A wicked storm from the East
Ukrainians wake to invasion and unite against Russia amid a growing humanitarian crisis
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Igor Krykun, his wife Mariia, and three young children slept soundly all tucked snugly in their beds in their Kyiv apartment Wednesday night, Feb. 23. Outside, the temperature hovered just above freezing. At 6 a.m. Thursday, the phone rang, startling the couple awake. Krykun answered. His father-in-law spoke quickly, “The Russians have invaded! It is war!”
“I was totally shocked,” said Krykun, “It was hard to believe this was really happening.” They immediately roused the children, including an infant, packed suitcases, bundled up, and prepared to head to a second home in Bilohorodka, a village 10 kilometers west. But traffic already jammed the roads as other citizens fled the capital city soon to be in the crosshairs of Russian attacks. Rather than spend five hours driving about six miles with small children, the family decided to try again later.
That evening the Krykuns made it to Bilohorodka. Recently, from his daughter’s room—wallpapered with Disney princesses and Snow White—Krykun shared his experiences by video chat. Just 30 minutes before our call, an explosion shook his house and the electricity went off, almost giving him a “heart-stroke,” he said.
“Even from here, where we think we are relatively safe, we hear loud explosions several times a day that shake us,” Krykun explained and then demonstrated, vocalizing a loud boom and gesturing with his hands. “We had Russian planes fly close overhead. It’s frightening.” But after the second day of explosions, he said, the children got used to it and no longer wake. Mariia has taped the windows to prevent glass from shattering.
She wants to head west and leave Ukraine, but the Krykuns don’t have enough fuel in their car to get to the border, and nearby stations have none. When they find some, they will join the long queue of cars going west.
He said they had only enough food left for a week, and even though a store is nearby, no new supplies are arriving. While we talked, his 4-year-old daughter appeared on-screen to share one of their last chocolate bars with her dad.
THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT, nongovernmental organizations, and churches are trying to ensure humanitarian aid gets to Ukrainians like Krykun and his family. More than 2 million Ukrainians have fled over borders into neighboring nations since the Russian invasion began, according to the United Nations. Others, like the Krykuns, have moved to what they hope are safer regions, but they may have dwindling resources as war disrupts supply chains.
Four days after the invasion, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced nearly $54 million in humanitarian assistance for Ukrainians, to flow through independent international organizations. The funds are to provide food, safe drinking water, shelter, emergency health care, winterization, and protection, as well as help for reconnecting family members separated by the war.
Congress was close to approving $14 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine. The European Commission announced 20 European Union member countries are offering medical aid and civilian protection support to ensure aid reaches Ukrainian citizens. Democratic border nations—Moldova, Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia—are welcoming the flood of refugees. The number of refugees will likely soon be the largest since World War II.
The UN has launched an emergency appeal for humanitarian aid for Ukrainians in the country and those fleeing. More than half of the 2 million people fleeing, mostly women and children, have crossed into Poland. The Ukrainian government has banned men 18-60 from leaving the country. The UN expects the number of refugees to soar to more than 4 million in the coming weeks.
Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian aid organization headquartered in Boone, N.C., arrived in Poland, Romania, and Moldova within days of the invasion, distributing food and medical supplies to refugees.
Franklin Graham, president and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse, told me teams crossed into Ukraine on March 1, where near chaos continues as more tens of thousands try to leave, sometimes waiting in line for days. Graham said the group is planning to take one of its mobile hospitals to the area, but he can’t yet reveal a location due to safety precautions. With cities under attack, it’s hard for the charity to reach officials for clearances.
“Normally, we are helping people after a war, or after the storm has passed, but now, we’re trying to help people in the middle of the storm,” said Graham. His teams tell him communication and transportation are difficult. Gas shortages exacerbate problems. People’s needs are changing daily. But regardless of how or when the war ends, teams plan to be in the region as long as needed.
Samaritan’s Purse already works with more than 3,000 Ukrainian churches, thanks to the ongoing Operation Christmas Child distribution of over 660,000 shoebox gifts. Graham said these church pastors are communicating with his organization daily. He described some who are using their own cars to get people to the border, then turning around to pick up more.
Graham encouraged Christians to pray for Ukrainian churches and believers, as well as leaders of both countries, and that fighting would end soon. He says he wants aid to be delivered in Christ’s name—for people to know God hasn’t turned His back on them. He declared, “When people are afraid and scared … this gives us an opportunity to share the hope we have in Jesus Christ.”
FOR IGOR KRYKUN, food, fuel, and aid are not the only concerns. Ukrainian officials recently told Bilohorodka villagers not to leave their homes for two days, because the Ukrainian army and volunteers are searching for Russian spies who have infiltrated the country. After machine guns fired near his home recently, Krykun learned volunteers captured Russian spies trying to enter their village to carry out reconnaissance.
He said other saboteurs entered Ukraine months ago and placed special signs and devices around the country as markers to orient soldiers and missile attacks during the planned invasion. The Ukrainian army has directed citizens to look for these markers and paint over signs or disarm devices. Krykun and his 12 year-old son hiked through streets in their village searching, but found none. He said when people have caught spies placing signs or devices, Ukrainians have had no mercy and beat them.
