Over the past weeks ISKCON News has been reporting about the Eastern Ukrainian military crisis that forced thousands of civilians to flee. The crash of the Malaysia Airlines flight, which was carrying close to 300 passengers and crew – none survived – on last Thursday, just added to the tension between the Ukrainian army and the separatists, who are blaming each other for the firing of the fatal missile.
There are hundreds of ISKCON devotees in the Donetsk and the Lugansk area affected by the situation close to a civil war. Most of them fled or are now on their way to safer places, trying to avoid the most dangerous roads. Nilacala Dasi from Lugansk reports:
“When the military operations intensified our home turned out to be on the front line. Until the last moment, I had hoped that the war would be over soon.”
They were not so lucky. When Lugansk got attacked by mortars and the neighboring street became a battlefield, it was time for Nilacala Dasi, her husband Vrajamani Das and daughter Vrinda Gopi to leave.
“My brother followed me and found himself under air bombardment. Unfortunately, we failed to evacuate my father. However, by Krishna’s mercy all of us survived”, says Nilacala.
However, when they attempted to cross the Ukrainian–Russian border, they had to face yet another life-threatening danger.
“I was really scared to cross the border, which was fired on by snipers.” Nilacala explains. “Vrajamani turned on the Narasimha kirtan in the car and we thought that if we get shot at least we hear the Holy Name in our last moment.”
Despite the mortal danger, fortunately, they have made it safely to Krasnodar, Russia. They don’t know how long they are going to stay there, neither they know what to do next.
Nilacala admits “it was difficult for me to leave everything behind - my friends, the community, job, career, relatives - and go to some unknown situation… We have only documents left from all our paraphernalia. We had to abandon everything and start everything from the very beginning.”
Nilacala and her family are not the only ones who are unsure about their immediate future. ISKCON devotees from Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, Donetsk and other smaller cities, including old ladies and single mothers with infants and young children are also among the refugees who left everything behind and headed for safer places. Many of them are now being hosted in another devotee families’ homes in Ukraine and Russia, while others are staying in the refugee home, the former Magdalinivka retreat center, offered by ISKCON Ukraine.
However, although doing their best, it soon became clear that the devotees in ISKCON Ukraine were not capable of taking care of the escalating humanitarian crisis on their own. They had quickly started an international fund raising campaign, to which the worldwide ISKCON community quickly responded and offered help and donations.
The refugee fund is being managed by responsible ISKCON devotees in Kiev, who are experienced in emergency fund disbursements.
According to the official Ukrainian Vaishnava Refugee campaign website the fund is being used to for the following purposes:
“To help with transportation costs for any devotee who needs it to flee to other regions. The problem is that right now all trains are completely booked. There are no seats available for an indefinite time. With shortages of gas and other means of transportation, devotees may require an extraordinary amount of funds to get out.
“Although all refugees are being encouraged to find a means of financial support wherever they will be hosted, it is unknown how long they will need to be hosted. If it continues through the autumn and winter, the fund will be used to help the hosts continue to maintain refugees should the refugees be unable to find work.”
“Women with children who have no means of financial support are being provided shelter and food in the retreat center. It costs 50 gryvnas/day (approximately $5.00 USD) per person for food. Funds are also required to upgrade the facilities to accommodate the influx of people.”
On the website one can also find daily updates about the situation in Ukraine and about the efforts being made to help the refugees.
ISKCON Co-BBC for Ukraine Niranjana Swami is also personally making sure the worldwide devotee community is regularly updated about the situation. On Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 he has released the following letter:
“We apologize for our inability to provide daily updates. Although we need a full time coordination center in the Eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, we are somewhat handicapped by the fact that all the coordination in both of those regions is falling into the hands of one person, Abhinanda dasa. His job is to maintain contact with devotees who need to leave, who are already leaving, who have left and arrived in either Western Ukraine or across the Russian border, to keep contact with our coordinators in Kiev who are disbursing funds, and to either disburse the funds himself or to connect those in need directly to the devotees disbursing funds in Kiev.
By Krsna's grace, over the past couple of days, the systems for fund disbursement have been more clearly defined. Funds have already been disbursed over the course of the last week. But now the system has been improved for getting funds directly into the hands of those who are most in need.
Another major impediment is that devotees cannot always move in the direction where facilities are available. Some routes are a lot more dangerous to travel on than others. Of course, right now everywhere in those two regions is dangerous. But some routes are simply deadly and can not be taken.
Additionally, in the city of Lugansk, people are not even permitted to be in the streets. There are being told to expect to be killed if they even step outside their homes. Some devotees there are trapped inside their building or flat. Once (if) that changes, we will need to find the means to assist these devotees. Judging from what we have been hearing, it seems quite possible that the conditions in Donetsk, a much larger city, could soon become the same as Lugansk.
Meanwhile, a clear system of fund disbursement has been set up for the Magdalinivka retreat center. Work on upgrading the facilities for the influx of refugees is well underway (see photos of a new hot water boilerbeing installed) and everyone is being provided full maintenance and accommodations.”
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