally even though the war is so present in our city. Schools and universities work online.

And what about the financial situation? Are there problems with the banks? Are the shops open?

Only some banks have their branches open. Also, only certain ATMs work. For the most part, these physical locations remain closed for security reasons. But the entire financial sector is working, bank cards are working everywhere. Shops are partially open. I was in the market yesterday – only half of it burned down. Where stalls and kiosks survived, they are still selling there. But people can’t buy anything because they don’t have money. People here are not wealthy. The wealthy left long ago, but those who lived from pay check to pay check remained, they had to count every penny, and now they are in a very difficult situation. Even from the clothes, one can see that such a person has always led a dignified life, but the war has made them poor, or homeless. Many people have also been affected psychologically, and some began abusing alcohol.

In some cities, far from the front, people are already ignoring the air-raid alert. How about in Kharkiv, are people taking cover, or ignoring the alerts and just going about their lives?

At the beginning of the war, people reacted more when there was shelling, they generally did not come out of their basements and shelters. Many did not come out at all, they lived there constantly, and some are still very panicked to this day. There are streets where people hardly felt that the war is going on, because it was completely quiet. And there are also neighbourhoods where everything is destroyed. I see that most people have become braver, the tired psyche begins to suppress the sense of danger.

Cathedral of Kharkiv used as warehouse in the war of Ukraine
Cathedral of Kharkiv used as warehouse due the war

What is the security situation like?

People stand around and keep talking when the shelling is far away, and when the shells are heard closer, they scatter. But when nothing happens for two or three minutes, people come out again. The day before yesterday, a father was driving a car with his son. They had come to the city to file papers for university and were returning home. Suddenly a shell directly hit the car. Some debris was left from the car, but their bodies were torn to pieces.

As you see, people continue to drive during the shelling, and some will make it through, and some will not. But let’s not think that people are irresponsible. The danger lasts so long that somehow you have to learn to ignore it, but you also have to think and make decisions. Previously, people just didn’t control it: they would run away, and then they would start to think. But it is very exhausting when you have to run away ten times in a day.

Your diocese is probably unique, in that it has people fleeing from it, but also seeking refuge in it.

Some people from Kharkiv, or other frontline cities, moved to the nearest villages – to their relatives, or to empty houses there. But when they saw that it didn’t end, some began to go further. Inside the country, too, you need to find a place to live and work, and there are many difficulties involved. On the other hand, going abroad means that only the wife and children can leave, and the husbands have to stay in Ukrainian territory, because of martial law. This is a huge blow to the family, to the spouses, and causes great suffering.

People are constantly on the move. Some settle somewhere and get a job, and some fail. Sometimes it seems as if people are finally settled in a new place, and suddenly they are told: “sorry, we have to ask you to leave our house”. The fate of each move is different, but always difficult. Some come back because they say it is easier for them to live under fire, in danger, than to live as refugees.

In this situation, who are you? You have no rights, you can’t plan anything, you have nothing of your own. You always feel that you are hovering over someone’s head and that others are watching you too. It is very difficult psychologically. If someone wants to try, let them leave their home for a month, inviting themselves to another’s house, then another, then a third, then a fourth, always as a guest, and moving all the time.

How does the Church in your diocese work with refugees and internally displaced people?

Here in Kharkiv, we have the Marian Fathers and Caritas, they are helping displaced people, as many people who have lost their homes have come to the city. Here, not far from the border, twenty houses in one village were wrecked yesterday. Russian troops are simply destroying our Ukrainian villages, and then the survivors flee to the city, because it is no longer possible to live there. Displaced people from nearby villages are also coming to Kharkiv, although Kharkiv is still under shelling every day.

We also work in other places, we help by distributing humanitarian aid, things for children, food, diapers, or just being available to talk. There are such cases in Poltava, Sumy, Konotop, Dnipro, as well as in Zaporizhzhia and Pokrovsk.

What would you like to say to the benefactors who make it possible for ACN to send aid to Ukraine and to your diocese?

I thank you for this opportunity, and I would like, on behalf of all those who receive aid, as well as myself, to sincerely thank you all for your open hearts and your help. It doesn’t matter whether it was a lot or a little, what is important is that you have not remained indifferent to our situation. I sincerely thank you! May God bless you!

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