With artillery shells falling nearby, pastor Andrii Shutkevych continues to work in Svitlodarsk, a town with critical infrastructure that braces itself for further Russian attacks.
“Now it’s not clear what will happen next – will there be shelling, will [the city] be taken. So now people are leaving again like it was in 2015,” says Shutkevych. He is a volunteer from western Ukraine and part of a network of protestant pastors and Christian groups working along the frontline, helping children, families, as well as soldiers. They also maintain a pro-Ukrainian sentiment wherever they are based.
On Tuesday, Russian troops entered the territory controlled by its proxies, Western officials have confirmed. Now, the fears of a widening conflict are no longer the worst-case scenario but a bleak future for the people in Ukraine.
“We are preparing a location where people could hide during artillery attacks,” says Shutkevych. The shelter is located at the VPN youth centre run by the pastor and two more volunteers. The centre is housed in a former bank, complete with heavy metal doors and reinforced windows.
“It will protect from shrapnel,” he says after opening one of the doors. “We will write to the head of the local administration and groups on Facebook, so that people know that, in case of shelling, they can come to us.”
Shutkevych was only meant to stay in the town of some 8,000 people for three months. Seven years later, he is still here. His work began when the humanitarian situation in the region was dire. Together with other volunteers, they started identifying the needs of the locals, supplying them with firewood, food and other items. “This was all during the hot phase of the war,” says Shutkevych. “Now it is returning.”
Despite the town being just several kilometres from the frontlines, two schools and three nurseries continue to operate here. In the afternoon, the courtyards fill up with children. All the while, sounds of impacts echo from the fields stretching toward the separatist-held areas, the buildings of Horlivka and its chemical works towering in the horizon.
The sense of responsibility is preventing Shutkevych from leaving. Who else but us, he says. If they would depart, the centre would close, depriving children of the few opportunities they have in the frontline town. After eight years of war, “it’s clear that every child needs to have consultations with a psychologist, probably also every parent”, Shutkevych says. “Probably also me.”