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“One copy of the Bible must have been used by the russians to annoy the dog, because the only Ukrainian Bible left was torn apart”, – Andriy Shved

    In mid-June 2023, the field team of the Religion on Fire project visited the Ukrainian Evangelical Seminary in Berezivka, one of the villages in Kyiv region that was occupied by Russian troops. The very next day after the full-scale invasion, the village was occupied by units of the Russian 5th Independent Guards Tank Brigade. The Seminary became a safe haven for 17 people during the period from February 25 to March 7, 2022. Andriy Shved, academic dean of the Ukrainian Evangelical Seminary, and Mykola Bondar, Seminary technical director, shared their stories about life under occupation, leaving the occupied territories, humanitarian missions, returning to Berezivka, and the resumption of the seminary’s work.

    AS – Andriy Shved

    AL – Anton Leshchynskyi

    MB – Mykola Bondar

    AL: We would like to thank you for your time to talk to the Religion on Fire project team. We know that after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops Berezivka was occupied in a short time. Where were you at the time?

    AS: We stayed in occupied Berezivka from the beginning of the full-scale invasion until March 7. When it all started, the first day, we met at the Seminary because nobody knew what was going to happen. There were no more students at the Seminary, the training session was over and everyone had left. I came here on February 24, 2022, in the late afternoon. Mykola Bondar, our technical director, brought me, my wife, mother, and two children to the Seminary in his car. We left Berezivka on March 7.

    AL: Could you tell us more about life under occupation?

    AS: Sure! First of all, the traffic flow has already stopped, and second, I guess on February 27, 2022, Ukrainian aircraft was shot down crashing in Berezivka and damaging electrical wires. We were drinking coffee (in the yard) and saw it being shot down, saw it falling. The aircraft damaged the electricity lines, and even though our Seminary was heated with wood, the electric pumps did not work, so we had no electricity, no heating, and no water. We had some firewood and a generator. We used to turn it on once a day, for about an hour, to charge phones and to pump some water, because there were 17 people in the Seminary until March 7. They were not students, but people who were passing by, friends who were leaving Kyiv and were surrounded. I think the next day or the day after, the first Russian column with the “V” marking entered Berezivka from Makariv, which consisted of about 50 pieces of equipment. We lost contact on the fourth or fifth day. No electricity, no heating. We pumped water once a day just to have something to drink. Our refrigerators had no power, and it was hard to store food for 17 people.

    But that was not the hardest part. People said that those cars that tried to leave the area were shot at. And the most difficult thing was that we did not know whether it was better to stay and wait for some changes, or to leave and take the risk, and that the car might be shot, or there might be some filtration measures. We had no information to help us make a decision. There was no common decision on the best way to act. There were constant shelling, constant explosions, constant missiles and aircraft flying back and forth. It was really hard. 

    Once a day we went up to the roof. One guy had an MTS cell phone and could receive the signal. We used Telegram to tell people we were okay. Someone sent us information about the situation in Ukraine. However, no one knew where to go, what exactly was happening, or what to do. Moreover, we constantly had to solve problems with food and heat. It was very cold, we all slept in our outdoor clothing. We had no place to hide, no bomb shelter.

    We didn’t even talk to our neighbors because we were afraid that the russians could check our phones. That’s why no one posted anything in the village’s chats.  People were afraid to share any information, because no one knew who was using the phone at the moment. So for the most time, everyone stayed at their own homes, and there was no information exchange. That was the uncertainty we lived in…

    We estimated that we would have enough resources for a month. Moreover, we had to save fuel, because we had to leave. We didn’t have enough vehicles for all the people, and we couldn’t leave anyone behind. All these issues were quite complicated, both logistically and ethically.

    AL: So what made you decide to leave Berezivka?

    One day we met our neighbor who had contacts with Makariv and Kolonshchyna. Until that moment, we had no information about whether the people leaving the village arrived their destination or not, because there was no contact. And then this neighbor contacted the head of Kolonshchyna in Makariv and found out that someone had arrived there, and he told us about it.

    On the evening of March 6, we saw the russian patrol: three people were passing in front of our gate. Until that moment, we hadn’t seen people, only groups of vehicles, at least three units, passing by very quickly. We had never seen anyone patrolling the street. So when we saw three soldiers walking down the street, we realized that they felt at ease here, and they were relaxed. They had’t even gone inside yet, they had just walked down the street! That was the day we decided to evacuate in the morning.

    Then our neighbors said they were leaving too, they had two cars. Our family got into their car and returned to Kyiv. At first, we wanted to go through Boyarka, but the road was closed. We returned and went through the Odesa highway. It took us about eight hours to get there. We agreed to leave at 11 a.m. and got home at 8 p.m. I mean all this time we were driving to Kyiv (It takes about 40 minutes by car to get from Berezivka to Kyiv in peacetime – editor’s note). 

