A 17-year-old refugee took a stroll down a main thoroughfare after escaping the shelling in his hometown of Zhtomyr, Ukraine. During a casual walk through an older part of the city, the rumble of a double-length bus over a bridge, with its shocking noise and vibrations, made him jump with fright.
The teen is still recovering from the nightly shelling of his rural home in western Ukraine with the constant sirens and white blasts from the aerial attacks. His first night in safety woke others in the house with the constant siren warnings on his smartphone, set for warnings in Zhtomyr.
“It is so good to go on the street without hearing the terrible sound of helicopters,” he said. He wore a cotton sweatshirt, hunter green — like his hero Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who shows his solidarity for his army by wearing the military colors.
He is one of more than 4 million refugees who left a war-torn country to find a bit of respite in a strange country — in some cases Poland and in other cases Austria and even faraway Lithuania. According to sources such as UNICEF, nearly a quarter of the nation’s 41 million people have been displaced. Half of all the country’s children have fled their homes. The war instigated by President Vladimir Putin of Russia has caused Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II and its aftermath.
The teen’s parents, owners of an automobile parts store, had their son leave town March 7 following Russia’s bombing of their airport, hospital and military targets. Fond of playing on an esports team, he drove with family friends and others nearly no-stop from his home through Poland to Klaipeda, 25 hours in a Volkswagen minivan with four other refugees.
The early morning before the teen left home, rockets lit up the dark sky and nearly blinded the family huddled in the living room.
“It was so bright, like fireworks,” he said. “The light was so bright, and the bombs made a terrible sound.”
He left behind his black cat, Bysia, and his basketball team but tries to maintain a semblance of family life by calling his parents at least three times per day. He’s living with a couple who, like so many around the globe, want to help the displaced from nearby Ukraine.
Ukrainian book publisher Vasyl Novakovets and his family had a much different experience finding safety.
In early March, friends helped the family flee to Romania to catch a bus for a five-hour trip to Bucharest and then an 11-hour train ride to Hungary and then Bratislava in Slovakia. The group, which picked up refugees along the way, traveled 1,000 miles. On the way, he and his family met volunteers, slept in shelters and wondered what the next day would bring.
“Every day our city Odessa is waiting for the possibility of attack by landing, but our soldiers are ready to stop them,” said Novakovets, in his voice a mixture of urgency and a kind of courage.
A publisher of Christian books and coordinator of the master’s program at Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary in Lviv, Ukraine, Novakovets insists the Russians must repent.
“Most of the Russian people are real fascists,” Novakovets said in an email to ReligionUnplugged.com earlier this week. “They are ungodly sinful barbarians.”
These days Novakovets is living in temporary housing in Austria with wife of 25 years, Anastasiya, and their three children, ages 6, 8 and 11.
“I feel sorry that I did not stay with other men to protect our Ukraine, but I try to support our widows of killed Ukrainian soldiers from Odessa, most of them young with children,” he said.
Ukrainian President Zelensky recently ordered all men 18-60 to be ready to serve.
“I hope to come back to Ukraine to take part and see my Ukraine as a renewed and godly country,” Novakovets said.
Natalia Platova of Rivne, Ukraine, 200 miles from Kyiv, the nation’s capital, asked for prayer when she spoke recently at Klaipeda City Church.
“Pray for the Russian people, too,” she asked, adding that Precept Institute where she teaches attracts students from Cuba, Pakistan, England and nearly 60 other countries — and all are praying.
“Use your two hands,” Platova said during a worship service. “Use one hand to help others and use the other hand to help satisfy the greater need — sharing the gospel. May God make a miracle.”
English language tutor Tatevik Grigoryan from Armenia said two of her students — 15-year-old teenagers, one from Russia, and one from Ukraine — have had strikingly different reactions to the war.
Maria, who lives in Moscow, complained, “McDonald’s is closed — so is the mall.”
Meanwhile, Alexandra, who lives in Kyiv, said she could hear the bombing. “The windows shake,” she said.
Novakovets was born in Korosten, in the northern part of Ukraine, in 1975. His mother is still in that town, and he is fearful for her safety.
“Most of our leaders and all of our soldiers are very brave and more and more understand God’s help for us,” he wrote to ReligionUnplugged.com. “So I think not about exile, but victory. And this victory will save not only Ukraine but the whole of Europe.”
Dr. Mark R. Elliott of East-West Church Report lamented the senseless destruction of Mission Eurasia, a ministry with which he is associated near Kyiv. Russians demolished the building used by the ministry.
“What possesses Russian soldiers to burn Bibles, some portion of which are the Synodal Version approved by the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate?” he wrote in an email.
In nearby Bucha, a northwest suburb of Kyiv, at least 50 civilian men were shot dead in grim execution style, with the men’s hands tied behind their backs, according to the city’s mayor. Photos and videos circulated after the Russian troops withdrew recently show dead bodies on the streets, a Russian tank shooting a man on a bicycle, a mass grave and more. Reports of murdered children, rape and dead bodies of naked women add to the list of potential war crimes the international community is pledging to investigate.
The body of Vitaliy Vynogradov — who was the dean of Kyiv Slavic Evangelical Seminary, a journalist and an affiliate of The Media Project, which supports ReligionUnplugged.com — was found shot on Yablonska Street in Bucha with a friend, also killed. Vynogradov had told colleagues on March 4 that Bucha was occupied by Russian troops. He said he intended to evacuate to Kyiv to settle in his office and would try to find a ride from a passing car or walk.
View this post on Instagram
Fyodor Raychynets, head of the theology department at Kyiv’s Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary and a pastor at Bethany Baptist Church in Bucha, returned to Bucha after Russian troops withdrew and witnessed the devastation.
“From what I saw and heard blood stuck in my veins for a while,” he wrote. “I want to escape somewhere and just be silent or scream madly alone.” He described meeting people who “move like ghosts” and want to share their pain.
“But who is able, willing to listen to this pain,” he asked, “not just listen but hear what knowledge and wisdom it takes to understand it and share this pain? What kind of psychology, and what theology are able to explain, understand, help?
“Yesterday, for the first time in 40 days of the war, I was scared, not from the missiles flying over my head, not from the explosions of bombs somewhere nearby, but scared for what we still have to hear, learn and how to live with it,” Pastor Raychynets wrote. “God give us the strength to survive all this, it’s (a lot) to go through and remain human.”
Elliott’s colleague, Oleg Turlac, is helping refugees in Poland.
“We meet the refugees at the train station in Warsaw, feed them lunch, serve coffee and direct them to the shelter,” Turlac wrote. “Most refugees are middle-aged women with two- to-three children.”
To Yeuhenii Yezhov, a high school senior interested in information technology, Putin is crazy — a leader who ordered soldiers to fight with the idea that Ukrainians would give them a hero’s welcome.
“Putin evil?” he asked. “Now yes. I read he lost 17,000 soldiers and for what? They didn’t even know what they were fighting for.”
Michael Ray Smith is a professor of communication at LCC International University. He regularly contributes to Religion Unplugged. His “7 Days to a Byline that Pays” book is used by some universities in their journalism programs.