Vorzel in Kyiv oblast was under occupation for more than a month. The parishioners of the local church set up a volunteer center while the priest was looking for his son in Belarusian concentration camps — a report

Oksana Rasulova
Yuliana Skibitska
Vorzel in Kyiv oblast was under occupation for more than a month. The parishioners of the local church set up a volunteer center while the priest was looking for his son in Belarusian concentration camps — a report

Danil Pavlov / «Babel’»

The town of Vorzel in Kyiv Oblast was captured by the Russians in the first days of the war. During the 35 days of occupation, the Russians killed and illegally deported civilians, destroyed infrastructure, and shelled orphanages, educational and medical facilities. There are several churches in Vorzel. In one of the churches, despite the absence of the priest, the parishioners organized a humanitarian center, while the priest went to Belarus to look for his son in the deportation camps. Journalist Oksana Rasulova went to Vorzel and talked to locals about how they survived the occupation. And also with the priest about how he decided to go to Belarus, what he saw in the deportation camps, and how eventually he found his son in Ukraine and is now leaving the Moscow Patriarchate.


At 8 am in Vorzel it is cool and quiet. Saturday morning service in the Church of Peter and Paul of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate, which stands on both sides of the railway, has been going on for two hours.

Flowers are planted around the temple. The walls have recently been plastered — the building is still being put in order after the shell fragments hit. The speech of the priest Father Ioanne, a tall, lively man with a gray beard, can be clearly heard against the background of the incessant singing of birds.

- When there is a war, when we admire the courage of our soldiers and those people who showed mercy and love during the occupation. Now we must make decisions, show our courage, say our word, resist untruth, evil, not be cunning, not be afraid, — he reads the sermon. — Only with Godʼs grace and love for our neighbors and our country can we make such decisions. Grief, material disagreements can be endured — but it cannot be endured if you remain a traitor, if you did not help your neighbor when you could.

Finally, Father Ioanne in a golden robe is greeted with the Saint name day — the community is gifting a large bouquet of white roses. He thanks everyone, and adds at the end:

- Thank you all — both those who are here and those who left. Be patient, seek love in yourself, do not judge anyone — because God gives someone more strength, and someone — less.

After all, both the priest and the parishioners know what itʼs like to make a choice.

Father Ioan on a mass in Vorzel church.

Danil Pavlov / «Babel’»


On February 24, Father Ioanne was abroad. Five days earlier, he and his wife and youngest daughter had flown to Cyprus to visit a friend, also a priest. Five adult sons and daughters remain in the village of Termakhivka, near Ivankiv. Two more families from Vorzel joined the Father. They wanted to have a rest. But the trip lasted a month — returning to Ukraine with children was difficult and full of hesitating.

Father Serhiy was the head of the church in Vorzel. He got to Vorzel from Ivankiv with the beginning of hostilities. The headquarters of the occupiers in Vorzel was 2 kilometers away, in the Kyiv oblast psychoneurological hospital, so columns of equipment were constantly passing by the church. The shell hit the yard only once, which is reminiscent of fresh plaster on the wall. According to locals, the church became the only volunteer point in Vorzel. During the 35 days of occupation, up to 40 people lived here permanently, dozens received hot soup, bread and boiling water. The products were taken from shops and warehouses, so they jokingly call themselves "looters". Water was brought from a well several hundred meters away. Father Serhiy buried the dead.

The kitchen, however, is no longer on a brick stove, it still works. Natasha, light-eyed and thin and very transparent, with her hair gathered under a handkerchief, looks about 45 years old. She constantly cooks in the church kitchen. Natasha kneads the dough with her thin hands and says:

- Itʼs for everyone. No one should be hungry here — she is not talking about her experience of the occupation, so she adds briefly, smiling: — We had a monastery-type church.

Locals still come here to pick up the humanitarian aid. Often those who have lost their home. The temple became a kind of "club of interests" for them. Even now, several women are communicating near the temple. Everyone looks like Natashaʼs peers.

Natasha in the church.

Danil Pavlov / «Babel’»

"There was a lot of humanity here, we knew each other," says Alla, a short blonde with gray eyes, already on the street. She also hid in the temple during the occupation. — Someone seemed small and fragile, but was spiritually strong. Like Natasha. She had more courage than men.

