Ukraine: Caritas Mariupol keeps serving even far from captured city
By Svitlana Duckhovych
Everything that the people of Mariupol experienced during the Russian shelling of the city was an insult to their dignity, and the first gesture of mercy to those people who managed to flee the violence must be aimed at restoring their dignity, both by ensuring shelter, food, and medicine, and by offering spiritual and psychological support, and offering them the opportunity to earn money.
Fr. Rostyslav Spryniuk, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, thus summed up his work in Zaporizha, the city to which he was forced to flee but from where he continues to work to help internally-displaced people.
Speaking to Vatican News, Fr. Rostyslav describes how he has led the Caritas outfit in Mariupol since 2010, and how he was forced to flee with his family on 16 March.
Going there where there is need
"I went where there was need," Fr. Rostyslav says, recounting the beginning of his mission in one of the areas of Ukraine where a "post-Soviet spiritual vacuum" reigned.
He hails from the Ivano-Frankivsk region in the west of Ukraine, and had to ask permission from the local Church authorities, who "agreed and so I came to Mariupol, because I believe that the priest should go where he is needed.”
There he served a small community of about 50 people. The numbers were low, he explains, because there was no proper church building: celebrations were held in a chapel set up in the priest's house, but local people always wished to build a proper house of worship.
"Recently, we started building the church; we laid the foundation and put up the second floor. The parish was growing..."
The first catechesis - gestures of mercy
The mission in Mariupol has never been easy. After the start of the war in 2014, the city was taken by pro-Russian separatists, and two months later the Ukrainian army retook control. The Donetsk Regional Administration was temporarily relocated to the city, as the regional capital remained under occupation.
"Despite the fact that the front line was only 12 kilometers from the city," Fr. Rostyslav recounts, "life in our parish continued: celebrations were held regularly; we had catechesis; we had our Caritas, which, among other things, helped people in the buffer zones.”
For the priest, who comes from the west of Ukraine, where the Soviet regime had failed to completely suffocate people's faith, carrying out pastoral work in Mariupol was a challenge.
"First of all, I had to explain to people who Christ is, to convey to them what the Church is and what it does,” he says. “And we did it in a very simple way: through love, through the manifestation of God's merciful hand, which Caritas expresses through humanitarian aid. And the people responded, a great many started attending church, and they wanted to establish communities in their villages. The people there are simple and hardworking; they have always been very open. In fact, it was very fulfilling to work with those people."
An insult to human dignity
Although up to 24 February the danger in Mariupol had been close and constant, Fr. Rostyslav says that after that date, he realized that the situation could become much worse than what everyone had already become accustomed to.
"Around 4:30 in the morning," he recalls, "my friend woke me up and told me that the war had started. I said the war had been there for a long time, and he replied, 'You don't understand; turn on the TV. After that, life in Mariupol became what can be described with one word: a living 'hell.' It was an insult to human dignity, an insult to the people, the destruction of human identity itself: people were willing to do anything to get something to eat, to get water, medicine, wood to light a fire and make food. And everything had to be done very quickly, because the shelling did not stop for even a minute, it came both from long-range artillery, from the sea, from where missiles were launched, and from the sky: three to ten planes were constantly flying over Mariupol, dropping bombs on civilian neighborhoods."
As he recalls these events, Fr. Rostyslav pauses a few times to catch his breath. Although almost four months have passed since then, the pain is still very real and it pains him to relive what he sometimes calls "a living hell."
"But the worst thing," he says, "was that people got used to the bombing and paid less attention, which is why so many people lost their lives. My 17-year-old son saw two of his classmates and his girlfriend die. By a miracle he survived unharmed. I want to tell you this: what we experienced is indescribable; I cannot find the right words. One has to experience it to understand it, but I certainly wouldn't wish it on anyone."
Escape from Mariupol
In Mariupol, Fr. Rostyslav Sprynyuk lived with his wife and two of their children, ages 17 and 9. The couple also has another older son, who is currently working in Cherkasy.
The priest shares his recollection of the moment when he decided to leave Mariupol.
"I felt that I had to stay with my parishioners: this is the duty of a priest. And I also talked about it with the bishop. But at some point, the situation in Mariupol became untenable: there was no gas, no electricity, no heating, no Internet connection. Mariupol is quite a large city; 500,000 people lived there. And, when I saw that my community had already dispersed, that I could not reach parishioners in any way, and it was also dangerous, then we decided to join the first possible humanitarian corridor and on 16 March I left with my family. I tried to convince them to leave even earlier, when it was less dangerous; however, my wife refused, because once, at the beginning of the war in 2014, she had left for the west of the country and for two and a half years we lived at a distance and she did not want to leave me again. But this time, when the situation got much worse, she also realized that it would have been better to leave earlier. For me it was very difficult, because I had a double concern: I was worried not about myself, my attention was focused not only on helping the parish, but also my family."
The pastor of Mariupol recalls the plight of his parishioners with bitterness. "Many of them have left, many others are missing. No one knows whether they are alive or have been taken away, deported to Russia. I have established contact with about 10 people who managed to leave from there, but I have no information about the others.”
Caritas Mariupol: restoring dignity to people
In Mariupol, Fr. Rostyslav was directing the activities of the local Caritas office that was struck by a Russian missile in mid-March. Seven people, including two of the staff, lost their lives.
Now this office has moved to Zaporizhia. In cooperation with the local branch, "Caritas Mariupol" takes care of refugees from this city and others.
"Now people are in need of everything," the priest explains, "because they have been practically torn from their lives; they are stripped of their dignity. Our state tries to help, but it cannot reach everyone, because now the main focus is on the military branch engaged in defending the state from the Russian advance. And charitable foundations, such as Caritas and others, do everything to help people."
The Caritas director says about 350 people come every day for food, clothing, hygiene products, medicine.
"In every town and village in the unoccupied part of Ukraine there are refugees, who have lost everything: someone had a business, someone else had a doctor's office, another was a notary. Now they have nothing left, and they feel disoriented; they don't know what will happen tomorrow, how we will be able to stop the Russians, how to find food for their family. They need everything, but first of all, in my opinion, apart from spiritual support, they need psychological support. Secondly, we need to help them regain their dignity by giving them the opportunity to work and earn money. For example, we are already doing this through the Cash for Work program. We also need to help entrepreneurs resume their businesses or promote retraining."
According to Fr. Rostyslav, great attention must be paid at this time to supporting children, and in particular, children with disabilities.
"Children need psychological assistance to feel safe, so that they become children again,” he says. “We have some counselors, but they are too few; we need many specialists in the field who could come and work here. Of course, they have to know the language."
Overcoming trauma to live moments of joy
"How do you manage such traumatic memories?" the priest is asked.
"I try not to think about them,” he answers. “I try to work and help people, because if you start thinking about it, everything becomes very difficult. And then, my prayer is constant, prayer helps a lot."
Hope also springs from the mercy offered to others.
"Joy comes when I see that people, receiving any help from us, begin to believe in the future," he says. “They show it by talking to us, thanking us for the help, because we also take care of finding them housing, giving it free to the elderly or people with disabilities. When I see that people feel good, I feel good too.”