Soldiers of the self-proclaimed pro-Russian Luhansk People's Republic movement ride tanks outside Luhansk, Ukraine.

CNS PHOTO | ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO, REUTERS

Soldiers of the self-proclaimed pro-Russian Luhansk People's Republic movement ride tanks outside Luhansk, Ukraine.

December 21, 2015
DEBORAH GYAPONG
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS

Many Ukrainians fear the world is abandoning their country to Russia, says Carl Hétu.

Hétu, who visited Ukraine Nov. 23 to 28, said Ukrainians he met believe Russia is "diverting international attention to Syria at the expense of Ukraine."

"Many believe there might be secret deals for a peace resolution in Syria if the international community ignores Ukraine and leaves it to Russia," said Hétu, national secretary of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Canada.

Russia has stepped up its support for the Assad regime in Syria, bombing rebel targets as well as ISIS, he noted.

The recent crisis in Ukraine began with the Maidan, or peaceful revolution from November 2013 to 2014 that began in the country's capital Kyiv with protests against the then-government's plan to sign an agreement with Russia. Such a pact would have broken an election pledge to sign an agreement with the European Union.

"The Ukrainian people have a long, bad history with Russia," Hétu said, citing the example of the Holodomor, the genocide through famine orchestrated by the Soviet Union in 1932-33 that led to the deaths of millions.

During the Maidan, more than 100 unarmed people of all ages were "killed in cold blood," he said. However, that only prompted more people to come to the streets until the president fled to Russia.

"That's when the people thought, 'Now we have a chance to build the Ukraine we want, free of Russia,'" Hétu said. "That's when Russia took Crimea by force, and now they are trying to do the same in eastern Ukraine in two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk."

Russia argues it's trying to protect Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, but most of the 1.3 million displaced people who have fled those two provinces are Russian-speaking.

RUSSIA LIES

Russian-speaking Ukrainians are "the first victims" of the mercenaries and militias Russia has equipped to destabilize the eastern part of the country, he said.

He noted Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians have welcomed the Russian-speaking people fleeing persecution.

"So Russia is lying," Hétu said. Its involvement "is not to protect Russian speaking people; it's to punish Ukraine and destabilize Ukraine."

Hétu met with 10 families from Donetsk - all Russian-speaking. One was a history teacher who had been tortured and detained for three months because he taught history.

"Many refugees and displaced people told me they cannot go back because they are seen as traitors by the militia and pro-Russian leaders," Hétu said.

"They have lost their homes, their jobs, everything they ever knew."

CARITAS HELPS

The Ukrainian Catholic Church, especially Caritas Ukraine, has provided assistance to everyone, regardless of religion, he said.

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace sent $1 million to Caritas Ukraine this fall, and CNEWA Canada sent about $60,000 from private donations.

The crisis is not over. "The country is experiencing a "profound economic crisis. The needs are great.

"The living conditions are terrible," he said.

People need money for food, health care, care for psychological trauma. Children need to attend school but there is no room.

Hétu also visited some projects CNEWA funded with a $200,000 grant from the Office of Religious Freedom a year ago to run workshops and discussion groups for Ukrainians from all religious groups: Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox, Greek Catholic and other faiths.

Those wanting to support displaced people in Ukraine can donate through www.CNEWA.ca or www.devp.org.