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Casualties of War

Offering help and hope to Ukraine’s displaced families

by Mark Raczkiewycz

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The dark rings around Dariya Bilichenko’s eyes betray fatigue. After enduring two weeks of constant artillery shelling, she took her 3-year-old daughter and joined a convoy of passenger vehicles on 28 January to flee the railroad town of Vuhlehirsk.

“The shelling worked like clockwork, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. While they fought, we hid in the cellar,” Mrs. Bilichenko says. “They specifically targeted residential areas.”

By the time Russian tanks had rumbled in on the heels of retreating Ukrainian government troops, just days later, Vuhlehirsk was leveled. From a prewar population of 10,000, only about 3,000 people remain, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“My mother-in-law’s house was completely destroyed,” adds the 22-year-old, whose husband stayed behind to prevent their one-bedroom house from being confiscated by separatists, a common occurrence with abandoned homes.

Her flight to safety was harrowing. The driver of the car in which she escaped was shot in the leg trying to get through a strategic transport hub. Their convoy had to dodge rocket salvos when turning back along a detour through separatist-held territory.

After traversing five cities, Dariya Bilichenko finally joined a dozen distant relatives on 20 February in government-controlled Sviatohirsk, not far from a monastery situated where the eastern Luhansk, Donetsk and Kharkiv regions meet.

Her odyssey was over. But the memory haunts her.

“She screams in her sleep, she repeatedly yells to hide and take cover,” says family member Iryna Shvedenko, the 54-year-old matriarch of the extended family, who fled her home in the town of Yenakieve in late July 2014.

Although Mrs. Bilichenko’s screaming spells happen less frequently now, she feels compelled to drop to the floor when hearing a loud sound, “even if I hear a stiff knock on the door.”

Stories such as hers are all too common in war-weary Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists in the eastern portion of the country have taken on the Ukrainian authorities and its army. But where there is fatigue and trauma, there is also help. In early March, an aid worker of the Catholic Church registered Mrs. Bilichenko to receive $300 in financial assistance.

It is just one component of the numerous outreach programs for expelled families and individuals being implemented under the auspices of Caritas Ukraine, a network of charitable groups structured through local parishes and jurisdictions of Ukraine’s Catholic churches. In Ukraine, the main driver is the Greek Catholic Church and its 5.5 million faithful. Bolstered with international funding from charities such as CNEWA and Catholic Relief Services, Caritas is the second-largest social charitable organization — after the Red Cross — working on a grass-roots level with the country’s displaced people.

For people such as Dariya Bilichenko, Caritas is providing more than just financial help. It is also providing them with a more elusive gift: hope.

At one point last summer, 26 displaced people occupied three bedrooms and a living room in the one-level house in Sviatohirsk. Many slept in their cars or outdoors.

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