“The first time I wore a bulletproof vest I fell to the ground because it was too heavy. I would gladly do without it but my Superior always advises that I have to wear it”. Sister Oleksia Pohranychna lives in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, just 20 km from the Russian border. Since the war broke out, she has been crossing areas threatened by Moscow artillery to bring food and medicine to those living in bombed-out villages. She enters the bunkers to be with children and the elderly who do not see daylight.
One day I meet her in the forecourt of the Greek Catholic Cathedral of St Nicholas. At least two thousand people are queuing in front of the church, almost all of them mothers with small children waiting to receive a parcel of humanitarian aid. The cold bites their hands and takes away their words, while just a few crying children can be heard. “I am loading the van to go to Saltivka, we can go together if you help me”, she says in a rush. Sacks of potatoes, blankets, boxes full of food. Then candles, wood, water. We cross Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, in total silence. Before the war, one and a half million inhabitants lived here, less than half of them are left. Not a single neighbourhood has escaped the Russian bombardment.
Sister Oleksia parks the van under a ten-storey building that has been completely destroyed and is today apparently uninhabited. All the tenants are gone except three old women, the oldest is 85 years old. They live in cellars, without heating or running water, and only get by thanks to the aid this nun brings. In Kharkiv, 250,000 families no longer have a home and many continue to live in the rubble because they have no alternative.
Sister Oleksia is a member of the Greek Catholic Congregation of St Joseph. She has been in Kharkiv for six years helping displaced people from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions where fighting began in 2014.
As we walk past a kindergarten that has been reduced to rubble she talks to me about the war that has been fought in the heart of Europe for over a year. “On the night of 23 February 2022, I was in Lviv, my hometown, because I was supposed to go to the dentist the next day. At 05.30am, the custodian of St Nicholas Cathedral in Kharkiv called me and told me with an anguished voice that they are bombing here. In the first few days, we were overwhelmed by panic and terror. I stayed in Lviv because people from all parts of Ukraine were arriving there. Everyone wanted to flee abroad. We opened the convent to refugees. From the areas hit by the bombing, they asked us for medicine and bandages for the wounded. So we started to make bandages out of the convent’s sheets”.
Within two weeks more than four million refugees left Ukraine. The majority were and actually are women fleeing with their young children. Men up to the age of sixty cannot leave the country due to the martial law that came into force as soon as the war broke out. These were convulsive days. Thousands of people who had nowhere to go stormed the train station in Lviv, where at night the temperature reaches -20 below zero.
The queues at the border last more than twenty hours, the main roads are completely blocked and so the only way to leave Ukraine quickly is by train. Abroad, the reception centers that receives refugees are often located outside the city, even in the countryside, and not having a car is a problem.
“One day, a mother of three, whom I had met in Kharkiv, called me and said, can I ask you a favour? If my husband takes his car to Lviv, could you deliver it to me here in Poland? You know, my husband can't leave Ukraine.”
After a few days, her husband arrived with a huge car. “It was an SUV. I immediately thought, what would people say when they see a nun driving a very expensive BMW? Nevertheless, in the end, I left. At customs, they did not ask me anything, but I was very excited and so I pressed a button incorrectly and turned the car off. I must have made six or seven such trips from Ukraine to Poland. One day, jokingly, I said to my superior “Yesterday I drove an off-roader, a Range Rover, we have to buy one too!”
Sister Oleksia continues to do the relay stretch from Lviv to Poland to take sick children for treatment abroad. There are children on dialysis, and cancer patients. At the border - waiting for them - are Polish doctors. “Every time they see me, they ask, sister, is it you who drove here? Yes, do you see anyone else? Sometimes I return to Ukraine by train, other times by the little Redemptorist friars of Cernihiv’s bus, loaded full of humanitarian aid. One day a mother desperately asked me to take her to Poland. She told me, it's me and my daughter. When I went to pick her up, she showed up with a cat and a huge Malamut, a fifty-kilo dog, drooling all over the place. I got them into the car without thinking too much. I said to myself: they have lost everything and I am complaining?”
Sister Oleksia returned to Kharkiv three months after the start of the war, driving a van full of humanitarian aid. The journey from Lviv to Kiev is surreal. On the way, a journey of more than a thousand kilometres, she meets no one, so much so that at one point she doubts she is on the right road. “But no. I had not yet realised that Ukraine had emptied out. When we arrive in Kharkiv it is night, there is a ghostly landscape. The lights are off, not even the traffic lights work. In the centre, almost all the buildings are destroyed. For the first two weeks, we slept in the church. We take our beds there because there is a basement where we feel more protected. The shock wave of the explosions is felt less. One afternoon, on my way back to the convent, I hear a violent explosion and then see a column of smoke in the direction of our house. I am convinced that we have been bombed. So I start speeding desperately with the car towards the convent, imagining that the nuns are all dead. Instead, a house was hit, fortunately uninhabited, in the street parallel to our convent”.
In September, the Russian army withdrew from some areas it occupied in the Kharkiv region. Among them was the town of Izium where mass graves and torture chambers were found. As soon as she heard of the liberation, Sister Oleksia rushed there to help the local population.
“When they saw us they were moved, some told us they thought they would die without ever seeing a religious again, without being able to go to mass. On the way, I saw the corpse of a headless Russian soldier. I thought that Jesus also died for that person. That he was also delivered by a mother, that a mother was looking for him, that someone was mourning him and did not know where he was. Each one of us experiences the Holy Spirit, whether good or bad, it doesn’t matter”.
“You see”, Sister Oleksia tells me, “I am fifty-four years old. My parents are retired workers. The most beautiful lesson my sister and I have received is to be able to appreciate even the small beautiful moments that life offers us. I pray every day for the end of the war. To my mother who sometimes, rightly so, tells me she is tired, I always reply: While you pray. Have faith in God. This war makes no sense but you will see that He will not leave us”.
By Vito D’Ettorre
A journalist with the Italian TV2000 channel