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"For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine."
One of my favorite movies is "A Trip to Bountiful" starring Geraldine Page. It's the story of an elderly woman who wants to go home... home to Bountiful. This is my trip to Bountiful.
As the train neared Konstantinivka, the very last stop before entering the gray or demilitarized zone where train travel is forbidden, I could feel the apprehension rise in my chest. I had no clear idea of what to expect. Would we be stopped at checkpoints? Would I not be allowed in as some had suggested? Would there be more than one or two checkpoints? What kind of questions would they ask? I spoke to a friend who told me not to come... ""It is too dangerous," she said... "You will not get through the checkpoints. Shelling and gunfire are common... thugs roam the streets... there are no police."" Others however encouraged me to come... "It is quiet and safe" they said.
Our taxi driver Sasha let us know that he knew the back roads and we would only have to go through one checkpoint. Going through the checkpoint was not what I had expected... I expected an interrogation at best, but they just wanted to know why was I going to Dzerzhinsk and how long I would stay. They were more inquisitive about Olya's passport because hers was a Donetsk passport; home of the DNR. There was this curiosity, "Why do you come?" the soldier asked. "You are the first American we have seen." Olya, my translator simply told them we were there on a charity mission... that I work for the church. They seemed to be satisfied with that answer and returned our passports. I can't help but think that God was there helping us make it through. Our information was recorded with pen and paper raggedly tucked under the clip of a clipboard; what, no electronic database? When we went back through the checkpoint, on the return trip, out came the clipboard to verify our departure from the gray zone... the area between fighting forces.
Entering Dzerzhinsk, I expected to see damage to the buildings and the infrastructure, but what I saw were a lot of repairs. There was the occasional burned out structure with the most visible damage to the White House, the city administration building, and the inside of a bank which had received shrapnel when a shell hit on the street it fronted. The separatist took over the White House early in the war and it was burned when they were ousted by the Ukrainian Army; it remains a reminder of this senseless aggression fostered by the Russian government. The bank windows had been replaced, but the wall and ceiling bore visible damage from the exploding shell. The teller who waited on us said that it had happened during the night when no one was there; surely there would have been casualties if it had happened during working hours!
We visited both school number 10 and school number 13. Each of the schools at one time suffered significant damage. School number 10 had windows and a portion of the roof replaced as did school number 13. The repair made possible by funds provided by UNICEF.
Surprisingly, upon entering unannounced at school number 10, some students said "hello" as somehow they knew that I was American... we just look different. There were a couple of students who remembered the American camp and pleaded for its return. Our warm welcome was incredible; there were tears of joy, long embraces, and a plea for us to return to Dzerzhinsk this year for camp. We were taken to some of the classrooms to spend a few moments with the children to encourage them... "Look who is our visitor today!" Valentina or Tatiana would say. Through my eyes, the smiles and happy faces seemed to belie what had happened to them. What resiliency I thought. How could they smile with families torn apart, with poverty at a greater level than before the war with constant shelling for months on end.
The classes are much smaller now; some classes had fewer than 10 students remaining. School number 13 has fewer than 150 students enrolled; before the war it had several hundred. School number 10 is like that with fewer than 400 students now... it too had several hundred enrolled.
Our two days there were filled with visits with our friends and church family. Each and every one of them told me to be sure to give you their love and offer their prayers that you would remember them and return as soon as possible. Olya and I spent the night with Maria. We sat in her modest living room and talked about the days before the war. As you might expect, she asked about Bill, Alice, Erin and others who had stayed at her house during past summer camps. Maria is more feeble now, but she manages to get around with her cane... a simple stick. She fell recently and hurt her ribs and hip; she moves slowly at a cautious pace; unable to attend church. Recently she tried to walk to church, but this time fell on the road unable to get up by herself. Her humble surroundings witnessed to me the hard life that each of them live. The war only brought tragedy to a life whose only hope is in God's love. Before we left Maria talked about her decline in health and that the end was near for her... there was nothing left but the grave. I was shocked when I heard this. Was her age clouding her mind? Or, has she never fully understood the wonderful gift God graciously gives His children... did others in the Church there feel this way? I tried to encourage her with the hope each of us has in our Savior... yes, our bodies do waste away, but we will be raised a new creation in Christ to live forever in His presence without fear of the stresses of our current state.
