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Nov24MonIn Ukraine, The Salvation Army offers hope in the midst of destruction. November 24, 2014 by Kristin Ostensen
In Donetsk, Ukraine, the signs of civil war are everywhere. Houses are riddled with bullet holes. Buildings are burned and charred. There is often no water, no electricity and very little food. Even with a ceasefire between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian rebels signed in September, shelling continues, lives are lost and a city sits in ruins.
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The fighting forced The Salvation Army to evacuate its corps officer in Donetsk in July, a decision Major Beat Rieder and Major Annette Rieder-Pell, divisional leaders, made out of necessity. “Donetsk is under siege—it is the worst of the worst,” says Major Beat Rieder. “We had to shut down corps activity. We couldn't let him stay there.”
The officer, Captain Yuri Pomytkin, was transferred to nearby Kharkiv where he helps others like himself who have been forced from their homes.
“We grieve when we do not understand; we empathize with people and share their pain and loss. We're worried for our children, friends and acquaintances,” Captain Pomytkin says.
“We are like Christ's disciples in a boat in the middle of the storm. It is not easy—we cannot quell the storm—but we know that the Lord does not leave us, even for a minute. He is there.”
A Nation at War
To date, approximately 3,000 people have died as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, and a million have had to leave their homes, becoming refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs). For those living through the conflict, the situation is almost unbelievable.
“If someone had told me a year ago that, in 2014, I would be living in a time of war in Ukraine, I would have thought it was a bad joke,” says Captain Victor Stasiuc, program co-ordinator at divisional headquarters in Kyiv (Kiev). For the past year, he has watched as his country has descended into civil war.
“If you can't access money, you can't buy the necessary things to live, to survive"
Protests erupted on November 21, 2013, after the Ukrainian government announced it would withdraw from trade negotiations with the European Union to seek closer economic relations with Russia. These protests spread from Kyiv across Ukraine, culminating in February 2014 when then-President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown and a new interim government installed.
However, this was followed by unrest in the eastern region of Crimea, where a referendum was held in March on whether Crimeans wished to join Russia. Though the motion passed with a large majority, the UN General Assembly declared the referendum invalid, arguing that it violated international law.
This referendum was not without consequences for The Salvation Army. Before the vote, the Ukraine Division operated nine corps, including two in Crimea. Afterward, those corps had to be transferred to the Russia Division, as divisional headquarters could no longer send support there.
The change in government also affected many IDPs.
“When Crimea was annexed, banks stopped working; people couldn't access money,” explains Major Annette Rieder-Pell. “If you can't access money, you can't buy the necessary things to live, to survive. So for a lot of these displaced people, it's enormously important that they are given some of the basics, because many of them cannot get what they need.”
The Rieders took up their post as divisional leaders of Ukraine in May, just as the fighting between the government and the rebels was escalating. Even still, they made a point of visiting each corps in their division, travelling by train rather than car to avoid potentially dangerous roadblocks.
Aside from Donetsk, The Salvation Army has three corps in eastern Ukraine, in Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkiv and Kirovograd. Dnepropetrovsk is closest to Donetsk, about 250 kilometres away. Each of these corps has a welcome centre for IDPs.
“One of the first things we did after we arrived was to send our program co-ordinator, Captain Stasiuc, to survey the corps about what was happening in their areas, to see whether there was something The Salvation Army could do that was not already being done,” explains Major Annette Rieder-Pell. “The survey showed that a lot was being taken care of, but there were a large number of people—especially women with children—who were moving to these three areas.”
The Army's welcome centres serve two main purposes. The first is meeting physical needs.
“Many of those families were lacking basic hygiene articles and supplies such as diapers, wipes and baby food,” says Major Annette Rieder-Pell. “A lot of people left in a hurry and were not able to take much with them.”
The Rieders applied to international emergency services at International Headquarters (IHQ) and, so far, have been able to provide 3,100 food packages to IDPs, assisting 15,500 people. In addition to the aid from IHQ, The Salvation Army has partnered with UNICEF to distribute hygiene supplies to IDPs, helping
A Place of Welcome
The second purpose of the welcome centres is to meet social and spiritual needs.
“One of the most important things to remember is that in civil wars, such as Bosnia for example, it's brothers fighting brothers—the societal cohesion goes down the drain,” says Major Beat Rieder. “What people need is to have places to feel welcome, to come out of a very tense situation. And that's why we named our centres 'welcome centres.' ”
With thousands of people displaced and living in unfamiliar communities, many people have nowhere to go and nothing to do.
“We have to occupy the people as much as we can, to give them a chance to come in and talk, to have a cup of tea,” Major Beat Rieder says. “This very simple way of helping is where The Salvation Army is at its best: a cup of tea, talking, being present with the people on the ground. And that's probably much more important in the end than all the statistics we could put together.”
All three welcome centres have also put on activities for children, including day camps and a trip to an ecopark in Kharkiv.
