Ukrainian bishop predicts new exodus of refugees: “how can they stay?”

By Jonathan Luxmoore, Catholic News Service

[Warsaw, Poland – CNS] — A Ukrainian bishop has warned of a humanitarian disaster caused by Russian attacks on his country’s power and water supplies and predicted a “huge new wave of refugees” desperate to survive winter.

“While front-line fighting continues, we now face constant attacks from Russia’s S-300 missiles and Iranian kamikaze drones — it’s worst at night, when people go to sleep not knowing if their apartment block will be hit,” said Auxiliary Bishop Jan Sobilo of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia.

“Many who never previously considered leaving are now in western Ukraine or have left the country, and I think another huge wave of refugees will soon converge on Poland and other countries. If there’s no water, gas or electricity in their homes, how can they stay there?”

The Zaporizhzhia-based bishop spoke as Russian strikes continued against civilian targets in Kyiv and other cities, wrecking infrastructure and energy supplies in the approach to winter.

In an Oct. 21 Catholic News Service interview, he said some parts of his eastern city were already experiencing power and water cuts, sometimes for hours, while many residents left the city at night for safety, to sleep in makeshift facilities.

“Multistory buildings have been smashed, with people blown to bits in their homes as they slept,” Bishop Sobilo told CNS.

“The whole civilian and social infrastructure is being shot up, including energy installations supplying power to smaller outlets. Some towns closer to the front line haven’t had gas or electricity for half a year.”

A Ukrainian woman holds her baby on a bed in a bomb shelter during the Russian invasion in Kharkiv Oct. 12, 2022. (CNS photo/Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy, Reuters)

Ukrainian government sources said hundreds of missile and drone attacks were recorded in mid-October against dozens of towns and cities, including in the Dnipro and Donetsk regions, where Ukrainian forces have recaptured swathes of territory in a two-month counteroffensive.

Meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed Oct. 20 a third of Ukraine’s power stations were now destroyed, leaving over a thousand urban areas without electricity.

Bishop Sobilo said his Zaporizhzhia curia was receiving a weekly supply truck from the Catholic De Paul International charity, as well as aid from the Rome-based Missionaries of the Holy Family. These supplies were passed on to needy people in other towns, including those in Russian-occupied areas.

However, he added that half of Zaporizhzhia’s population of 750,000 had now fled, and he said parish life was dwindling as fewer Catholics attended Mass.

The region’s majority Eastern-rite Catholics and communities of Orthodox and Protestants also faced declining participation, Bishop Sobilo said, as fewer people took to the streets, fearing rockets and bombs.

“Many have gone in search of a safer place to spend the winter, while transport is now intermittent and there are fears air raid sirens will sound and they’ll come under fire,” the bishop said.

“People are tired and fearful, knowing remaining power supplies could suddenly be disrupted, leaving them struggling to survive cold and hunger. Those now leaving aren’t looking to improve their lives — just to find any means of survival.”

In an Oct. 19 Italian TV interview, Bishop Pavlo Honcharuk of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia said his own city, Kharkiv, 20 miles from the Russian border, now resembled Sarajevo during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. He appealed for more humanitarian aid, with temperatures set to drop to minus 30.

The Vatican’s nuncio, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, told the Rome-based SIR agency Oct. 17 that Russia’s Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 explosive drones had struck civilian sites close to his Kyiv office, but said he believed Ukrainians would “rather die than live under a regime which destroys and is based on violence, injustice and lies.”

Bishop Sobilo said the resumption of Russian attacks on Kyiv had intensified local insecurity, highlighting that “all Ukraine” was now threatened.

He added that President Vladimir Putin’s Sept. 30 annexation of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions — a move condemned Oct. 12 in a U.N. General Assembly resolution — had been ignored by local residents, who also had “paid no attention” to his follow-up Oct. 19 declaration of martial law.

“These occupied areas are already suffering from war, with terror and death stalking civilians in Bucha, Izium and other places — so how could it make sense to announce a state of war?” the bishop said.

“The so-called annexation is really just an occupation — and people don’t want this, even if they currently have no other options. Most are expecting these territories to be liberated and eventually returned to Ukraine.”

In an Oct. 20 message, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, said he had recently visited Mykolaiv, where “devastating shelling and bombardment” had caused a lack of drinking water. He said Russian forces were using deported Ukrainians “as a human shield” while retreating from the southern port of Kherson.

The archbishop said Russian forces had attacked power plants near several cities and appeared ready to cause floods by blowing up dams on the Dnieper River.

Bishop Sobilo told CNS Ukrainian Catholics were grateful for help already provided by the West, but would fully depend on further support, including food, medicine and clothing, to survive the winter and “keep hopes alive for the future.”

“As long as we’re alive, and there are still people here, our priests and nuns will be here with them, enduring the same hardships,” the bishop told CNS.


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