Nobody Knows What's Coming

2014. augusztus 25., hétfő

Ukrainian crisis. There is an air of uncertainty these days in Ukraine, which is also being experienced by the 150,000 Hungarians living in Sub-Carpathia. No war has officially been declared, but the partial military mobilization affects Hungarian families, as well. This means that there are Hungarians on the eastern front; moreover, the first victims have already been buried. We recently visited Beregszász (Berehove) with Sándor Pál, director of the Advisory Board of the Hungarian Reformed Church Aid.

Joint Efforts

The Reformed Church in Sub-Carpathia, together with the Hungarian Reformed Church Aid (HRCA) and local authorities, is preparing to alleviate the social crisis that is expected as a result of the war. Both the Reformed Church and the HRCA have years of experience in managing crises and caring for the poor, and this experience is vital for the authorities as well. “An important message of our cooperation is that the people of Sub-Carpathia are not left alone with their problems. The presence and perseverance of the Reformed Church, the support of the congregations and institutions of the Reformed community in the Carpathian Basin through the HRCA all mean that we can indeed have a future in our homeland, as we are not alone. People can rest assured: if things do take a turn for the worse, they will have someone to help them, since the Reformed Church is well-prepared,” said Sándor Zán Fábián, Reformed Bishop of Sub-Carpathia,  in a statement given to the Reformed radio station of Beregszász called Pulzus.           

Twenty-eight grandchildren

Although relief items are not distributed on a daily basis in the diaconal centre of the Reformed Church in Beregszász, there are always people in need who show up in the hope of receiving food or some clothes for themselves or loved ones. Róza, a Roma woman, is in luck today, as the van of the director of the Advisory Board of the HRCA is parked in the yard, filled with useful items.

“Are there any children in your family?” the HRCA leader asks her.

“I have twenty-eight grandchildren,” she answers, expertly bundling up the child chair, the children’s clothes and stuffed toys. “The youngest is only six months old,” she adds.

“Wait then, let me send him something as well,” says the director, reaching into the van for a few bottles of baby food.

The woman’s husband is waiting outside in a cart, but sensing the good opportunity, he also enters the yard of the diaconal centre. Unfortunately for him, he is recognized as someone belonging to Róza’s family.

“Don’t be so greedy! You should be grateful to the good Lord. Your wife has just picked up a lot of goods. Do you want others to receive nothing?” The man is sent on his way with these words. He is not really welcome anyway, as they know that the donations he receives never reach the family. Instead, he sells them and gambles the money away.   

A toddler in the field

He has hardly left before the next one comes. It is a young woman with a beautiful, black-eyed baby in her arms and a surprisingly well-written letter in her hands, which tells of her personal tragedy. The letter is addressed to “Uncle Béla,” that is, Béla Nagy, Lay President in Sub-Carpathia and head of the Diaconia. She says that her 26-year-old sibling has just passed away from a heart attack, leaving behind two orphans. She and her mother will now how to take care of them, as well as her own child.

“I work in the fields removing weeds. I get 30 Hryvnias and food for my kid,” says Andzsi Balog. She cannot afford kindergarten; therefore she is always accompanied by her daughter, Dorina.

Just a few months ago, 30 Ukranian Hryvnias were worth 1,000 Hungarian Forints (which in turn is worth over three euros), but today only 650 Forints. And when it is raining, there is no money and no food. Moreover, in the wake of the war-related expenses, the government has decided to revoke the child benefit, which used to mean an income of 130 Hryvnias (about 3,000 Forints) every month for the family.

Winter is coming

The war has put everyone in a difficult position, and the locals fear that this is just the beginning. For this reason, the director of the HRCA Advisory Board arrived in Sub-Carpathia on 15 August: to hold discussions with local leaders concerning the ways the Church Aid organization could be of help to them. During the meeting with city and district leaders, both of which have a Hungarian ethnic majority, Sándor Pál promised the HRCA’s full support, which also entails the support of all institutions and congregations of the Hungarian Reformed Church. The locals point out that the Reformed community has never let them down, not matter what kind of help has been required of them. The parties agree that they should keep each other informed and set up a joint action plan that also includes a worst-case scenario.

Nobody is cold today because it is still summer, but it must be kept in mind that the Russians have closed down the gas pipelines, which in a few months, during the cold periods of autumn and winter, could mean a severe problem. What the city and district leaders are most worried about is the maintenance of their institutions, especially the hospital in Beregszász. As one of them puts it, in an extreme situation there would be the option of sending children home from school, but the care of hospital patients must be ensured even then. It seems that a briquette producing company could provide the solution: they are willing to pre-finance the costs of the investment (amounting to 5.5 million Hryvnias, i.e. about 120 million Hungarian Forints) with the condition that fuel be bought from them afterwards.

