LVIV, Ukraine — Protestants and pro-Ukraine residents in the war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine are being persecuted by separatist rebels and forced to flee, says a man from the Luhansk area.
“The separatists say all Protestant churches are American spies, so there is religious oppression,” said Yurii Radchenko, 46, from the town of Zymohiria. Radchenko, a Protestant, said he was shot at twice in separate incidents but emerged unscathed.
“All the religious communities have been threatened except the Russian Orthodox. My property was taken and we have nothing,” he said. Others, including a recent report from the United Nations Human Rights Office, confirm that looting is being done by rebels and their supporters.
“That is the problem. I have lost everything in eastern Ukraine,” said Radchenko. “Those who remain undergo threats, oppression and are beaten up. That is the tragedy. If the separatists learn that people are pro-Ukraine they suffer a lot. It is like cleansing. Either you leave or you suffer.”
Radchenko and other Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) spoke to a reporter recently through an interpreter at a former military compound in the town of Vynnyky, east of Lviv. About 200 men, women and children are being sheltered and fed there by The Good Samaritan Protestant Church, said a Canadian, Roman Yereniuk, who is helping to fund the effort.
“Many Protestants are not tolerated by the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine,” he said. “The other two Orthodox churches have good ecumenical relations with the Protestants. Many have escaped from the east to the west.”
Some 375,000 IDPs have fled from the violence in the east and are living largely off their savings and the largesse of friends and family across Ukraine, the United Nations Human Rights Office reported Oct. 8. The report confirms that persecution is taking place.
Some of them near Lviv arrived four months ago, others more recently, said one of their leaders, Elena Pavlenko. All had similar stories of fearing for their lives as a result of either direct threats or concerns about being caught in the crossfire between Ukrainian and separatist forces.
In a recent article in Ukraine’s The Day newspaper, Mykola Siry, a senior researcher at the Koretsky Institute of State and Law, said “we are talking about systemic torture of people in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, intentional murders. It is a form of intimidation of the whole population.”
In the Middle East, ISIS is attacking and killing civilian populations because of their beliefs, and the international community is taking military action. But violence is also happening to civilians in eastern Ukraine, where the West is avoiding engagement.
For Pavlenko, fears arose when the separatists placed missile launchers beside her house. The noise was deafening, she said, and they feared being bombed by their own side. Her husband arranges the refugees’ humanitarian aid, and they have a small child. The rebels, a mix of local men resenting the centralized control of Kyiv and foreigners she said are from Russia, are shelling the airport about eight kilometers away in a bid to force out the Ukrainian forces in control.
Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatist fighters recently marked one month since the signing of a Kremlin-backed truce with one the most heated battles of the six-month war in Donetsk. Ukraine said 75 soldiers and civilians have been killed since the Sept. 5 cease-fire. President Petro Poroshenko is hoping the shaky truce, signed as part of a peace plan, will hold together for parliamentary elections Oct. 26.
Pavlenko said many soldiers have died in the fighting, noting a “massive burial site” near the airport. About 400 civilians have also died from Luhansk, to her knowledge. Most people have fled, she said, and those who remain stay inside. Thousands of IDPs have also gone to Russia.
Protestants make up about 2.4 per cent of the Ukrainian population, but Ukraine has been called the “Bible belt” of Eastern Europe and a hub of evangelical church life and missions. Most people are Ukrainian Orthodox (40 per cent), Russian Orthodox (30 per cent), or Ukrainian Greek Catholic (14 per cent). Roman Catholics account for 1.7 per cent of the population, Moslems 0.6 per cent and Jews, 0.2.
While the loss of Crimea in March appeared to reduce tensions between the Orthodox churches – one pro-Moscow prelate even denounced Putin as a “bandit” – bitter divisions remain.
Mr. Radchenko, who worked for a non-profit organization that helped drug addicts and former prison inmates, said pastors have been tortured. He gave the example of one who was injured and taken to a hospital, where separatists were also being treated. When they heard him proselytize they informed their leaders, who hauled the man from the hospital, beat him up, and left him for dead in a forest. Parishoners found him and he is recovering, Radchenko said.
That’s when he asked friends to find a place for him and his family – wife, four children and mother in law. His wife and kids arrived here four months ago, but he stayed home until mid-September.
It all began with widespread protests in Ukraine last November when former President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of a deal with Russia. He was forced from office in February, as most Ukrainian people support ties with the EU as essential to cleaning up a corrupt system. Ukraine is also deeply in debt, and Yanukovych was despised for lining his own pockets and those of his family and friends. But his departure displeased the Kremlin and led to armed rebellion by pro-Russian rebels in the east and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
As a 17-year-old student, Valentine, said at the monument on Maidan or Independence Square, “Russia wanted to control us, hence the fighting in the east.”
Another man who fled from the east, Vasiliy Klimov, 40, who has four daughters and a wife, said things got quickly out of hand at his home of Krasnodon.
“When the war began, local people who formed the bandit groups took weapons, from I don’t know where, and captured the police station, and it surrendered and joined them. Next these separatists blew up the customs building on the border with Russia.”
Klimov said it was frightening to go into town because the armed rebels without uniforms were openly stopping cars and people. “It was scary to say something that would provoke them. Some friends heard people scream from the cars, they heard someone shoot. That’s why we packed up and left for Crimea in June.”
But the family left Crimea Sept. 22 because “there is uncertainty in the air and some people expect the war also in Crimea,” on the Black Sea peninsula. It has Russia’s only warm-water port (which it had been leasing) and is home to its Black Sea fleet. “Crimea is wanted back by local authorities,” Klimov said, “and local Tatars (who are Moslem and more than 10 per cent of the population) are against the annexation of Crimea.”
Annexation happened after the March 16 referendum showed 97 per cent support for joining Russia. Even if the voting was rigged, some people say most Crimeans wanted change; others say a majority liked the status-quo. Some Ukrainian people from the Soviet era believe that under Russia their old ways would be better protected.
Like many here, Pavlenko believes the war is rooted partly in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire for a land route to Crimea.
Putin has said his concern is to protect ethnic Russians. He has accused Ukrainian troops of acting “like Nazis” in the conflict by targeting residential areas of towns and cities like German troops did in the former Soviet Union during the Second World War.
Propaganda comes from both sides, but much of it is from Russia. Russian military leaders have claimed on TV that only Ukrainian can be spoken in the region, when in fact Russian is freely and legally used. The UN report says propaganda and incitement to hatred are causing tensions in eastern Ukraine that could lead to the region breaking away like Crimea.
Language is a sore point. Ukrainian is the only officially recognized tongue, which tends to hamper rather than build national unity. Many people speak Russian, especially in the cities, while Ukrainian is more common in the country. The interpreter, Ievgenii Sinielnikov, a 27-year-old businessman and former PhD student from a town near Kyiv, said many use a blended Russian-Ukrainian language called “Surzhyk,” after a mix of grain.
Another problem is corruption in the legal system: bribery of judges is common.
But the key reason for regional discontent in Sinielnikov’s view is the lack of local control over taxation, spending, and other matters. While countries like Canada have empowered their regions and largely removed the grievances of those in outlying areas, many in the east resent Kyiv’s control of their lives. For them, it smacks of the Soviet Union at its worst.
The month-old ceasefire agreement addresses this concern, as greater autonomy will be granted to the rebel-held areas. But the separatist genie is out of the bottle and will be difficult to stuff back in.
Mr. Bird is touring Ukraine and area. For more about the refugee camp see teenagerfund.org.ua
Cover photo: Orthodox church overlooks a smoke filled Luhansk