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Young Missionaries Bring Gifts of Hope to Ukraine's Battle-Scarred War Zone

02-27-2020
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Soldiers patrolling streets of Eastern Ukraine

OPYTNE, Eastern Ukraine – The battle between Russia-backed fighters and Ukraine's army still rages although a ceasefire agreement was signed five years ago. The war continues to ravage those living on the frontlines.

This is what's left of houses near the frontline town of Zolote.

By midday Tuesday, February 18, 2,300 explosions rocked the area as Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatist forces clashed in some of their fiercest fighting.

Aleksandr Korneev was in his house when the first series of explosions went off.

"I had just turned around and then there was a boom," Korneev, a resident of Zolote, said. "I was thrown back to the steps. I was lying down for 20 minutes."

Ukraine said Russian fighters attempted to advance across the separatist line into Zolote but were repelled.

"We have a powerful army," warned Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a press conference. "Provocations happen, the army responded firmly."

CBN News journeyed 90 miles south from Zolote to another battle-scarred village.

Numerous Ukrainian checkpoints meant we were getting close to the frontlines.

Traveling with us was Sergey Rakhuba, who grew up in this region of Ukraine.

"We are in the village of Opytne which was a vibrant, dynamic community before the war started between Russia and Ukraine," said Rakhuba, who heads Tennessee-based Mission Eurasia. "The frontline is basically separating this village in half."

Rakhuba, joined by a team from the Mennonite Brethren Church, delivered food, water, and other essentials to families and soldiers living in Opytne.

February 2014, Russian so-called separatists, launch a massive hybrid war into this part of eastern Ukraine, in essence, taking a chunk of the country. Six years later, communities like this one, are deserted, except for a few families who vow never to leave.

Once home to 700 people, only sixty now live in Opytne. There's been no electricity, gas or running water for more than five years. The streets here lined with bullet-scarred homes. The majority of houses unlivable.

"But we know that even here, God is here," said Jon Wiebe, president, and CEO of Mennonite Brethren Foundation. "People need to know the hope of God, that He brings salvation and so it's been a special privilege to pass out gifts, hand out food, and pray with people and just share the love of Christ."

Rakhuba and Wiebe climb the steps of a bombed-out apartment building carrying supplies to 78-year-old Leeda. She lives in this tiny room with her son and 4 cats. No heat. No water. Very little food.

"There's no place for me to go," Leeda told CBN News. "There's nobody I can go to. I'm just staying here. I'm not going anywhere. I've lived here for 50 years and I will stay here."

Pro-Russian rebels control half her village and much of eastern Ukraine, including key cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

"At least once a day, once every two days, I still hear shootings," Leeda said.

14,000 people lost their lives in this region – half of those since Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement to end the war five years ago.

30,000 have been wounded and nearly two million people have been displaced from their homes.

Rakhuba says it's a forgotten war, and it weighs on him.

"My teenage years and youth were spent here in the towns of eastern Ukraine. I remember how difficult it was for a Christian at that time to share one's faith, and in general, for the church to be of influence in Soviet society. The war over the past few years has added even more darkness and gloom to the life of the people here."

(Sergey Rakhuba, president of Mission Eurasia, 2nd from left)

Rakhuba, a native of Ukraine, now lives in the U.S. and through Mission Eurasia, trains young people to transform the countries of the former Soviet Union for Jesus Christ.

"Our vision at Mission Eurasia is to bring hope to society through young leaders who can take the baton of faithfulness from the previous generation who served behind the Soviet Union's iron curtain, and now bring the gospel to the next generation and to those living through difficult situations like in eastern Ukraine."

Hundreds of Mission Eurasia leaders and volunteers recently crisscrossed the war zone and countries of the former Soviet Union recently delivering 120 thousand Gift of Hope boxes to children.

CBN News was there as dozens of youngsters met in this church basement to pack boxes.

"This is so exciting to see so many young people are working on this project and this is just one of the packing and distribution locations," Rakhuba said.

50 churches banded together in this one city close to the frontlines to help distribute the gifts of hope.

"Each box is a celebration for a small child, said Margaryta, a Mission Eurasia young leader. "To be honest, I've never received a box like this in my life, that's why I think it will be very important for them to receive it."

Several teams fanned out across towns and villages near the conflict zone holding evangelistic outreaches geared to reaching young people. Many hearing the gospel presentation for the first time.

"I finally understood that Jesus Christ should be the most important person in our lives," 11-year-old Vanya told CBN News.

Each event ends with boxes of hope given to hundreds of children. The boxes contain toys, school supplies, a Christian kids magazine called Spark, and a children's storybook Bible.

"I learned Jesus can help me in many difficult moments and help me not to give up," nine-year-old Marina Kurilova told CBN News.

Yana Buditskaya has been bringing her kids to a Christian play co-sponsored by Mission Eurasia for several years now.

"I keep bringing my kids because I want them to know there is more love in this world than evil, grief, and sorrow," Buditskaya said.

Once the kids get back to their apartments, they are obviously excited about rummaging through their gifts and looking at all the various things that they got.

Incidentally, the Bible, along with the Spark magazine in each shoebox, has this QR code on the back so they can use their smartphone, scan the code, and within seconds, they will have access to all the various local churches that they can get plugged into.

Canada-based ShareWord Global partnered with Mission Eurasia to distribute the Spark magazine and place QR codes on each box, linked to a Bible App with loads of information for kids and parents.

"The Bible app includes multiple languages in different translations of the Bible, " Bradley Willey of ShareWord Global told CBN News. "{The app also has} Bible Answers and there is over 200 languages in audio as well and there's a map of all the local churches that are in each individual area and so you just get on to the app, find your area, and look for a church."

Rakhuba says every Gift of Hope box placed in a child's hands is a chance to introduce the love of Jesus and impact families in a war zone.

"The boxes symbolize a future with Christ and when put into the hands of children, and they take them home, they and their families will realize that there is hope in God, hope in Jesus," said Rakhuba.

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