International News

While Russians Shell Humanitarian Convoy of Ukraine Chief Rabbi In Flooded Kherson, Bishops Call For Prayers, Thank Pope Francis For His Closeness

A flooded church is seen following the collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, in the town of Hola Prystan in the Kherson region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, June 8, 2023. (OSV News photo)

By Lilia Kovalyk-Vasiuta, Paulina Guzik 

LVIV, Ukraine (OSV News) — “Dear friends, we came here with SHERP, a special car to bring people here from over the river, and the Russian …” Chief Rabbi of Ukraine Moshe Azman had to abruptly stop recording a video message on Twitter June 8 and run for his life after Russian shelling began in Kherson. Rabbi Azman went to Kherson in southern Ukraine as part of a humanitarian convoy to deliver aid and save people from catastrophic flooding and what the Ukrainian authorities are calling “ecocide.”

On June 6, damage to the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, located in Ukraine’s Kherson region, released some 18 cubic kilometers of water from the Kakhovka Reservoir, putting 42,000 people at flood risk. At least 29 towns and villages along the Dnipro River have been flooded so far. Experts say the damage may have been caused by an internal explosion in the power plant’s dam, which is under Russian control, as part of that country’s continuing assault on Ukraine.

Images from the region show the spectrum of the disaster — houses flooded up to rooftops and entire towns of traditional buildings under water, including historical churches.

While Kherson remains under Ukrainian control, the east bank of the river is under Russian occupation and the possibility of humanitarian help is limited. Russian forces shell people delivering aid on the Ukrainian side.

Rabbi Azman described his experience on Twitter in another recording posted June 8. “Today, Russia fired artillery at us while I and other life-saving volunteers were driving all-terrain vehicles (SHERP) through the flooded areas of Kherson. The explosions began when we were in the water. They were very loud and the shells fell very close to us, but the Almighty saved us,” he said.

Rabbi Azman is an influential figure in Ukraine and a fierce opponent of the Russian invasion in the country, who raises awareness of the crisis in Ukraine. When the war started, his charity organization helped evacuate 40,000 refugees.

A member of Russia’s emergencies ministry and a local resident carry an elderly woman during the evacuation of residents from a flooded area following the collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, in the town of Hola Prystan in the Kherson region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, June 8, 2023. (OSV News photo)

Damage of the Khakovka dam only adds to the humanitarian and ecological disaster in Ukraine caused by the Russian invasion that began in February 2022.

Bishop Vitaly Skomarovsky of Lutsk, head of Ukraine’s Roman Catholic bishops conference, reacted to the news with a special appeal after the Kakhovka dam catastrophe.

“On the night of June 6, the modern history of our Motherland was marked by another man-made disaster,” he wrote in a statement, adding that full consequences are hard to predict.

“We pray for the people whose lives are in danger due to the rapid rise in the water level, for all those who were forced to evacuate in the face of danger,” Bishop Skomarovsky wrote.

He asked to support with prayers the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, rescuers, volunteers and charitable organizations, which provide all kinds of assistance to the victims.

“May the Lord give us the strength to survive all trials! Do not give in to fear! Let prayer and acts of mercy be our weapons against the forces of darkness in the midst of various trials,” he said, asking those who can for “the sacrifice of fasting and patiently endured suffering.”

Auxiliary Bishop Edward Kawa of Lviv urged people not to stop praying, as “we are dealing with a devil-possessed nation,” he wrote on Facebook.

While international media reports have steered clear of identifying a definitive cause or responsible party for the destruction, the nonprofit Institute for the Study of War, based in Washington, reported June 6 that absent a “definitive assessment of responsibility … the balance of evidence, reasoning, and rhetoric suggests that the Russians deliberately damaged the dam,” which Russian forces overtook in February 2022.

“Today the enemy has caused us another irreversible damage and has set us before a disaster whose consequences will be severe and the losses will be huge,” Bishop Kawa said

The Kakhovka dam’s destruction came as Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, papal envoy to Ukraine, was finishing his two-day visit to Kyiv.

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, sent Pope Francis a letter June 9, wishing him a speedy recovery after learning of the pontiff’s hospitalization and operation, “thanking him also for mentioning the ‘martyred Ukraine’ in the June 7 general audience, shortly before he was hospitalized.”

Archbishop Shevchuk noted that “in the past few days, in fact, we have experienced his concrete commitment in Ukraine, together with the entire pontifical diplomacy of the Holy See through the mission of Cardinal Matteo Zuppi. Unfortunately, the arrival of His envoy to Kyiv was ‘greeted’ with the launching of twenty missiles on our capital. Also during the days of the visit, the Russians blew up the Kakhovka dam causing an ecological and humanitarian catastrophe with this act.”

Wishing Pope Francis a speedy recovery and assuring “prayers that the Lord will give you the strength to soon overcome this period of illness and return to full health,” archbishop Shevchuk expressed immense gratitude for Pope Francis’ “untiring commitment to just peace in our country and throughout the world.”

The corn and grain harvest in the region of flooding was entirely lost, drinking water is contaminated and in some places water reaches the level of three meters. There is a serious epidemiological threat as livestock have died in the flooded villages, and cemeteries have also been submerged. Meanwhile, the temperature in southern Ukraine is currently 85 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.

Ukrainian evacuees meet at the railway station in Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine, on June 6, 2023 after at least 29 towns and villages along the Dnipro River flooded following damage to the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, located in Ukraine’s Kherson region. Caritas Spes Ukraine set up aid stations in Mykolaiv and Odessa. (OSV News photo)

Bishop Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk of Odessa-Simferopol told Austrian Catholic agency Kathpress that “clearly the Russians are the culprits behind the destruction of the power plant.”

“The fear that this would happen was already present last year, when the occupiers placed mines in the dam. Everyone in Ukraine waited with great anxiety to see when the blow-up would occur. Now is the moment to disrupt the beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive,” Bishop Szyrokoradiuk said.

“This crazy decision of the Kremlin to deprive people of their homes and land should be condemned by the entire world community. We, as the Church, condemn the actions of Russia and are always ready to help those who find themselves in the zone of this terrible disaster. We are currently dealing with this problem,” Bishop Jan Sobilo of Zaporizhzhia told OSV News.

Caritas Spes Ukraine set up aid stations in Mykolaiv and Odessa.

“The needs are already large, and we expect them to be many times larger, so we thank you in advance for any help,” said Father Piotr Rosochacki, director of Caritas Spes of Odessa-Simferopol, adding that the night of June 8 has also been difficult with “drone strikes continuous from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.”

Caritas Poland already sent emergency response items to Ukraine, including food, water, hygiene products and water treatment equipment. In addition, convoys of humanitarian aid have left for Ukraine from a warehouse in Poland.

Meanwhile Rabbi Azman praised local rescuers in his video message on Twitter June 8, drawing attention to a man named Andrey. “I am here with Andrey as Russian artillery shells scream overhead again and again. Andrey has been saving people day and night and helps bring us to people who need help. He is a hero. We pray for the safety of everyone in and near Kherson,” Rabbi Azman said.