(OSV News) — As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its ninth month, Basilian Sister Lucia Murashko says the “most difficult” hardship is “never knowing whether you will wake up in the morning.”
“War is the worst thing in the world,” Sister Lucia told OSV News by telephone from Zaporizhzhia, a key regional capital in southeastern Ukraine. “If you see a destroyed apartment building with several flats, and you smell the dust in the air, you realize that many people are still under the walls, suffering and dying, and you are so close to this terrible thing. Sometimes you think, ‘Why them and not me?'”
Along with two fellow sisters, Sister Lucia has remained in Zaporizhzhia since Russia launched its Feb. 24 full-scale invasion of the country.
Russia’s conflict with Ukraine began in 2014 with the seizure of Crimea and backing of armed separatist movements in the Donbas that led to 14,000 deaths. But Russia’s full-scale invasion this year has inflicted massive atrocities on the civilian population including thousands of cases of torture, rape and summary executions; mass graves have been uncovered in numerous locations.
This past May, the Washington, D.C.-based New Lines Institute and the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights jointly described Russia’s actions in Ukraine as genocide.
Relentless strikes by Russia on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine in response to battlefield setbacks have severely disrupted electricity supplies throughout that nation as winter sets in — a campaign Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has described as “Russian energy terror.”
With Ukraine a major supplier of grains, sunflower oil and other agricultural products, global food supplies have also been endangered due to the war.
Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, has been occupied by Russia since early March, with the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency urgently calling for a safety zone around the plant to prevent any military damage leading to a nuclear disaster.
Yet even suffering through these horrors, Sister Lucia said she finds hope.
“Someone once said that in the dark times, you can see light more easily,” she said. “And you really do see it, and you experience how God works and how he cares about us. It’s an amazing time, filled with the blessing of trust in God.”
‘No reason to look for a safe place’
Shortly after the Feb. 24 invasion, Sister Lucia and her fellow Basilians began helping area residents, particularly those with disabilities, evacuate the country.
“We welcomed families and refugees into our convent, but we also helped them on their way westward,” she said.
At the same time, “some people stayed — old people, parents and all the people unable to travel,” Sister Lucia said. “So we tried to assist them, too.”
Those numbers grew as civilians fled to the city of Zaporizhzia from the surrounding province of the same name, and from other parts of the frontline.
“We received permission not to keep clausura (monastic enclosure),” Sister Lucia said. “Our superior told us it was impossible since we were welcoming refugees into our home.”
Thanks to generous donations coordinated by Basilian sisters throughout the world, the Zaporizhzhia sisters have been providing both material and spiritual aid to those displaced and traumatized by the war.
“We help with food, washing their clothes, giving them a place to brush their teeth and take a shower,” Sister Lucia said.
Amid the unyielding attacks, they have managed to find “a kind of security,” she said.
“We hear sirens four times a night, and if you reacted to every siren, you wouldn’t be able to function during the day … because you didn’t sleep,” said Sister Lucia. “There’s no reason to look for a safe place in the country, because (the strikes) are everywhere.”
Bringing faith to the frontlines
At the same time, Sister Lucia is quick to stress that faith, not fatalism, drives her wartime mission, which includes regular trips to bring humanitarian aid to the frontlines.
“We have a group of volunteers, men who are brave enough to travel, and two or three times a week we go to these villages and give out food to those who are not able to make it to Zaporizhzhia,” she said. “The volunteers say, ‘If you sisters go with us, God goes with us.'”
Residents in the danger zones often weep at the sight of the group, she added — and Ukraine’s soldiers find solace as well.
“They come to take tea or coffee with us, and we always give them the sweetest desserts,” Sister Lucia said. “They say, ‘We will stay here because you are here.'”
She and her fellow sisters also address the very real spiritual wounds sustained by Ukraine’s soldiers in battle.
“They are so angry with (the Russian troops),” she said. “The soldiers worry. The first question they ask us is, ‘God’s commandment says not to kill, and we are here, and we do kill. What would you say, Sister?'”
Her answer acknowledges their anguish, while urging them to remain close to the Lord.
“I tell them, if you are here because your love is bigger than your hatred, then you are in the right place,” Sister Lucia said. “If you know you are fighting for your country, your family, your friends — and even if you kill them to (deny) them a chance to kill us — then you are in the right place. Jesus himself said that if someone lays down his life for his brothers, there is no greater love.”
She admitted she herself has wrestled with doubt and confusion.
Fears of Russian attacks on both the nuclear power plant and a nearby dam also haunt her.
“All the territory here would be destroyed, along with both Ukrainians and Russians,” she said. “We hope our enemies understand that also.”
For Sister Lucia, “tension and trust in God” fluctuate at times, but ultimately, faith triumphs.
“Here we depend only on God, and he decides when we die,” she said.
And she is prepared to meet him, she added.
“In our monastery, we just go to bed normally. We’re under the same roof with Jesus,” Sister Lucia said. “We are close to him, and if we were to die at night, we would say, ‘Hello, Jesus. Finally, I see you!'”
Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.