Natasha collected the bodies of those shot in Vorzel, in order to further serve the praying over the dead and bury them according to church customs. The graves were dug by locals, whom Alla calls homeless and drunkards and is surprised that "such people" helped. The bodies laid on the street, in the yards, in the basement of a home for the elderly.

Among the buried — the brother and father-in-law of another local, Tatiana. She talks about everything easily and smoothly, but still in a black mourning T-shirt and skirt. The men died in the first three days of the occupation, in their backyards. Tatiana says:

- Rushists went down the street and shot everyone. First they shot at the street, and then vehicles and dozens of cars were driving. Probably, they always had the impression that the locals were betraying them, so they shot everyone.

In the lower church — in fact, the church basement — hid locals and those who were evacuated from other towns and villages. For example, families from Borodyanka, Lubyanka. It has become dangerous to go outside since March 15. Svitlana, a short woman in a floral dress, jokingly calls the parishioners "children of the dungeon". And he adds that there were "arrivals" [shelling] every morning.

Svitlana (right) and Alla.

Danil Pavlov / «Babel’»

The temple had its own schedule. Because of fasting, they prayed for the most part with the sounds of explosions. They had a potbelly stove that went out through a low window into the street, and mattresses — thatʼs all the conditions. There was also a mobile connection near the church — so they called relatives, and passed information about what was happening in Vorzel.

The occupiers came to the temple infrequently. When they came for the first time, Svitlana was looking out from behind the porch — she is short and they did not see her. She heard the roar of vehicles moving across the railway track and then saw the Russians themselves. She managed to warn Alla, and she ran into the closet with garden tools, and she hid behind the door. The Russians talked to Father Serhiy and left. A day later, others came and said that they were being fired upon from the temple. They searched the Fatherʼs office, car, brought him to his knees and interrogated all the men. They boasted that they could easily take Kyiv, but did not want to destroy such a beautiful city. We went away again.

"The feeling that we took part in a survival show here," Alla smiles bitterly. — Because there was no respite, yes, Sveta? But we are not heroes. By and large, we saved lives thanks to the temple. And saved the psyche, because they raised each other when someone fell, we had discipline. Now we remember only good things for some reason, we became so close to each other.

- There was a schedule, stability — it helped. Father called us "canaries" and joked. But we are just now beginning to realize what we had to go through, — says Svitlana. She does not speak "good things".

Father Serhiy.

Danil Pavlov / «Babel’»

The lower church is still collecting humanitarian aid for the locals — clothes, food that does not spoil for a long time, and hygiene products. Sometimes this aid is sent by the locals, who left earlier. Glancing at the packages, Tetiana adds:

- Our church is the only one in the city that operated like that. Sometimes I am told that we have Moscow priests. But we go to God, no one has abolished his values. However, it is necessary to separate.

On this day, after a joint dinner, Father Ioanne went to Ivankiv to discuss leaving the Moscow Patriarchate.

Back in April, priests of the Moscow Patriarchate called on Metropolitan Onufriy to sever ties with the Russian Church because of its support and propaganda for Russiaʼs war against Ukraine. On May 27, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate declared independence from the Russian Orthodox Church. To date, about 400 religious communities have left the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate. However, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine still believes that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has not severed ties with Moscow, and its position is not clear enough.

Danil Pavlov / «Babel’»


In the second half of March, an acquaintance called Father Ioanne said that on March 17, his 20-year-old son had been taken away by the Russians. Along with him, there were taken four other guys from the village, allegedly for guerrilla warfare. The grandmother of one of them went to the Russians at the checkpoint and there she was told that the boys had been taken to Belarus. Father Ioanne grasped this information.

- I went to Belarus by accident. It was a spontaneous thought already in Poland, on the way home, — says the Father.

On March 24, after a long interrogation, he crossed the border at the Brest checkpoint and took a train to Minsk. From there — to Gomel. It was in Gomel oblast, which borders Ukraine, that abducted civilians were taken out of Kyiv oblast.

In Gomel, he first went to church, hoping that local priests would help him in his search. It turned out that they do not have time for this. However, the locals near the temple knew well where people were being brought. The abductees were considered refugees.

