More than one and a half million young people, the highest number ever, flew into Lisbon and filled its narrow and cobbled streets with its numerous climbs, on the occasion of the World Youth Day (WYD) 2023. There was an unexpected encounter, the cry of pain of thousands of young Ukrainians. But evil will never have the last word.
It’s a warm evening when in Rua Augusta in Lisbon, a group of young people from Ukraine meet some young Russians. Their gazes meet. They are the same age and perhaps have the same dreams. A great silence falls. The Russians lower their heads, nobody moves. Finally, Iryna says in a calm voice: “We are not here to argue with you. Our hearts bleed. Many of our friends were killed. We ask you to take a position, to decide which side to be on: whether that of the truth or that of the evil that kills our brothers, our friends, our family members.” The silence continues. Then slowly the two groups move away.
Over 500 young people from Ukraine, Greek-Catholic Church members and Latin Church Catholics, participated in the WYD in Lisbon. Many of them wore black t-shirts with the faces of children who have been killed since Russia’s invasion. Some of them lost their lives because of missile attacks, some others died after being trapped in the rubble of an airstrike. Some t-shirts also showed the names of the victims of the war: Artem, one year and seven months old, from Kryvyi Rih; Polina, aged 8, died in Mariupol; Ivan, 15 years old, from the Kiev region.
“Russian aggression has erased a generation. Our silence is that of those whom the bombs silenced forever”, said Father Roman Demush, deputy director of the youth pastoral department of the Greek Catholic Church, who led the group. “We want the wounds of our people, our wounds, to be embraced by the wounds of Christ, being aware that the resurrection passes through pain and death.” But the dark t-shirts did not show only the tragedy of a country but also the desire for peace symbolized by a small white dove. “We want to tell young people around the world not to forget us”, underlined Father Roman. “Our cry for peace and against war rising here must become a common, collective cry.”
During the days of the World Youth Day 2023, young Ukrainians spoke with many of their peers, describing their suffering and their pain, just like Valentyna Velychko, 17 years old. “The war”, she said, “surprised me in the Kherson region where my parents live and where, on 24 February 2022, I had just returned: in fact, I was studying in Melitopol at that time. In the first few days the invaders took everything that was dear to me. And now they are still in control of my city.” Valentyna was forced to flee her home and now she lives in Zaporizhzhia.
“The conflict turned my life upside down: now, I’m afraid of every loud noise, I was forced to abandon the house where my family and I lived, but the war also taught me to believe in the extraordinary power of prayer. Prayer unites people during artillery attacks, while they are in the trenches, or wounded in hospital, or while their land is occupied by the enemy”, she pointed out.
“We showed our peers that Ukraine resists, fights and prays”, says Olena Syniuha, 19 years old, from Lviv. “We also represented those friends who were unable to participate in this event because they are on the front line to defend us. We want the truth to be known.” Anna Saprun, 24 years old, also from Lviv adds: “We have made known the crimes that Russia commits. The louder we cry, the more support we’ll get.”
Olena Bondareva, 25, who lives in Vinnytsia says with a broken voice: “Bombings show us how precarious human existence is. But Christ encourages us to be strong and we place our future in the hands of God.”
Ivanna Andrusiak knows this well: she is 18 years old and studies at the University of Kiev. “Between May and June, we experienced aerial attacks every single night. I remember that while I was in bed in the evening, I wondered how much sleep I could get before having to rush to the basement. I learnt to recognise the sound of a missile hitting its target or that of a missile that has been shot down. But what scares me the most is the acknowledgement that we have become accustomed to war.”
“We brought to this World Youth Day our tears, our fear, our anger but above all our desire for peace”, says Maryana Stronska, 23 years old, from Lviv. “We asked everyone to pray for the peace that will come when both sides take a step towards each other and agree that respect for others begins with the respect for the boundaries of their land.”
Ivanna Bohak, 23 years old, from Ternopil, who participated in the WYD and saw the Pope for the first time, says “I would have liked to experience this event as a great pilgrimage of peace, instead I will remember it as our testimony of a country that has been attacked and as the cry of pain for those people who were killed in missile attacks” . Those who represented Ukraine on the shores of the ocean are young people wounded in their souls. But they also know that evil will never have the last word. (Patrick Mutesa)