    MB:  I believe the Lord has protected us here (in the Seminary – editor’s note): there were explosions all around… I mean, they could have hit the roof… On February 27, I went into my room, laid down, looked out the window, and wondered what would happen next. They were just leaving Makariv at the time. So, I looked out of the window and saw something shading the window: it was our aircraft. It was flying towards the first column that was heading here. And when it reached the column, it was met by the russians with anti-aircraft guns. Then the aircraft turned around and flew back. At a height of maybe 10 meters above the ground, it was flying so low, and I don’t know why it turned like that, maybe the air pilot didn’t want to destroy our building and die. I could see its wings through the window, and in order to avoid hitting our building, he flew over and fell down on the high-voltage wires. That Ukrainian defender died.

    AL: What about the seventeen people who lived in the Seminary, did they leave with you?

    AS: Yes, we all left together in four cars. Our neighbors had two cars, so we joined them, and also took two of our cars. Later, two more cars joined us, so we had the whole column.

    We made white flags for us. At 11:00 am we left through the side gate, because we were afraid to go through the central gate, as there was an open shooting position. As soon as we left, we heard rumbling and three units of military equipment drove by us. We had no idea where exactly it was, but something was rumbling somewhere, something was happening. When the rumble faded away, we kept driving and headed toward Makariv. We were afraid of checkpoints. We had no idea how to form a column, who would go first, what car to put the children in… We deleted all the messengers on our phones where we had previously communicated…

    We came to the bridge leading to Makariv, which was still standing at the time, it was destroyed later. We noticed people checking documents. We had no idea who was standing there, whether they were Ukrainians or russians. We approached and I saw people standing at the bus stop. I thought they were pulling people out, gathering them there. All these fascist scenes immediately flashed through my mind… I worried a lot about the children; I worried a lot about the women. It was extremely difficult for me. But when we got there, I saw that the soldiers had a Ukrainian armband on their arms, and I realized that everything was over. And then it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.

    MB: It was much easier to drive in columns, but people did not consolidate, could not stand it and drove one car at a time. Meanwhile, the russians used to shoot single cars. On March 5, a family was driving from Berezivka and they were shot. That was after the Ukrainian Armed Forces arrived in passenger cars with Javelins. That’s how they “hit” first tanks (russian tanks – editor’s note) near Makariv. Therefore, after that experience, their reaction to single cars was to shoot them down.

    AL: Did you stay in Kyiv after March 7? Were you there until the liberation of Kyiv region?

    AS: Yes. At St. Barnabas Church (Protestant charismatic church – editor’s note), we immediately started to provide humanitarian aid. There was another church we worked very closely with, i.e. ICF. A lot of people left, but they had vehicles and we joined our efforts together. Church workers and church pastors were more involved in humanitarian issues. We dealt with medications, because the elderly people really needed medications. Therefore, we delivered medication and food to the elderly people who stayed.

    AL: We found out that the Seminary was robbed during the occupation…

    AS: Yes, it was. When we were leaving, we had to decide whether to leave someone in charge of the building, but later we realized that we couldn’t stay because anything could happen. So, we handed the keys to a neighbor, she had no intention of leaving Berezivka. We showed her where we had food so she could take it if she needed it. We had gas containers that still had gas in them. If she needed it, she could use it.

    Some days after we left, the russian army entered this part of Berezivka. They went into the forest along this road, left their equipment there and occupied these buildings. When we first came after the liberation of Kyiv region, I filmed us arriving, entering the Seminary, and filmed everything we saw. We were then warned that the russians were in our building. It was their observation post. There were three or four people in the building.

    MB: I was informed about that at the end of the occupation, around the end of March 2022. The neighbor who lives across the street stayed with her husband because they have a farm. She took care of our dog, fed it, and went into our territory. When we were leaving, we turned the dog loose to run around. There was food and water left for the dog. For as long as it can, it would live. We all expected it to end very quickly. We all hoped that everything would be over soon. We lived in these hopes.  The neighbor watched the dog and observed what was happening there. When the russians came in, she called and said that they were in our building.

    She said that the russians broke something in our building, destroyed things. They actually tried to open the safes. In the neighboring house, where the missionaries’ apartments and guest rooms for teachers are located, all the apartments have iron doors, so they broke all the doors. In apartments where it was clear that they were people’s homes, and in the office where it was clear that it was a workplace, they turned the place upside down looking for money, jewelry, etc.

