It is now more than four years ago that separatists supported by Russia occupied the area around Donetsk in Ukraine and that Russia annexed Crimea itself. There were truces that were broken and new ones were agreed. There is now a front line that is more or less stable. There are more than 2 million refugees, “internally displaced people”.
In the media, of course, the conflict was big news in the beginning, certainly when the international tensions surrounding the annexation of Crimea increased. And when the MH17 was shot from the air in July 2014 with so many Dutch victims, the country was in the news for months. Now you don't read about it that often anymore and it is no longer in the every day news. There is attention if there is something to report about the investigation of the MH17 crime, but then it is more about the question of guilt than about the situation in the country itself. We hardly have any idea that people are killed every day by shelling.
From the end of the 18th to the mid-20th centuries, Mennonites lived in Ukraine. They were large communities that were often not without means. They had their own schools and hospitals. In the time of the Russian Revolution and the Two World Wars, they were murdered, deported and moved away. In fact there was only history. Thanks to the mission of the Mennonite Brethren (Canada), new Mennonite communities have emerged in recent decades. There are currently between three and four hundred Mennonites in 7 municipalities.
With this information in mind, the annual meeting of the presidents of the Mennonite communities in Europe was held at the end of October 2018. We met in Zaporozhye and in Molochansk. Both cities are around 225 kilometers from Donetsk. The welcome was overwhelming. On all sides it became clear to us how happy our sisters and brothers were that we were there. There were delicious traditional meals (yes, with Borscht!) We were given excursions to Mennonite historical sites, we were invited to church services and we had a pleasant evening with young people in Molochansk. These young congregations are very keen to contact the other European Mennonites, they want to belong to the family.
I think that for every member of the group, the introduction to the daily reality of life in Ukraine has made the biggest impression. The country is economically grounded by the war situation with high inflation, there is enormous corruption, there are hardly any social services, health care is poor and there is extreme poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse. We heard that people die every day in the winter because of freezing because they have no money to buy wood for the stove. We heard harrowing stories about the complete lack of care for the elderly.
The Mennonite congregations try to mean something to people even though they are few. Twice a week, for example, two pastors drive to the "war zone" to bring bread and clothing and to hold services and organize entertainment activities for the youth to take them out of the daily tension of the shelling. That means they run great risks every time. Snipers are everywhere. Others go into Zaporozhye with teams to hand out meals to the homeless. Still others are working as volunteers to give help to the elderly. And in the Mennonite Center in Molochansk, families who are in trouble are guided. And then there is of course the normal work in the municipality such as preparing services and pastoral care. And none of the pastors has been paid. Most of them also have a "normal" job.
These people do what they can to do something for their vulnerable fellow human beings. A number of rooms have been built in a former church building for single women who receive care from volunteers. The government does not care. There are harrowing stories that we hear about mistreatment and even rape by grandchildren. In very difficult circumstances, they act on the basis of their faith to help the needy without regard for persons. They know that it is just droplets on a glowing plate. They hope and believe, sometimes against knowing better that a better world must be possible. The need is high and the options small, the sacrifices are huge.
I sometimes felt embarrassed, coming from a country where there is so much prosperity and where people are so dissatisfied, to see how here, just four hours away from us, in Europe, brothers and sisters in very poor circumstances based on their belief do what the Bible is full of, take care of others, even if it comes at the expense of yourself. We all fell silent. And at the same time it gives so much hope to see this. The story of God and people continues and it is told in the most unexpected places.
Our sisters and brothers there now find themselves in a situation where financial shortages will arise that threaten their work. After this visit, the question is: what can we do? How can we as faith communities help our sisters and brothers there? Ukraine is only a few hours away. Should we not be able to provide support there? Are there municipalities here that want to make contact with municipalities there? To share joy and suffering and to learn from each other? We have now seen with our own eyes how necessary it is.
Henk Stenvers, Coordinator European Mennonite Conferences/MWC Europe representative