By Stan Friedman
ROCKFORD, IL (June 3, 2014) — Darla Ruiz, a member of First Covenant Church who was caught up in Ukraine with several others from the congregation during recent violence, says she and friends in the European nation are cautiously hopeful about the future following the election of Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire businessman.
For 15 years, members of First Covenant Church have traveled annually to the town of Kalynovka. On the first three trips they helped build a church; in the following years they helped with multiple other ministries. Ruiz, her husband, Keith, and another couple, Lou and Sue Setter, were in Ukraine in late April through early May.
“The church was started by a man who was the town drunk,” Ruiz says. “Now the church has really grown and has planted three others.”
“Our Ukrainian friends are guarded; they have had high hopes in the past about newly elected officials,” Ruiz says. “The entire system has been so corrupt that they pray that this new president will be able to bring about the great changes that are needed, as well as deal with Putin and the civil war raging in the East.”
Violence erupted in February after protestors brought down the pro-Russian government. In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Separatist forces continue to battle with the Ukrainian army.
“The problem that they are now dealing with is thousands of refugees flooding into Kiev from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine,” Ruiz says. “People who have helped the Ukrainian army have been targeted with death threats and have actually ‘disappeared.’ ”
One woman has taken in two of these families who had 30 minutes to flee their homes, Ruiz says. The Ruizes met her when she was a 14-year-old exchange student. Now she has a family of her own and is housing the families, who arrived with “almost nothing,” in an apartment in her house.
The transformation of Independence Square has been symbolic for Ruiz. “When I first went there years ago, I felt like I was in Chicago,” she says. “It was beautiful. Now it’s destroyed.”
It was as if stepping into a different world during the recent trip. She likened what she saw to scenes from Les Misérables.
“Piles of bricks, torn from the streets, tires, and seemingly anything people could get their hands on were made into huge barricades,” she says. “We asked how they got all those tires there, and they said, ‘We carried them by hand.’ ”
Ruiz adds, “A once beautiful statue is now black with soot. Street lights stand black and melted into unrecognizable sentries on the corners of streets. The glass dome over the underground mall is surrounded by tents.”
Many of the people have since returned home, but a tent city still remains, along with many of the barricades. Ruiz says pictures of those who have died are everywhere, surrounded by flowers, candles, and rosaries, and relatives continue to weep for their loved ones.
“A huge building that was being used as a makeshift hospital stands black—totally burned,” Ruiz says. “Red paint circles—one for every victim—make a bizarre polka-dot design.”
With the specter of Russian involvement not yet over, Ruiz wonders, “What will happen to those we love? How will they survive this conflict—unable to leave? “
Ruiz says she and the other First Covenant travelers were warned they might not be able to make it out of the country if the violence there continued, but the missions team felt it was important to go.
Ruiz says peace will be difficult to achieve, especially since the younger generation has experienced a growth in the economy and freedoms that they fear will be taken away if Russia or a government favorable to it is in charge of the country.
“The younger generation now lives in beautiful apartments and subdivision of large beautiful houses boasting all the comforts that their parents never knew,” Ruiz says. “Wood stoves for cooking and heating have been replaced by convection ovens and microwaves. Outside toilets have been replaced by beautiful bathrooms with rain showers, Jacuzzis, and flush toilets.”