Ukrainian Refugee Report 3-2-22
The People of the Mountains
Far up the curvy mountain roads, away from the cities and the bustle of life, where the only rushing thing is the winding river that gurgles and babbles over the stones, are little houses built against the steep mountain sides. The people of these mountains are like the countryside they live in, rugged and sturdy. They climb the steep paths with little effort, and their hearts burn with fierce loyalty to their country. Some call them “Gutzuls”, a name for the mountain people of Carpathians.
They live in simple houses and find satisfaction in their prized cows with their bells that roam the mountainside in the summer and eat the rich mountain hay in the winter. They heat their tiny houses with a pechka, a very versatile woodstove. It is upon these pechkas they cook their banosh, traditional corn mush, and it is in the depths of the pechka that they bake their bread. Nearly always you’ll find a kettle of water upon the stove, heating for a cup of tea, a sponge bath, or dish water. Freshly laundered clothes are hung by the pechka where the wood heat chases away the moisture.
The accent of these mountaineers clings thickly to their speech, distinguishing them from the rest of Ukraine’s population. They have a dialect of their own, a whole collection of words that belong exclusively to the mountain Gutzuls. They understand Russian, but rarely condescend to using the language of their enemies. During Soviet times they had been forced to speak it, but now they were free and speak only their mountain dialect.
In these sparsely populated mountains, everyone knows everyone else for kilometers. Not only are they loyal to their country, they are dedicated to each other. Life has not changed much in the last fifty years. Many people live the same way as their parents and grandparents. The houses have not changed much. Electricity has brightened their lives, but the outhouses, the steep trails, the wells, and the primitive lifestyle have remained the same. They still cut their hay with a scythe and scrub their laundry by hand.
But in the beginning of the year of twenty-twenty-two, rumors began filtering through of unrest and war. Clouds of war loomed on the horizon. Would Russia actually attack their little brother, Ukraine? The mountain villagers remembered stories their fathers and grandfathers told them. Fighting over land was a part of their history. Since their mountain range ran into Romania, they were used to living near a border and having to fight to claim the territory that belonged to them. But Russia was on the other side of Ukraine. They would be safe from invasion. But if not, they were strong. They would be loyal to their country and fiercely fight to keep the beautiful land of Ukraine. After all, these were their mountains. No one could take them away.
And then came the shattering news that bombs had fallen on Kiev, the capital. Loyalty to their country welled within and many of their young men went to fight, to keep the country the independent nation they were so proud of. They would keep watch over their territory. They would report any foreigners that would come into their mountains. Perhaps Kiev would be lost, but these mountains? They were theirs. No one could steal them.
And then two days after Russia invaded Ukraine a white sprinter drove slowly up the mountain roads. It stopped at the checkpoint, and the self-appointed soldiers realized they were in for a little excitement. This was not one of their locals. Everyone knew that the mountain roads were not made for large vans like this. Only fools, tourists, or perhaps Russians would attempt to drive that kind of a vehicle into the mountains. Behind them was another vehicle, a nice BMW, a vehicle with much too low clearance to be practical on these rough roads.
The accent of the driver betrayed him as a foreigner, but the license showed the vehicle was from Kiev Oblast. Americans trying to escape the war in Kiev, they said they were. It sounded logical enough, and they even had American passports and Ukrainian permanent residency cards to prove who they were. But just because they had proof of who they were and because they had an actual hotel reservation, did not mean they were welcome. In the tight knit mountain community, they were invaders.
It was in this situation we found ourselves, weary travelers eager to reach our destination. We had not wanted to leave our cozy home in the village. It tugged to leave behind our homes, the animals, and the neighbors. Our eyes still glistened with tears from the heartrending partings with our church family.
I wondered how anyone could resent Dad’s disarming smile. His deep voice rang with clear confidence and kindness. He explained who we were and why we were traveling. After cross-examining Dad and searching through our luggage for weapons or hideaways, they left us go.
We continued on our way, traveling through several more checkpoints. Telephone service was weak and the road the navigator directed us on was sparsely traveled. We stopped beside two women walking along the road and asked if this is the right way to Goloshina, the village of our destination. The women were petrified and began screaming at us. “No! This is not the way to Golishina! Leave! Leave! Get out of here at once.” We smiled sweetly and wondered again if this is the right way to Goloshina. They began screaming even louder. “Stop laughing at us! Stop it! Get out of here at once! Leave, or we’ll call the police.”
We left, but soon there was a police car behind us and another car blocking the road in front of us. The police were doing their duty. One of the men had been at the checkpoint when we had come through half an hour earlier. He remembered us, and kindly gave us directions to Goloshina.
We arrived at the hotel where the receptionist welcomed us warmly. “Oh, yes, I remember you from when you stopped by our store last year.” Her words sounded like music. Someone accepted us and was willing to shelter us.
Later we moved up to the hut in the mountains. The elderly widow who lives next door was delighted to see us. She blessed us with a bag of dried mushrooms which we turned into soup on the pechka. Her lonely sister who lives on the homestead next to her was delighted for company as well. In return for the seeds and literature Mom gave her, she blessed us with a jar of milk and homemade cheese.
