“We saw bodies lying on the road or inside cars. My wife covered the eyes of our 4-year-old daughter with her hands so that she would not see this horror. We learned that our apartment had burned down. Everything we had disappeared in a moment,” said 42-year-old Serhiy, a pastor of the Vifaniia Church in Bucha, Ukraine.
We met Serhiy in the yard of the church. It was getting dark, so the pastor kindly invited us to go inside. At that moment, our conversation was interrupted by a passerby. Standing near the gate, she asked if she could take a sprig of pine. There was a huge pine tree in the courtyard of the church which had been cut down. Serhiy explained that the tree had become weak and was being removed so it wouldn’t fall on the road. He invited the woman into the yard and broke off several branches on his own. The woman was very happy; she would put the branches into a vase in her home and said they will remind her of being protected. She felt it was a miracle that her house was not damaged during the conflict. Meanwhile, Serhiy invited me to the kitchen, located in the basement of the church. He brewed some tea with cinnamon and its smell instantly flooded the space. We started the conversation.
“I have been a religious man since I was a child because my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were priests. I began my worship more than 20 years ago when the Vifaniia church was just built. It is the first evangelical church in Bucha. I had only good events associated with this place until 24th of February when the conflict began,” Serhiy said.
Beginning Of the Conflict
The pastor woke up from shaking windows in his apartment. He heard explosions. “I realized it all started, When my family woke up I told them to go to church. Two weeks earlier we announced that if a conflict suddenly began, people could come to the church and stay there. We bought water, food, and a generator in advance. We thought this will end very quickly, and expected about 50 people would come. We had supplies only for 2 days,” said Serhiy, mixing sugar in a cup. He described a conversation with his wife where he asked her to take their three children to a safe place. ““She refused to leave me alone. So, we stayed in Bucha,” Serhii said with a slight smile.
“We saw tanks, we heard explosions. Frightened people ran through the streets to find a place to hide. They knocked on the door and asked us to stay. And so, within a few days, 170 people were living together in the shelter of our church. It was surprising that we united in such a way since together we were Christians, Muslims, Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even atheists,” said Serhiy. The church was a safe place for people from aged six months up to 92 years.
“At first there was no problem with food, but as our numbers grew we were afraid that we would not have anything to feed everyone. When there was no food left at all, during shelling my wife went with a deacon to collect food from the houses of people who were in the basement. They gave her their keys and told her where food was stored. We were very worried about running out of bread . But God helped us. That evening, someone left a large bag of buns near the fence of the church,” Serhiy said.
During the Occupation
A week or so after the conflict started the electricity cut out. Inside the church basement people could hear the sounds of soldiers. One day a military officer entered the basement, possibly alerted to the shelter by the generator which was turned on just twice a day to allow people a chance to charge their phones. After a quick check of Serhiy’s documents, the officer warned people to stay inside as much as possible, and to avoid wearing black clothing.
Serhiy spoke of the things he saw in the streets of Bucha, and needing to find more food. “I took food from destroyed shops, but it had already been spoiled. We had to eat it because there was nothing else,” Serhiy said with sadness in his eyes.
After pausing for a moment, Serhiy focused on the more positive times. . Even with so many people in the basement, everyone felt comfortable . People took turns cleaning, cooking, reading books. He tried to start some activities to distract people but he also understood that that life was becoming more and more difficult. The shortage of food was critical.
“We lived in the shelter for 14 days but realized that we could no longer stay here. We needed to be saved. We placed everyone in cars and drove them in one column. It was called a “green corridor”. I prayed to God for everyone to survive,” Serhiy said.
“We saw bodies lying on the road or inside cars. My wife covered the eyes of our 4-year-old daughter with her hands so that she would not see this horror. We learned that our apartment had burned down. Everything we had disappeared in a moment,” said Serhiy.
Serhiy and his family returned home as soon as possible, about a month later. Since their home had been destroyed, they lived in the basement of the church. As I joined Serhiy in the basement I felt goosebumps from hearing his stories. I imagined myself in the place of this man and realized that I would lack the patience, strength and courage to live through these hardships.
“We even celebrated my daughter’s birthday here,” he said. “You see, we painted Peppa Pig on the wall as it is her favourite cartoon,” Serhiy said with a smile. “During this time, I have reconsidered many things, in particular, the value of life. My belief in God became stronger. You have to live one day and be thankful for every simple thing you have. Many acquaintances invited me to go abroad, but I feel like I should be here.”
“As a pastor, I see that some people have neither hope nor faith inside. I want people to have peace and love in their hearts,” Serhiy said.
Medair arrived in Bucha very soon after the area was de-occupied. Houses in the area were without electricity or water, and many had been damaged or looted. The church remained a place where people came to find help, and our team installed a washing machine, dryer, gas stove, microwave, and dishwasher for the kitchen in the Vifaniia Church. Training in Psychological First Aid was provided for people who were helping others.
“These sessions were very helpful, especially for me. A woman came to the church and said to me: ‘Before my eyes, my husband was killed.’” This is not uncommon, and now I know how to communicate with these people and how to help them with it. I always say that we are in this together,” Serhiy said.
Medair services in Ukraine are funded by Swiss Solidarity, Cartier Foundation, Mission East, World Vision, PMU Sweden,Tearfund UK, Tearfund New Zealand, and other generous organisations and individuals.
This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed here are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organization.