Interview with Vitaliy Osmolovskyy, SJ

Vitaliy Osmolovskyy, SJ, is a Jesuit from Zhytomyr, a city in Western Ukraine. For many years he has worked for social issues. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in law in Zhytomyr, and a Master’s degree in political science at the Pedagogical University in Warsaw. During his studies he actively helped NGOs, working with national minorities in Central and Eastern Europe. He joined the Society of Jesus in 2007, studied philosophy in Padua, Italy and theology at Hekima College in Nairobi. He worked for a year and a half for the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Ukraine and the UK. He is in the process of writing his Ph.D. thesis at the Jesuit School of Theology, Santa Clara University, U.S. He has been training in Judo at a professional level for many years and has completed level II – Dan.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February 2022. It is more than four months since the war began. How much has Ukraine suffered? How many people have died so far? How much of Ukrainian territory is now in Russian hands?

In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea. In 2015, certain districts, cities, towns, and villages of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions came under Russian control. The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine calls them ‘ Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine.’  It is a term in Ukrainian law to refer to areas occupied by Russia .

A Reuters report dated 02 June 2022  says Russia is currently occupying about 20% of Ukraine’s territory. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told Luxembourg’s parliament in a video address, “We have to defend ourselves against almost the entire Russian army. All combat-ready Russian military formations are involved in this aggression,” he said, adding that the front lines of battle stretched across more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). 

As a result of the Russian invasion, almost 4,600 civilians have died. The U.N. says most people died from explosive weapons like heavy artillery, rocket systems of salvo fire, rockets, and airstrikes. More than 1159 men, 810 women, 127 girls, and 168 boys, as well as 176 children have been injured.

Now they say the war is limited to the eastern region. How is daily life for Ukrainians in other parts of the country?

Most of the fighting is taking place in the eastern part of Ukraine, but artillery shelling and bombing occur throughout Ukraine. This means that every day Russian troops fire at various buildings of the entire country. After such shelling, a lot of women, children, and older people die. After four months of this war, the world may be a little “tired” of the topic of Ukraine. However, the people in Ukraine are fully determined to help and support their soldiers who are putting up a valiant fight against the aggressor. People of Ukraine are also trying, to the best of their ability, not to neglect cultural life, recreation, such as cinema and other forms of entertainment. These activities are important for our mental health and stability.

Most of the fighting is taking place in the eastern part of Ukraine, but artillery shelling and bombing occur throughout Ukraine.

The efforts of international bodies like the U.N. and the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the European Union have not been able to stop the war. What will help stop the war?

In my opinion, organizations as the U.N., the European Union, the OSCE, and human rights organizations have no effective way to stop the war.  The war in Ukraine once again showed their inability to do anything or change the situation just like in the wars in ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Syria, and Afghanistan. Also, the war in Ukraine has shown how corrupt these institutions are, where many politicians directly support Russia, although it has proved, time and again  to be an unscrupulous aggressor.

It was ridiculous and pitiful to watch the OSCE simply running away from Ukraine, leaving their employees, all citizens of Ukraine, to be captured, tortured and killed by the Russian army. This was similar to what the Taliban did to Afghans who had worked for the Americans, after the U.S. left the country.

What is the role played by the Orthodox Church in this conflict?

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, like all other representatives of religions and churches – Catholics, Protestants, Muslim – plays a huge role in supporting the fighting spirit, and the humanity of the soldiers in this war. It does it through spiritual accompaniment, sacraments, and chaplaincy.  

How have Catholic priests and the religious responded to the war?

Catholics, like everyone else, are trying to help the Ukrainian army, volunteers, and civilians as much as possible. Catholic institutions have started houses and shelters for refugees, and orphans, and centres that distribute food, and humanitarian aid.

What is the contribution of Jesuits and Jesuit bodies like the JRS toward  helping Ukraine and the refugees in other countries like Poland?  

A team called “Jesuits for Ukraine” was created soon after the war began to coordinate efforts to deliver aid to Ukraine in the Polish provinces of the Society of Jesus. The priority for our team is to deliver aid to Ukraine and to help the Ukrainian refugees to settle in Poland and other countries. We have financially supported works run by Jesuits: two refugee houses in Lviv and a house in Khmelnytskyi, which is now a stopping point for refugees, and we have also given support to institutions that are our friends. 

We have also contact with organizations from other countries, which help Ukraine. We have helped several of them send large amounts of humanitarian relief material to the appropriate places on the border. At the moment, we keep in contact with organizations from western countries, which want to host refugees. They organize transport for them, as well as accommodation and necessary care in their country. In Poland, we are mainly involved in the process of organizing accommodation for refugees.  First of all, it means preparing lodging and gathering the necessary equipment and also collecting necessary funds. These activities are undertaken by Jesuit communities and parishes locally, as well as by the Jesuit Refugee Service in Poland.

JRS Poland is a ministry with many years of experience in working with refugees, and as such has become a central hub for coordinating refugee assistance in the Polish Provinces of the Society of Jesus. The JRS staff have set up a form, through which people and institutions willing to accept refugees can register. They also provide information on how to do this efficiently and its current legal framework. At the same time, JRS Poland is constantly sending aid to Ukraine. The activities of the Center could not cover such a large area, if not for the many people who have volunteered to work there.

A team called “Jesuits for Ukraine” was created soon after the war began to coordinate efforts to deliver aid to Ukraine in the Polish provinces of the Society of Jesus.

In addition to providing basic security, there are, of course, many other needs that we try to meet. In Warsaw and Poznań, some psychological assistance for refugees has been offered.  In Opole, a meeting place for Ukrainian children and mothers has been opened. Warsaw-Rakowiecka parish started to renovate rooms to open a kindergarten for Ukrainians. Our team has also begun to raise funds for scholarships for Ukrainian students. This goal is supported by Jesuit schools in the U.S. In Nowy Sącz Jesuits are preparing to start a Center for Ukrainians. The Center plans to host cultural events and offer psychological aid. The Jesuit university in Kraków, Poland, besides providing lodging for refugees and collecting aid for Ukraine, is also conducting courses in the Polish language for refugees from Ukraine.

We are aware that this is just the beginning of a huge undertaking, which is to provide help for Ukraine and welcome refugees in Poland. For this reason, we are continually raising funds.

How can Jesuits in other countries across the world help Ukraine and its people now?

Soon after the war began many Jesuits and Jesuit provinces around the world responded by sending financial help to Ukraine. Some provinces sent food, clothing, and medicines. We also receive cooperation from other religious organizations and orders.

Are Ukrainians in other parts of the world helping their country at this moment of its gravest crisis?

Definitely! First of all, a large number of men returned and signed up for volunteer battalions that strive to defend the country. A lot of help has come from the Ukrainian diaspora around the world. Many artists perform concerts around the world to raise funds to support. Many national teams organize matches to raise funds. You can see many Ukrainians who make use of their talents and skills and work in different cities in order to support Ukraine and establish peace on earth.