Kindness is like snow; it beautifies everything it covers. As I look across the snow-covered mountains outside my window, I think of the kindness that has beautified our lives. There’s the kind store clerk who gave a head of cabbage from her cellar and did not accept payment. A stranger gave us a jar of milk and half a kilogram of cornmeal.
The kindness from these strangers reminds me that there is still kindness in this world of sin and sadness. Not everyone hates these strangers who have invaded their beloved mountains. There are those who resent us, like the group of men that stopped us on our way to the store in a neighboring village. They grilled Dad and condemned him for being a coward and hiding in the mountains. “It’s fine,” they said, “if your wife and children are here, but you! You should be out fighting with the rest of our men!” It made no difference to them that he is an American or that he is a believer and will not carry arms. Eventually they did let us go, but by the time they left us go, we did not feel too good about being here.
And sometimes I wonder. Perhaps we are cowards. Maybe we should have stayed in our village, risking our lives and standing by the few church folks that remain. When we received a message from a dear church sister who stayed behind with her two daughters, our hearts ached. She feels we have abandoned her. We offered her a ride with us to the mountains, but that was not enough. Her husband who attended church for years but never made a public commitment was taken to join the army. Her faith in God and His people has been crushed, and she feels alone and betrayed. And we wonder, perhaps, we should have stayed.
And then we hear about the needs that are multiplying in our area as the dangers increase, and we feel a measure of guilt as we live our quiet life in the mountains. The past week has not been easy. Living here in the rugged mountains and fitting into the rugged mountain lifestyle is not simple. But compared to what so many others are going through, we have it made. We have a tiny place to call our own while we are here. We are together as a family, and we are sleeping in peace at night.
Today we had four visitors, men who climbed the mountain path to visit the foreigners who claimed residence in their village. One was dressed as a soldier and another introduced himself as the village head. They asked to see our passports and wrote down all of our information. They were polite, but serious. They were especially interested in knowing how many men and boys we have in our company. Thankfully Dad has four dependent children which should excuse him from the army, and my brothers are not yet eighteen. Once again we thanked God that Meesha and Anton are safe on the other side of the ocean. They warned us to stay quiet here in the mountains and to not go to the store more than necessary. “And you,” he said, looking at Dad, “would be better off not going at all. If you need groceries every few days, send your wife and one of the little children. The less the village sees of you, the better.” We understand their concern, but that means we will not be able to have as much access to the outside world. And that looks hard.
One family who had to separate at the border has chosen to return home to our village. Several of their youth-aged children stayed in Romania, but the wife and one daughter returned across the border to Ukraine. They have traveled back to Krivoshientsi, along with one other family that decided to return. Our hearts cheer at the news of believers returning, and we wonder when we too can go back home. Pray for God’s continued protection on us and our loved ones. Pray that God would show us when it is time to move on, either back to our village or further away from the fighting.
Yesterday our village back home shook as the bombs hit the nearest city. Today a sister, who bravely stayed behind, messaged, “Pray. Airplanes are flying overhead.” This morning the village head posted on the village group: “Warning! Air raids all over Kiev Oblast. Everyone quickly go under cover.” The war is not over yet; in fact, the worst may be ahead.
Phone calls made to our loved ones bring concerning news. A close friend from the village called and said, “Stay in the mountains a little longer. It is not safe to come home yet.” Another acquaintance called and said, “Let me know if you need assistance. I can help you cross the border.” I heard the panic in our bookkeeper Alexsandrivna’s voice. “Our city is surrounded with Russian tanks. I am hoping to escape out of the city tomorrow, but I don’t know how.” Kravchenya, a Baptist brother who is one of Dad’s workers from southern Ukraine, lives near the city of Mikolaev where Alexsandrivna is from. He faces the hard task of meeting the needs of the city churches while their pastors have all run to safety, leaving the elderly and vulnerable behind. The local militia took his vehicle from him to use for transporting soldiers. Only after negotiating with them and explaining that he, as a pastor, is using it to help others, did they give his vehicle back. His daughter, our secretary, and her husband are busy hauling the injured to the hospitals.
I marvel at the bravery so many are showing. People are willingly risking their lives for the good of others, the doctors and nurses who are voluntarily going into the danger zones to save others lives, the believers who will not fight but bravely offer transportation to those trying to escape, and many more who are being a living sacrifice, knowing full well the dangers ahead.
My heart aches as I think of the many Russian soldiers who are losing their lives. They did not want to come and kill their Ukrainian brothers. Will Ukraine ever be the beautiful country it once was?
Yesterday the main maternity hospital in Zhytomir was bombed, ending lives when they have only begun. The Grace Press warehouse in Kiev where much of our literature was stored was burned to the ground last night. I do not know who will win the war that is raging, but though churches may be destroyed and literature burned, God’s truth will endure to the end.
Thank you for your continued prayer support.
Anya Hursh March 2, 2022