And, he added, many videos are circulating of even old people standing up to Russian soldiers, sometimes stepping in front of tanks, and telling them to stop and go home. Krykun said some of the Russian soldiers are young and scared, and have actually turned around when confronted. (The Pentagon has also reported flagging morale among Russian soldiers, with some deserting and saying they didn’t know they were going to war with Ukraine.)
Krykun is adamant that Ukrainian citizens will do everything in their power to repel the Russians, even if it means giving up their lives. He is proud of the leadership and courage of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinskyy. Krykun said thousands are volunteering for territorial defense. Because he is on crutches with a torn ligament, he cannot volunteer for that. But he has gathered bottles for other volunteers to make Molotov cocktails—incendiary bottle bombs—to hurl at the Russian army.
He is also continuing to work online in Ukraine as chief financial officer for Publicis Groupe, a global media company that since the invasion has focused on reporting on what is happening through social media. It also searches for Russian groups gathering online data, then forwards the findings to the Ministry of Internal Affairs for use in blocking data miners. Other workers cull social media for coded messages from the Russians.
“We must win this war,” Krykun said. “We are thankful the United States and allies are starting to help us,” he said. And he appreciates that people are praying. But he believes Ukraine represents what will happen elsewhere in Europe if Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t stopped. His colleagues in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland say they know if Putin succeeds in Ukraine, they are next.
YURA FEDORYUK, a 35 year-old pastor at Open Heart Church in Zolotonosha, a city of 35,000, 100 miles southeast of Kyiv, has gas in his car and food in his home—for now. He mostly covets prayer for his family, his church, and his country. He was awakened at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 24 by his brother’s phone call from Kyiv: “The war starts. We are under attack. I can’t talk. Goodbye.” Fedoryuk drove directly to the petrol station, the grocery store, and the bank, for food, fuel, and cash.
He said he is still trying to process the new chaotic reality of warning sirens followed by hours in a bomb shelter: “I forgot it was my wife Nina’s birthday. She forgot, too.” He said he is wearing the same dark sweatshirt for the sixth day in a row, and he doesn’t care. Despite our serious conversation, his sense of humor emerged as he reassured me he has changed his socks. He video-chatted from a dark room because city authorities insist that residents extinguish lights at night, when many Russian attacks have occurred elsewhere.
Fedoryuk said he and Nina are trying to stay upbeat, knowing their 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son copy their mood. His son woke at 3 a.m. recently with a nosebleed, and Fedoryuk believes it’s because he hears his parents crying and praying with church members and internalizes the stress.
“Honestly, we don’t always know how to pray. Before the invasion, we would pray ‘bless us, protect us,’ … Now we are in shock. Now we say, should we pray for peace? Or for destruction of the Russian army? Do we pray for their soldiers—or blame them?” Fedoryuk shook his head, looking weary.
The first days after the invasion, he said he, Nina, and church members cried and poured out emotions. As we talked and Fedoryuk paused, it was clear how difficult it is for him to grasp that his country is at war, and that he, with everyone else, has no idea how this will play out in the long run.
Finally, he said the prayers he would like others to pray, too, are first, a combination of Psalm 139 and Proverbs 4: that God would remind them He hems them in, behind and before—God has laid His hand on them—and would help them look neither to the left nor right, but fix their gaze straight ahead.
He said they need prayer for peace, freedom, and independence. He does not want to live in a country without freedom, and yet, he would consider moving his family to a safer place or country if the situation worsens and return by himself to Zolotonosha to keep serving: “I think about what I would do if Russia wins. I don’t know. … It would be a good testimony if I stayed, but first, I must protect my family.”
He requested prayer for two men in his church, Rustam and Victor, previously in the army. The military called them back, to be sent where fighting is fierce. Rustam made Fedoryuk promise to care for his wife and child if he doesn’t return. Already, Fedoryuk helped move his family west where no fighting looms yet. The church started praying Psalm 91 for them and all the Ukrainian soldiers.
Fedoryuk noted despite the desperate times he has found much to be thankful for: “Everyone is united. Strangers are helping each other. One man donated half a cow to those who needed food.”
He likes that Ukraine has banned Russian vodka. Although this is for political reasons, he said 13 regions have instituted no-alcohol laws, and he mentioned one territorial defense official told volunteers not to bother signing up if they liked to drink, saying the army needed only clear-headed men.
Even with the way Ukrainians are uniting, Fedoryuk has seen things that disappoint him, like social media posts calling those who leave the country cowards and those who stay heroes. “This is not a time to blame each other,” he states. “We must support each other.”
He’s also disturbed by frequent fake news, such as when a friend called in a panic, saying he saw Zolotonosha had been bombed and asked if Fedoryuk was OK. No bombing had occurred. “I always wait for confirmation from a source I trust before I believe much of what I read,” he said.
He said he is feeling useful again, after the initial shock of invasion. He helped refugees fleeing from intense fighting in Eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region find shelter at Camp Maximum, a Christian sports camp with empty beds where he previously worked. There he has led services, helped distribute food and clothing, and watched his children learn to serve as they befriended displaced children.
Constantly, Fedoryuk said, he asks himself how he can help: “This is emotionally hard. I am exhausted. And I may be young, with not a lot of experience, but I will keep praying, ‘God use me.’”
As we spoke, Fedoryuk looked away from the screen, then back: “The best part of each day is waking up because you had a quiet night and are still there to wake up. I took a picture of my kids sleeping today and I was so happy. I had never thought about these things before the Russians came.”
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