How I wish I had more time! Everyone had a story to tell about the war and the terror that came with it. Olya and I listened to tales of times when they could hear shells screaming as they rained down. "Will this shell hit my house?" "Where can I hide?" They would hide in the safest place they knew... in cold dark root cellars for hours and days clinging to the hope they would somehow survive. Lena, a member of the church, lived very near the artillery line hidden in the forest just behind her house. She told us of times working in the garden one minute and running for cover the next as shells exploded nearby. Nadia told us that she could look up in the night sky and see the red glow of incoming shells fired by the separatist forces in Gorlovka at the Ukrainian troop positions not more than 100 meters away from her house. I asked about her 90 plus year-old aunt, who had fought in the great war, Nadia said that she had passed away more than two years earlier. As if it were yesterday, I remembered her thick ankle-length wool coat tightly wrapped around her body... soiled from a winters worth of coal dust and wear appearing as if had never been removed. And, the winter boots she wore in the hot summers as if it were still winter... During camp we would be awoken each morning at 5AM with loud music coming from the small one room stone house she lived in.... her shuffling about as she moved around the yard and neatly manicured vegetable gardens.
We heard stories of young Ukrainian soldiers coming out of the forest wearing flip flops instead of boots... drunk on the cheap liquor sold at the village markets... numbing their senses to the terror of war; taking items from the small markets without paying. These are the drafted ones we were told.
Every person we spoke to had stories to tell. Tamara told us of a time when a Ukrainian tank parked outside of her house fired rounds at the separatist in Gorlovka 6 km away. "The blast was so strong that it blew my fence down," she exclaimed. But, with the help of neighborly men, they were able to repair the fence and today it looks as if it has never been damaged by anything other than the elements. This is how they survived... relying on each other.
These are but a few of the stories that were shared with us. I am so very blessed by the visit... had there not been a cease-fire over the Easter holidays I would not likely have visited. Each side agreed to observe a cease-fire so Easter tradition could be observed. These are strong men and women, but just as cracks from constant shelling could be seen on the walls of these modest houses so could the toll of constant terror be seen etched on their faces.
Dzerzhinsk is a much smaller town today than when we held American camp there. Three coal mines remain operational, but not at full capacity. One mine was cut apart and the steel hauled away. There is no industry in this small town that once boasted a population of about 150,000, but tradition lives on as Easter is a time of hope and rebirth. Everyone does their part cleaning the streets, painting fences and clearing away weeds that cover unkept graves. Easter Sunday is a traditional time when families gather at grave sites to eat and drink as if having a picnic with family members who have gone from their lives... sharing memories of a time when they were all together gathered around the family table eating, drinking and laughing.
What will happen in Dzerzhinsk and the rest of Ukraine? People there blame the Western Ukrainians for their current plight... many in the west of Ukraine don't seem to care. Only God knows. As Olya and I rode north to Kyiv and away from war, we came away with doubt in our minds that the situation there would return to peace any time soon. We also came away feeling encouraged by the strength of our family who we left behind, who could not or would not leave when war was at its fiercest. Ukrainians have a very strong bond to their place of birth. A bond that is slowly giving way as young people move away... going where the jobs are.
Let us consider if only for a moment how pathetic are our complaints when the traffic is heavy, or inconvenienced when our food arrives a few minutes late?
"When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha." II Kings 6:15-17
Thank you Father for pulling back the curtain for a few moments so that I might see your wonderful love in hearts of these your children. May you keep them ever by your side.