    When we came here, on April 7, we saw that all the windows on one side were smashed. It was caused by explosion wave, by missiles. Meanwhile, in the next room, there was a grenade and a bag of ammunition… All those things were left behind by the russians…

    Russian soldiers lived in a neighboring building, in a two-room apartment. They had an observation post in the Seminary, and so they laid an army communication line, a black cable that ran from the forest. I think there were several houses where they had their headquarters. They loaded ammunition here, and then left. When we came here, there was that wire on the ground floor in the kitchen, and later we found a bag of ammunition and invoices proving they had received it.  We have a library on the third floor, and there was a thermos and binoculars.

    When we were leaving, I didn’t know if we would even get to the checkpoint, so I put the keys to the cars that our Korean missionaries had left in the safe. Thus, the russians easily took those cars.

    AL:  You mean they stole the cars?

    MB: Yes, we found these cars later. One was found by the neighbor in his yard, and the other was handed over by the servicemen when they had emptied the entire fuel tank.

    AS: They looked through everything with great zeal. Literally every book and envelope was dumped out. They just turned everything upside down, and it was not just about us. They searched through all the safes and drawers. When we were cleaning it all up, we realized that it took a lot of time to turn everything upside down. Therefore, they have been doing this for more than a day.

    AL:  We know that Ukrainian Bibles were lost as a result of these robberies. Were they taken away? Do you know what happened to them?

    MB: Yes, we haven’t found them yet. I guess a few boxes are missing. One copy of the Bible must have been used by the russians to annoy the dog, because the only Ukrainian Bible left was torn out. They probably had a weird reaction to the Ukrainian Bible. I believe they realized that this is still a religious institution, regardless of what denomination it is. They put these Bibles away somewhere. Maybe, they took them to fire up a stove or something. I don’t think they took them for themselves. They left the russian Bibles here, they are still here, but the Ukrainian ones are gone.

    AL: Did you manage to find out what else was lost during the occupation?

    MB: Small things. I had a new screwdriver on my table, it hadn’t been used yet. It was lying right before their faces, so they took it. The gas container and the wheelbarrow were taken away. We had hidden all the gas containers, and they didn’t want to get into the boiler room, they just broke the door, and it was uncomfortable for them to pull them out, so they took the container that was on top and the wheelbarrow for the cylinder. It’s nothing special, even though there are some household items that could be useful if they lived across the street…  The only thing is that the cash register was taken away.

    AL: Was anything in the building damaged or destroyed?

    MB: The doors to the office and the cooks’ room were broken, as well as the doors to the boiler room and the warehouse. As for the door to the warehouse, they just started breaking it, damaged it, but did not enter the warehouse. I mean, this is about the warehouse, but everything was open in the neighboring one. They broke into every room there, but they didn’t take anything. They were looking for something precious, expensive, so they stole a watch from one apartment, but it was precious only to the owner, in fact, it had no value.

    AS: They left a lot of dirt. It took us, I guess, more than a month to clean up afterwards.

    MB: We also spent a lot of money on car repairs: four thousand for one car and one and a half for another. We still haven’t found the third one.

    AS: I’ve just remembered one more thing. The way we planned our evacuation from here. People who lived around us came to us and asked to organize evacuation. They knew that there was a centralized group here, so they started coming to us to arrange transportation. At that time we were still thinking: to go or not to go. We were hoping that our soldiers would come soon, and we did not want to leave the household. On March 6, apparently in the afternoon, the russian tank broke down near Karpaty restaurant. They blew it up, and at that time I was standing here near the office, and there was a clay tablet stuck above the window. I stood there thinking about what to do. That explosion caused a wave to throw that clay tablet, it fell down, and I picked it up to keep things organized. There were some words from Joshua: “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go”. Then I thought it would be better if there were some other words: “wherever you are”. In that case, there would be no need to go anywhere. 

    AL: How soon after the de-occupation did the Seminary resume normal activities, and did it resume activities at all?

    AS: The Seminary reopened almost a year later, in February 2023. This process was gradual. First, we launched certain programs, for example, chaplaincy programs, and later, programs for inner healing in cooperation with the Trauma Healing Institute at the Ukrainian Bible Society. We hosted several programs here at the Seminary, and then we hosted several chaplaincy programs. As for the training session, we had one training session in our Seminary. And in a week there will be second training session. Our standard schedule consists of a monthly training session lasting about a week. This is our normal training schedule and we have got back into it. Currently, another educational institution, which also deals with humanitarian issues, holds an event here. There is no place to hold events.

    Andriy Shved and Mykola Bondar talked to Anton Leshchynskyi.

    The interview was conducted as part of the project Religion on Fire: Documenting Russia’s War Crimes against Religious Communities in Ukraine, implemented by the NGO Workshop for the Academic Study of Religions.