International Women’s Day: Women on the rear line in Ukraine

On International Women’s Day, 8 March, ACN highlights brave wives, sisters, mothers and religious who are helping keep faith and hope alive in war-torn Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine is not only an assault on an independent nation, struggling to survive, it is also a war against the family, as Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk pointed out in February.

In a situation where many men are fighting on the frontline, women often have to face many difficulties alone, carrying not only the burden of raising children, or caring for loved relatives, but also the immense weight of suffering that comes from not knowing if their sons or husbands will return safe home or knowing they will never come back.

During a visit to Ukraine a delegation from Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) got to know and listen to the testimonies of women knee-deep in the war effort, helping the displaced, providing much-needed assistance, working with trauma victims or simply trying to make it through another day.

People cry without tears

Tragically, there is no shortage of stories of widows in Ukraine today. Nadiya, from Lviv, lost her husband in the first year of the war. She remembers how important the support of the military chaplains was to her. “They were always there for me. Once a month, up until now, we meet at a service for the fallen. People cry without tears, scream without a voice. Through the support and the prayer I have received, I can now help other widows. Everyone is a hero here, some at the front, the others in the rear, supporting with packages and camouflage nets”, she explained.

Father Andrzej, a military chaplain, with Olha (left), her 6-year-old son, and Nadiya (right).
Father Andrzej, a military chaplain, with Olha (left), her 6-year-old son, and Nadiya (right).

Olha is another of those brave women. Her husband left to fight in 2014, and stayed on until the full-scale invasion of 2022, when he was assigned to Kharkiv. “His final call came at 11:00 pm, and I said to him: ‘Call me tomorrow, because you’re so tired now.’ He died the next morning, at 6:30 am. The building he was in came under fire, he received a head injury and fought for his life for 40 minutes.”

Olha was left with two children. “They went through a very difficult period, and the chaplains helped them to pull through. Two of them, especially, look after us so well that my children now say they have three fathers”, Olha told the ACN delegation.

Being a wife of a soldier means a lot of suffering

Stories like these are what keep Nataliya, another young mother, up at night. “Being the wife of a soldier on the front line means a lot of suffering. The only thing you want is for your husband to survive. But right now, it seems to me that everyone is carrying a burden – all of my friends, my family; I don’t want to cause them any additional sorrow.”

She found the accompaniment she needs at the House of Mercy, founded by the Archdiocese of Lviv. “Here I don’t feel lonely, I can talk about my fears. Coming here gives me stability, for my own good and for my husband. It’s helping me to guard against madness and I feel stronger as a result. It has enabled me to return to a normal life; I had been wandering around like a lost spirit.”

House of Mercy - Nataliya with her daugther
House of Mercy – Nataliya with her daugther

In Kyiv, the psychologist Lyudmila also works with military families, especially those whose children have died or, which can be even worse, are missing. “Women who have lost a child isolate themselves and put their families under strain because they can’t get over their sorrow. I always worry about what I can say to these women, but then I am astonished at how much they change in such a short time, regaining their courage to face life and start to build networks.” The five-day programme she runs takes place with the help of the Capuchin friars and includes a moment of reflection called Cappuccino with the Capuchins., with moments for reflection, sharing, and prayer.

 Prayer is our strongest defence

Lviv is quite far away from the front, but received many displaced people when Russia began its full-scale invasion. With funding from ACN, the Albertine Sisters had already been working on the construction of a shelter to help the homeless, which is now more useful than ever before. “We really chose the most difficult time possible for a building project. First the pandemic, then the war”, said Sister Hieronyma. “But this is exactly when the house is more necessary than ever, and it’s like a miracle that it is now built.”

Forty homeless women, including those with newborns, will be able to find shelter here, she explained, while Archbishop Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki, pointed out, with a chuckle, that the chapel in the women’s house is bigger than that of the neighbouring men’s monastery, “because the women pray more”.

(Left) Sr. Klara Sviderska is the abbess of two convents in Ukraine: one in Solonka, close to Lviv, and the other one in Zhytomyr, which is currently empty as the sisters have fled to Lviv.
(Left) Sr. Klara Sviderska is the abbess of two convents in Ukraine: one in Solonka, close to Lviv, and the other one in Zhytomyr, which is currently empty as the sisters have fled to Lviv.

The power of prayer should not be underestimated. Sister Klara, superior of the Benedictines, also in Lviv, gets frequent requests for prayer from Ukrainian soldiers. “What helps us most is not the rocket defence systems, but prayer. That is our strongest weapon. And when I ask soldiers what they need, they say the same thing: ‘Your prayers.’”

ACN has been working in Ukraine for many years but stepped up its help after the 2022 full-scale invasion, and has promised not to abandon the Ukrainian Church in its mission to help the population.

 

By Filipe d’Avillez.

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