Almost 10,000 people dead, more that 20,000 injured, hundreds of thousands of refugees and a civilian population that frequently – particularly in the border areas which the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists are contending for – suffers the consequences of a conflict which is not must talked about but which are nevertheless felt. It is felt despite the ceasefire that has been – on paper at least – in force for over a year now. This is the critical state of things in Ukraine today. Last Sunday the Pope spared a thought for these people, asking all Catholic churches across Europe to hold a special collection on 24 April. “This gesture of charity, as well as alleviating material suffering, will also express to Ukraine my personal closeness and that of the Church as a whole. I strongly hope that this will promote peace and respect for rights, without further delays, in this sorely-tried land”.
Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano described the alarming nature of the humanitarian crisis: “There are over three million people suffering: 800,000 along the separation line marking the government-controlled areas and 2,700,000 in the areas outside Kiev’s control. The newspaper said this was also because the inflexible opposition between the parties involved is the greatest obstacle to finding a solution to the crisis”. Indeed, one of the problems that has emerged, are the restrictions placed on the arrival of commercial goods and medicines in areas where there is conflict of that are no longer controlled by the Ukrainian government. The Apostolic Nuncio of Kiev. Mgr. Claudio Gugerotti, explained the difficult context people face there. He emphasised that it is mostly the elderly and children who pay the price of the conflict.
“60% of the victims are elderly people,” he said in a statement to Vatican Radio, “if children lose their parents or if they live only with their mothers – and this is frequently the case – they are abandoned because on 40% of requests for a place at a nursery are accepted. In such cases, the mother cannot work and cannot be the family breadwinner because she has to look after the chidren”. Most people of working age who lived in the border areas have left and there is practically no one looking after those who have stayed put. All there is are some charity and assistance activities organised by the Church. “The other very delicate aspect,” Gugerotti reveals, “is the fact that the Ukrainian authorities hand out benefits only within Ukrainian-controlled territory but many are commuters who constantly come and go. And this mainly affects elderly women. “During Easter, the Pope asked me to go and visit these areas in the zones that are not controlled by Ukrainian forces, where there are still military operations going on and I saw long queues of women who crossed the area controlled by the Ukrainian forces, having walked for miles on foot, to collect their pension money and buy a few things at a reasonable price.”
The situation is all the more dramatic as a result of the mines that are spread across these lands, often killing civilians. Hence, in the Regina Coeli, the Pope also commemorated the United Nations International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action last Monday. “Too many people,” the Pope stressed, “continue to be killed and maimed by these terrible weapons, and brave men and women risk their lives to clear the land of mines. Please, let us renew our commitment to a world without landmines!”
Political and social instability, a conflict that rages on outside the media spotlight, children who have stopped going to school, refugees, a lack of basic goods are just some of the realities of the current situation in Ukraine. Over a year has passed since the Minsk (Belarus) agreement was signed by Kiev and Moscow with France and Germany acting as mediators in February 2015. But the conflict is anything but resolved, while the mass of refugees – an estimated one and a half million people –remains a severe consequence of the conflict. The problem of respect and the enforcement of the peace agreements is still being discussed. It is in this context that the Holy See is asking the international community to mobilise in order to curb the humanitarian crisis. For now, says Nuncio Gugerotti, all that we hear are the words pronounced by Pope Francis. He added: “The media stopped talking about this conflict a long time ago. Nothing at all is being said about it! And this is very serious indeed because this is after all a conflict that is taking place within Europe, on a wide and dramatic scale. It is also a conflict that threatens the stability of the entire zone, not just the European one.”