The Reformed schools of Nagydobrony (Velika Dobrony), Tivadarfalva (Fedorove) and Nagybereg (Veliki Berehi) have been built in a way that enables heating with wood, but at the parsonage and other institutions the heating system will have to be redesigned. Where the money will come from, nobody knows in the Reformed community of Sub-Carpathia. Two presbyteries in Transylvania have already offered to collect money to finance a furnace for each. It is clear that money would be needed, but the already desperate financial situation of the church is even worsened by the new taxes introduced because of the war. We have already reported on the tax increase concerning church properties in our 27 July issue, and another recent development is the 1.5% rise in employer tax.

It would be the residents of urban housing blocks that would suffer most from the lack of gas, rather than those living in detached houses. To make matters worse, electric heaters would not provide a solution since the dilapidated heating system would soon break down as a result of increased demand. Not to mention the fact that in an extreme case not only gas, but also electricity could be shut down. If the situation gets critical, the HRCA could provide help in a variety of ways: they could distribute blankets or even smaller wood burning stoves to those in need, as well as open up shelters. Furthermore, they have a briquette machine that can be attached to a trailer, able to produce fuel (several tons per hour) from agricultural waste.

Tourists?

There hasn’t been a massive influx of refugees from eastern Ukraine, officially at least. In Beregszász District, only two people, a mother and her daughter, have asked for refuge, and who have been placed in the crisis centre for mothers, operated by the Reformed Church. There are, however, many people staying in the area as tourists, and in many places refugees are buying houses. The exact figures are difficult to estimate as Sub-Carpathia is a popular tourist destination, and due to the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation, there have been an unusually high number of summer tourists in the region. The actual situation will only become clear during the autumn months, when the real tourists have returned home and a survey has been conducted by the officials of Beregszász District about the newcomers in the area.

Locals are anxious about the refugees. They are afraid that some of them might turn out to be Ukrainian nationalistic provocateurs. The reason for such fears is based on recent incidents when people were reproached for speaking Hungarian. Another unsettling event was when a person’s weekend house was occupied and when the rightful owner was trying to enter, the occupiers demanded to see the papers proving his ownership. Locals also feel it is distasteful that while Sub-Carpathian people are shedding their blood in eastern Ukraine, people come from there to spend their holiday. For this reason, the Military Headquarters of the Beregszász District has ordered the refugees to register, but it is uncertain how effective this measure will be. Local leaders are also worried that the refugees who currently rent houses will not be able to pay rent in the long run and will stay in the properties as squatters. The authorities are doing their best to handle the situation: in order to increase the locals’ sense of security, they are planning to set up a civil guard, which will operate in cooperation with the police. They ask for the assistance of the HRCA in providing the uniforms. 

At war

Officially, no state of war has been declared in Ukraine, which, of course, does not mean that there is actually no war. But if it was acknowledged instead of talking about acts of terrorism, the World Bank would freeze loans, leading to the country’s immediate collapse. Currently a partial mobilization is in effect. This means that, depending on the size of the population, two to six older men, all of them ex-soldiers, can be taken to join the military from each settlement. They are trained for a few months in Munkács (Mukacheve) and then could be directed to the front. The exemption does not apply to those who have medical qualifications; they can be drafted at any time even if they have not been soldiers before. One pastor has told church leaders that his two daughters have already been registered due to the fact that they are both doctors.

The exact number of Sub-Carpathian people and the number of Hungarians among them currently serving in eastern Ukraine is not known. According to the data of the Hungarian Cultural Association of Sub-Carpathia, which has been reported in the news, their number could be around 50, and a further 90 people could expect to be mobilized in the near future. The first Hungarian victims have already been buried. Beregszász has had two fatalities so far. The funeral of Mihály Timoscsuk, 27, was held on 17 August. The young man had been a student in the city, studying history and geography at Rákóczi Ferenc II Sub-Carpathian Hungarian College, as well as a soldier in the Ukrainian military.

An island of peace

In the Crisis Centre of the Reformed Church in Sub-Carpathia, dinner is coming up, which is generously shared with us. The women are frying lapcsinka, a simple dish made from grated potatoes and flour, flavoured with salt as well as black and red pepper. These women are all mothers of young children, and none of them would have had anywhere to go had the Reformed institution not taken them in. Currently there are 18 residents in the centre, including the children. It’s like we have arrived at an island of peace.

This is where Zaharava Oljana from eastern Ukraine has found refuge with her daughter, Kátya, who is going to start the eighth grade in September in Beregszász. They are the two official refugees of Beregszász District, who are provided with shelter and food, so that they do not have to live in the bleak hostel run by the local government. Oljana has left behind her mother and her job in the eastern Ukrainian city of Gorlovci, which is now occupied by Russian separatists. She used to work in a factory producing electronic components.

“It was difficult to leave home, especially because of my elderly mother, but I had no other choice. I had to ensure my daughter’s safety,” she says, and when we ask whether she thinks they will ever be able to return, she adds in a sad tone, “Nobody knows what's coming.”

 

Related: The Reformed Church in Sub-Carpathia, Ukraine issues peace statement

 

 

Written by Sándor Kiss; translated by Erzsébet Bölcskei

Photos: Richárd Kalocsai

Reformátusok Lapja 34/2014

 

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