Father Ioanne changed his undercoat into a tracksuit so as not to be conspicuous, and hired a driver. The driver did not hesitate to say on the way that Belarus should take all the land to Kyiv and leave the rest of Ukraine to the Russians. The Father replied that he would change his opinion if Belarus is bombed, just like Ukraine.

Along the route, 50-60 kilometers from Gomel in the direction of Chernihiv, there were three camps in sanatoriums. The Father decided to check all three to find his son. One of them is "Zoloti Pisky". The father does not remember the names of others.

Local taxi drivers knew about the location of the sanatoriums, so it was easy to get to them. In each case, Ukrainian men and women were kept in separate buildings near the main entrance. Others even had local vacationers.

Danil Pavlov / «Babel’»

"I told the staff directly that my son was somewhere here, I described him," says Father Ioanne. — Nobody asked how I got there, because some Ukrainians were brought in every day.

The father told the employees of the sanatoriums at the reception the name of his son, his four friends and two other women, about whom he was told by fellow villagers. It turned out that one of the women had already been searched by telephone, but the father could not find out anything else.

In one of the camps, he managed to view the logbook. The list began on March 18. Opposite some surnames, there were the dates of departure. Everything is written in different handwriting.

In one of the buildings, the Father saw many deportees while they were sorting through alleged humanitarian aid — in fact, rags thrown in the closet.

"I wanted to ask people who they were and where they came from, but they were very scared and afraid to talk," says Father Ioanne.

However, he managed to find out that there were people from Kyiv oblast in the camp — Vorzel, Hostomel, Piskivka, Ivankiv, Sukachiv, Ladyzhychi, Borodianka. Most of them were women with children, there were also elderly people.

One family from Ladyzhychi recognized the father. The woman was deported from Ukraine with three small children. In fact, she herself agreed to this trip, because she was afraid for the little ones. They were transported across the border by bus, but they did not know exactly where and for how long they were going. At her fatherʼs suggestion to go with him, she said that her passport had been confiscated and she had been warned that she would not be released until the end of the war.

Danil Pavlov / «Babel’»

The last, third camp, which the father went to the next day, turned out to be the worst in appearance — the old, Soviet. He clarified with the employee about the list of Ukrainians. Instead, he called a representative of the Gomel Red Cross.

A 50-year-old woman said the Red Cross paid for the deporteesʼ stay until May 17. She began to ask how the father got to the sanatorium, shouting for him to leave. And called the police.

The Father had a document from the Cypriot church with him, claiming that he was their citizen, just in case. So he felt more confident with this document. Besides, he understood that he was not doing anything wrong — he just came to pick up his abducted son. While calling the police, he argued with a representative of the Red Cross. She said that no one is detained by force and simply not released while it is dangerous in Ukraine. A police officer who arrived at the camp told the priest to either surrender to local authorities and confess to "espionage" or flee Belarus. The father chose the second option and went to Poland, from there he left for Ukraine.


When the priest reached Vorzel in the first days of April, the city had already been liberated from the Russian occupiers. The son was waiting for him at home. It turned out that he spent 15 days in Russian captivity at their headquarters near the village — he was not taken anywhere.

Danil Pavlov / «Babel’»

The Russians blindfolded the boys, tied their hands, and put them in a pit near the lined tank. They were beaten, fed their own leftovers, and forced to dig graves for executed civilians. The villagers, looking for them, came in a large community to the checkpoint and began to demand to show them the boys to make sure they were alive. Eventually, they were brought to the checkpoint several times, taking away the food that was brought to the locals.

- He seems to be in a normal state now, he wants to go to war. But he has no military specialty, so he is in line with others, — says the father and laughs. — He used to be so self-confident and stubborn, but now he has started praying.

Father Ioanne jokes a lot. He laughs and encourages others to laugh. He says you canʼt wait years for permission to rejoice and live in sorrow if God has given you life. Laughing, he adds that things could get worse. He believes that it is necessary to do what is possible, to benefit people, to help. It is necessary to hear "thank you" for the day you live through.

This is how he tells about his trip to Belarus — simply, calmly and jokingly.

- It was scary when I was just making a decision, and then I was not afraid. This is not some kind of heroism. If I didnʼt think that my little one was there, I wouldnʼt just go looking for Ukrainians. But here, under occupation, people did serious things. Every minute, under the guns. And I just went by train. Tourist.

Danil Pavlov / «Babel’»

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