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Caritas, volunteer medics prepare for possible Ukraine invasion

Tactical training east of Ukraine border

EyePress via AFP

John Burger - published on 02/23/22

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Caritas is the worldwide organization sponsored by the Catholic Church to help people in need. In Ukraine, Caritas has 37 local chapters that operate with a collective total of more than 1,000 staff and volunteers.

Last year, when hints began emerging of a Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, it was relatively simple for Caritas to develop contingency plans in the event of some military action. As the months passed and the threat from Russia increased, it became harder to develop a plan for every possible scenario, said Kyiv-based Tetiana Stawnychy, president of Caritas Ukraine.

“We decided the best we could do is strengthen our network: strengthen our communication, making sure all our centers are up to full capacity to be able to respond to any kind of humanitarian needs that might happen,” Stawnychy said in an interview Tuesday. “We’ve prepared an initial response if there should be an IDP [internally displaced persons] crisis; how we would respond and what we need to be able to do that. So we’ve done a lot of pre-positioning of plans so we’re ready in case something does happen.”

Stawnychy, a Ukrainian-American woman who formerly worked for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Caritas staff in Ukraine was not initially expecting something on a large scale, “certainly nothing like what’s happened in the last day. … The events of last evening were shocking for people.”

She was referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recognition on Monday of two breakaway Ukrainian territories as independent. The self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics operate in an area of Eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas. The separatists, who are backed by Russia, have been locked in a struggle with the Ukrainian Armed Forces since 2014. 

Caritas teams flee shelling

Meanwhile, a months-long buildup of Russian troops and military equipment along its border with Ukraine has alarmed the United States and European allies. U.S. intelligence agencies predicted that Russia would create a pretext to invade the country, possibly with a “false flag” operation whereby it would stage an attack on a Russian-speaking population in Donbas, purportedly carried out by Ukrainian forces.

Last week, shelling along the front line in the Donbas – known as the line of contact – picked up sharply. It was apparently in response to those hostilities that Putin formally recognized the republics’ independence. Then, on Tuesday, the Russian parliament green-lighted him to deploy the military outside of Russia. The New York Times reported Tuesday evening that Western leaders said Russian troops have already entered Ukraine.

Stawnychy reported that two Caritas teams, which had been working in the “buffer zone” – an area of several kilometers inside Ukrainian-controlled territory up to the contact line – had to leave in response to isolated flare-ups of hostilities. Over the weekend, the remaining two teams also left, as the shelling had spread all up and down the line of contact. 

Caritas’ work in the area has included dealing with an IDP crisis when hostilities began in 2014. As in other parts of Ukraine, it has also included home care; work with children from vulnerable families; workshops for people with special needs; providing food, hygiene, and medicine; restoring safe drinking water, and providing psycho-social support. 

Now, with a possible full-scale invasion of Ukraine on the horizon, Stawnychy said Caritas is “just making sure we’re ready as an organization to be able to fulfill our mission, which is to help people in need, to be that expression of practical love to our neighbor that the Church preaches.” In particular, though, she is concerned about a potential mass migration of people fleeing war. 

She also said that, as has been widely reported, Ukrainians are not panicking and are mostly going about their everyday business. But, she believes, for many people, the tension is rising. 

Asked what worries her the most, she thought for a moment and said, “We’re concerned about our staff and also our ability to do our mission.” 

What makes things difficult, she said, is the unpredictability of the situation. Compared to knowing that a hurricane is coming — when “you know the steps you have to take to prepare for it, you know where you’re moving” — in the current situation “you’re not quite sure what it is that we’ll be faced with.”

“I think that’s why we picked this strategy of just strengthening who we are,” she said. “Let’s strengthen ourselves in our mission and in our capacity to help people in need. That’s been our goal for the last month.”

Medics on call

Meanwhile, a network of volunteer medical personnel that was set up in response to the initial Donbas conflict in 2014 is prepared to mobilize in the event of an invasion. The Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital (PFVMH) is a nongovernmental project coordinating civil health professionals in the provision of medical assistance in the conflict zone. It is not affiliated with Caritas. Since 2014, the volunteer medics, who come from 172 locations around Ukraine, have treated more than 50,000 patients, both civilians and combatants.

For the last two years, said co-founder Gennadiy Druzenko, “the volunteers have been serving in their own hospital because the front line is COVID-19, not the Russian aggression. So far.”

In an interview Tuesday, Kyiv-based Druzenko said, “If Putin decides to invade, we will send medics to the front line.” 

He said the organization receives help from Catholic and Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. In 2019, in conjunction with the installation of Archbishop Borys Gudziak as Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, an exhibition of “icons on ammo boxes” raised funds for the PFVMH.

Druzenko, himself a member of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, said that the PFVMH is worried about an interruption in the electric supply and in electronic communications facilities in the event of an invasion. “We agreed what to do if communications are jammed or electricity is cut off,” he said. “We realistically estimated different possibilities.”

He said that many Ukrainian civilians are learning how to use weapons and are prepared for a resistance in case of an eventual Russian takeover. Acknowledging the improbability of NATO and EU memberships for Ukraine for the foreseeable future, he commented, “So we have no choice but to transform Ukraine into a European Israel. It is up to us.”

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