The largest contingent of IDPs is in Kharkiv, where about 25,000 currently reside. Captain Pomytkin is in charge of IDP operations there.
“He'd love to be with his people in Donetsk; it's very hard for him, not to be able to go back,” says Major Annette Rieder-Pell. “But working with IDPs, many of whom are from his area, he's able to engage with the people he'd otherwise be serving in Donetsk.”
Salvationists who remain in Donetsk stay connected through Corps Sergeant-Major Vera Volf, who is also the corps' social worker and, despite the danger, provides material and spiritual support to corps members.
Though Major Beat Rieder would like to send Captain Pomytkin back to Donetsk, he does not know when that will be possible.
“We don't know what kind of situation The Salvation Army will go back to,” he says. “Maybe our building is destroyed. Maybe his quarters is destroyed. Maybe our furniture and property are gone.”
“What we do know is this: people's lives have been destroyed,” adds Major Annette Rieder-Pell.
Though the fighting is concentrated in eastern Ukraine, everyone in the country feels the effects of the conflict.
“The situation is very calm here in Kyiv,” says Major Annette Rieder-Pell. “But you realize that people are on edge because they have relatives and friends in the part of the country where the civil war is going on. Every day you have reports from friends and family.”
“I'm a Moldavian who serves in Ukraine, but I'm not fooled that this war is not mine, because it is,” says Captain Stasiuc. “When I see a 45-year-old woman sitting on the street with a box, collecting money for bulletproof vests for her husband and her son, I understand that there is no 'others' war. When I see the glazed eyes of IDPs who run away with one bag for a whole family, I realize this war is mine as well. I do not carry any weapons, but I do fight to make life for those people a little bit better.”
Outside the conflict areas, families with children face living in cramped quarters for an indefinite period of time because they cannot return to their homes. IDPs have reported hospitals overflowing with casualties in some towns.
“I recently visited a maternity hospital to bring an IDP a hygiene parcel with the basics, such as diapers,” shares Major Annette Rieder-Pell. “She had fled from Luhansk a few days beforehand and just delivered a baby in a town otherwise unknown to her. It brought home the reality of where I am and what I am doing.”
“But any dark lane has bright spots,” notes Captain Stasiuc. “You would not believe how many miracles I have witnessed in people's lives. People have sold their property to help soldiers get equipment. Ordinary people—many of whom are low income—have collected tens of millions of hryvnias [local currency] to support the army. Tons of food and clothing have been collected to help IDPs. Thousands of volunteers have taken days off to help find homes for the IDPs running from the east.”
Major Beat Rieder says Salvationists and officers in Ukraine also have a strong sense of support from outside Ukraine.
“What encourages me most is the number of people who are praying for us right now,” he says. “I think every one of us feels that we are definitely one Army.”
“At this time, it is important for all of us to be a spiritual support for each other,” says Captain Pomytkin. “It is important to be in prayer for each other and to continue serving the needy in the place where we are.”
Major Annette Rieder-Pell notes that they have a prayer newsletter that they send out to people around the world for prayer support in difficult times. For example, when they recently moved an officer from Kyiv to Kharkiv, they were concerned about roadblocks and other potential hazards.
“We were able to say to her: There are so many people supporting you in this and asking God to make a way for you,” she notes. “And the amazing thing was that she wasn't stopped or questioned once on the way. They just waved her through.”
Room to Grow
Though the conflict has taken a significant toll on the people of Ukraine, Major Beat Rieder believes the Army can offer a message of hope.
“These are sad, sad times,” he says. “Now is the time to serve suffering humanity. But there will be a time when we will be asked, why did you serve suffering humanity? It's because we believe in Jesus Christ, because we believe that he is still in control, even in bad times.”
“I have travelled a lot during the past few months and God is being raised in almost every conversation I have had,” says Captain Stasiuc. “People are looking for answers and they are starting to understand who they need to look to.”
Along with the work The Salvation Army is doing with IDPs, much of life is “business as usual” for the corps.
“The normal work of The Salvation Army goes on,” says Major Beat Rieder. “The corps have Bible studies, they have social programs—everything like that.”
Around the country, soldiers are being enrolled and many are expressing interest in officership. “We've never had so many candidates in our division,” he notes. As well, the Ukraine Division sent several young delegates to the Army's European Youth Event held in Germany in August, where they shared in worship and fellowship with other young Salvationists and met General André Cox and Commissioner Silvia Cox, World President of Women's Ministries.
The Salvation Army is also expanding its reach into new areas. Major Beat Rieder attended a parliamentary prayer breakfast in June, the first time a Salvation Army officer had been invited. And in August, the Army planted a new corps in Lviv, a city near the western border of Ukraine.
“It's a very clear indication that we will go ahead and The Salvation Army will only be strengthened through this whole situation,” says Major Beat Rieder.
“The Salvation Army in Ukraine is alive and well.”