Ukrainians celebrate Easter in the shadow of the war

In his nightly speech on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thought about the significance of the date. “Today was Holy Saturday for Christians from the Eastern ritual. The day between the crucifixion and the resurrection. It seems that Russia is stuck on such a day,” he said.

“On the day when death triumphs and God is supposedly gone. But there will be a resurrection. Life will defeat death. Truth will defeat every lie. And evil will be punished,” Zelensky added.

As the fighting escalates in the south and east, many in Ukraine lean on their faith in search of comfort, while others choose to travel home from neighboring Poland to be among their loved ones for Easter celebrations.
“I have never been so happy in my life. When I finally saw my husband again, on my first night here, I still felt like this was a dream,” Anna-Mariia Nykyforchyn, 25, tells CNN from Lviv, a western film. city ​​largely spared from the Russian attack.
Nykyforchyn was nine months pregnant when the war broke out and was one of more than five million who have made the difficult call to leave. She returned two days ago with her baby Marharyta.

“For me, it was extremely important to get home before Easter,” she says, before sharing her joy at the prospect of the couple’s grandparents meeting the new addition to the family. “I really wish we were together. It’s such a ray of hope that everything will be okay.”

Sitting on the sofa in his apartment in central Lviv, Nykyforchyn looks over at his 27-year-old husband Nazar, whose attention is fixed on the little, baby girl sleeping on his lap.

“I had a very hard experience staying in Poland both physically, because of the baby and mentally. It was more than difficult, unbearable,” she says.

Nykyforchyn left Ukraine for Poland when the war started, where she gave birth to her daughter shortly after.

“I moved to uncertainty: to strangers, to a stranger’s house, to a city I’ve never been to before, to a country with a language I do not speak fluently. I understood that I had to give birth in a clinic where “no one knows me and where I have not made any appointments. I did not know what it would be like. But the main idea that kept me afloat was that my baby should be born in safe conditions,” says Nykyforchyn.

Nazar is aware of the strain on his wife and reads, “She’s not just a woman, she’s a hero … if I were in her shoes, I would not be able to … I would be broken. And she did not break down. “

While the proud father is clearly happy to be reunited with his wife and daughter, this young family is some of the luckier ones. Not everyone will have the same chance to be reunited with loved ones.

A priest reminds parishioners of Jesus' sacrifice from the steps of the Church of the Holy Virgin Intercession in Lviv, Ukraine on April 23, 2022.
The Ukrainian government announced new curfews for the Easter weekend, amid warnings from authorities about the potential for increased Russian military activity during holiday celebrations. And earlier this week, officials in the Luhansk and Sumy regions urged residents to attend virtual worship services, citing possible Russian “provocations” while noting that many churches have been destroyed during the invasion.

Despite concerns, residents of Lviv came down to churches in the city to receive blessings of protection and prayer on Saturday. In the Church of the Virgin, the believers ignored the invitations to stay home and instead stood in line with decorated baskets of food ready to be blessed with holy water by parish priests.

Young and old line up with decorated food baskets.

Volodymyr, 53, stands patiently next to his family while they wait for the pastor to come down the line.

“People often think that holidays should be happy, bring relief and make it easier – and when they feel good, they do not turn to true faith … Now we are going through hard times, people are starting to get closer to God, there are more people here than before, and that’s good for us, ”he says, before showing us the homemade Easter (a traditional Easter bread), sausage, ham and cheese lying between candles and decorative eggs in his basket.

“This morning there was an air raid, but now thank God it’s calmer and we could come. It’s very important to us. It’s the church we visit often,” he adds.

Easter baskets will be sent to soldiers complete with decorative eggs with messages of encouragement.  Here is a note: "Get back alive"  while another says "Honor to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Air Defense System."

Nearby, 35-year-old church volunteer Andrii reads dutiful collection boxes of Easter food to Ukrainian troops. “We try to keep a festive mood and hope for justice and peace. This holiday gives Easter even more hope. We have to believe in victory, just as we believe in Jesus Christ,” he says.

He gestures to the quickly filled containers, adding: “They will be sent to the military units that protect our country. The guys should have the opportunity to eat some Easter and sausage.”

A gust of wind catches the beautifully embroidered fabric that covers 35-year-old Maryanna’s basket. After fixing it back in place, she tells CNN that her family followed the warnings to stay home.

An Easter custom is to bring a basket of food to be blessed with holy water before returning home to share with the family.

“It’s scary and there’s anxiety in my soul. In Odesa there was a missile attack today … But we believe in God and hope it all ends with victory,” she says gently.

As the pastor rounds the corner, her eyes flicker quickly back to her basket. “We received a message from our municipal officials that people should rather stay at home, but we can not,” she continues. “How can we not bless the Easter bread? We missed it during a Covid pandemic – and now people are in desperate need of the holiday.”

CNN’s Nathan Hodge and Yulia Kesaieva in Lviv also contributed to this report.

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