A Reason to Stay

Loving well in a broken place

The gray high-speed train splits the bright green countryside in two, zipping past one small village after another as it carries our team from In Touch deeper into eastern Ukraine.

“This line used to go all the way to Donetsk,” says Aleksandr Gerasimov, my Ukrainian-American source. It’s how he would travel to the place of his birth—if he were  able to return. Ever since the conflict with Russia began four years ago, separatists have sealed off the city.

The author, second from left, interviews Yaroslav Malko about the building of an elderly home in eastern Ukraine.
 

The farther we move east, the emptier the train becomes. By the time we prepare to arrive at the last stop in Kramatorsk, hundreds of passengers have dwindled to a couple dozen at most. When I ask about this, a serious look falls on the face of Yaroslav Malko, the founder of a local humanitarian organization. “These days, most people are going the other direction,” he says.

As we exit the station, passing planters of magenta roses in full bloom, we’re greeted by a young man with sandy blond hair. Yaroslav introduces him as Eduard Pavenko, who—along with his father Viktor, a pastor —has welcomed us here. Eduard thanks us for making the long journey and loads our bags into his van.

Over lunch, the Pavenkos tell us what it was like four years ago, when separatists seized control of the town seemingly overnight. People fled in fear. Their congregation halved. Though some have since returned, few are from the younger generation. With an economy teetering, Kramatorsk lost its appeal and young adults are looking for opportunity elsewhere —either in Kiev or in countries to the west. It turns out that Eduard, 30, is in the minority age-wise here.

Eduard Pavenko, far right, leads his family in a traditional song of remembrance for two slain relatives.
 

Following services at church the next day, Eduard drives us to a memorial I’m interested in seeing. It stands in remembrance of four men, two of them his close cousins, who were kidnapped from a church on Pentecost Sunday in 2014. Their bodies were found weeks later in a mass grave, mutilated nearly beyond recognition by repetitive gunfire.

One by one, cars file in. Family members get out and embrace each other. Several walk up to the memorial, a pair of intersecting white arches over a large black cross. Some weep, reaching hands up to etched portraits of the deceased. Once everyone is there, Aleksandr Pavenko, father of the slain and uncle to Eduard, asks his nephew to lead the group in song. Eduard steps forward and, with the same beautiful voice that joined a choir in worship an hour earlier, begins what I take for a traditional Ukrainian dirge. The song settles and unites the mourners under a motionless blue sky.

After those who wish to speak address the group, the assembled begin to disperse. Yaroslav and Eduard chat for a moment before ushering our group back to the van. They have somewhere important they want to take us.

Young girls lead the author upstairs to their mother, Vika, who is dying of cancer.
 

Driving through the streets of Kramatorsk, Eduard begins a story. A little over a year ago he noticed a group of children in rags, begging by the side of the street. He stopped to offer them food and to ask where their parents were. Though distrustful at first, the kids eventually warmed up to Eduard and told him they lived nearby. When he asked, they agreed to lead him to their “home.” It was a shed without running water or latrine. The kids introduced him to their mother, Vika, a woman in her early 30s. She lay there, unable to help her children beg; she was dying of stage 3 melanoma, without the benefit of adequate medical care.

I ask Eduard about the father, of his involvement and whereabouts. “He’s not around,” he says. “I knew him in high school, actually. He always mocked me for my faith.”

As we continue through town, I learn how Yaroslav got involved in the story. Eduard had reached out to him, asking for any help his organization could provide. They were able to find a place, rent free, where Vika and the kids could live.

We pull up to an apartment building where two young girls dance, dappled in shadows cast by tall trees. I look to Yaroslav questioningly, and he nods. This is where they live.

Vika sits with four of her five children. As of now there are no solid plans for the kids’s future.
 

We get out of the van and Eduard goes to the back, retrieving a large bag filled with food and medical supplies. The girls embrace Eduard, then lead us upstairs to their new home. Eduard goes in first, hugging Vika and the other children. He asks how she’s doing. Today has been a good one, she says. It goes like that, day by day. One night a year ago Eduard received a call: Vika writhed in pain, out of medication. He rushed over with whatever supplies he could scrape together and sat with her through the night, not knowing what else to do.

There’s some conversation about the children’s future, but it remains upbeat in their presence. Later I find out there’s no clear plan for them after Vika’s inevitable passing. Eduard loves these children, but he’s young and single —not the ideal candidate to raise five orphans. There’s hope that a family in Spain will adopt the kids, but nothing is settled. For now, Eduard will continue to help in any way he can.

A couple of hours later we’re back on the same station platform, awaiting the night train to Kiev. As we make our final farewell, Eduard grips me with a tight embrace. “I love you,” he says. I know his English is limited, so maybe it’s not out of place to say to someone you’ve just met. Perhaps this was the easiest way to say goodbye. But I also think he means it—for two days I watched him love others from a deep well of sincerity and conviction. It just seems in character. Then I think of all the people he cares about here, and I understand. I look at the crowd of travelers around me, considerably larger than the one we arrived with the day before, and I see why Eduard stays.

 

Photography by Audra Melton

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