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Please Support a Ukrainian Lifeline

Updated: Apr 14

Petru Gradinariu, Peter Gelpi & Valentin Gradinariu

We offer our sincerest gratitude to everyone who has stood by us. Another year has passed in the fight for survival and freedom for Ukrainians. We have been there with them, responding to ever-changing conditions and adjusting our support to meet the most critical needs of those displaced or stranded near the frontlines of the conflict.

Thanks to your support, we provided 144,000 meals to the displaced community of Chernivtsi and established two new kitchens in Toretsk (see below), nestled between Bakhmut and Avdiivka, the site of the most severe fighting this year. There, we provide essential nutrition to residents unable or unwilling to seek shelter elsewhere.

At the start of the year, you funded the purchase of a Sprinter Van, allowing us to make regular deliveries to Chernivtsi and make multiple 750-mile treks to Toretsk, transporting tons of food, wood-burning stoves, winter clothing, and other essential supplies. As winter approached Toretsk, forty homes lacking essential utilities were basking in the warmth of their new stoves as they prepared the evening meal. This is a testament to the impact of your contributions.

Your compassion and commitment were crucial in helping us meet the challenge and sustain our spirits. Together, we have forged a lifeline of support for vulnerable communities, offering comfort, aid, and solidarity during times of crisis.

We hope you will continue to support our efforts and goals to expand our reach. Sustaining your commitment is crucial, especially as donor fatigue sets in and attention shifts to other crises. Together, we can assure the vulnerable that they are not alone in their struggle and that we will persevere until they can rebuild their lives with dignity and hope.

Thank you for your kindness, generosity, and unwavering commitment.

With deepest gratitude and blessings to you all,

The In God's Hand Team

Mission Toretsk

When the year began, our kitchen in Chernivtsi still served around 1,000 meals daily. Food donations from local charities and international NGOs were becoming scarce, and crossing the border from Romania had become more challenging with our reliance on vehicles borrowed from our regional partners. Thanks to your support, we purchased a Sprinter van, which has been critical to our continued success and helped extend our support to Toretsk. They are in a desperate situation, without power, water, or heat, and under constant threat of Russian bombardment. The sounds of exploding shells and cannon fire roll across the surrounding hilltops, the soundtrack of their lives and a stark reminder of the tenuous nature of their existence.

Leaders from our partner faith-based groups meet with us frequently to update us on conditions in their regions and pressing needs. Early last year, our partner in Kharkiv, Bishop Ilyusha Khark, informed us of two Toretsk kitchens in desperate need of support. We agreed to visit to gain more information.

Located five miles from the war's eastern front, Toretsk is a small industrial city in Donetsk Oblast. It has been a battleground since its annexation by Russia in 2014 and its support of pro-Russian separatists, known as the Donbas War. With a prewar population of over 30,000, less than 10,000 remain.

The drive from our Romanian base in Suceava to Toretsk is 750 miles. We cross the southern half of Ukraine, following the contours of the front lines through southern Ukraine, above Crimea along the Dnieper (Dnipro) River, and then head east to a point nestled between Bakhmut and Avdiivka, sites of the most fierce fighting of the war. With Russia's offensive, Toretsk faces encirclement if the Russians advance beyond these points.

The final hundred miles winds through the ruins of past battles, from the start of the war to Ukraine's victorious 2023 offensive. The charred carcasses of tanks and APVs litter the roadside, leaving burned patches and oil-soaked stains on the pavement. Amid decaying structures and ruined buildings, one catches fleeting glimpses of human existence amidst the stone-cold silence.

The last stretch to Toretsk is a slow crawl, the gravel road torn apart by heavy tracked vehicles and pockmarked with craters, winding through defensive barriers and military checkpoints. Towering slag heaps mined from the Donbas Coal Basin below surround the city, their shafts marked by skeletal elevator towers and laced with the rusted remains of Soviet-era processing plants. For some who remain in Toretsk, their only option is to keep working in the mines. With sporadic power, they risk being trapped below or drowned in the groundwater pumped from above.

Arriving in Toretsk early in March with over two tons of food, we met Victor Molchenko and Elena Shcherbak, each running kitchens equipped with small wood-burning stoves and a collection of pots, pans, and utensils from their homes. Before the war, Victor and his wife had run a small shelter and kitchen. Elena and a circle of friends cooked the meals at home and carried them to a central location to warm over a wood-burning stove. Each kitchen serves about one hundred meals a day. Limited by their equipment, they start cooking in the predawn hours to serve meals by early afternoon.

Victor's home was damaged this January by two rockets landing nearby. The impact tore holes in his roof and caused the ceiling to collapse. Elena, whose husband was a pastor, sadly lost him to a rocket strike several months before.

Elementary School

Generators light the kitchens. A tall blue plastic thousand-liter tank rests against the wall, holding drinking water, while a larger non-potable tank stands outside. Both are filled weekly by the Ukrainian Army. Although the kitchens remain unscathed, opposite one lies the ruins of an elementary school destroyed just weeks before our arrival. Toretsk is a frequent target of Russian attacks; the sounds of war, just over the surrounding hills, are a constant backdrop to their day.

After unloading, we asked them to create a wish list to scale their operations and reduce meal prep time. "Big Spoons," one of the women said while stirring her pot with tableware.

Returning to our base in Chernivtsi, we went in search of gas stoves, 100-liter stainless steel pots, countless bowls and utensils, large wooden spoons as requested, and all the other essential items for the kitchens at the bustling Kalynivskyi market. This sprawling eighty-acre open-air bazaar, the largest in Ukraine, is a labyrinth of tiny shops along winding alleys attracting tens of thousands of shoppers daily.

The stainless pots were the most challenging to find. Each vendor dragged pots from their storage lofts above, either too small or of the wrong material. When we made clear they didn't have what we needed, they would direct us to another stall by number, insisting we would find them there. Above each stall is a small numbered sign, yet the stalls are arranged in no discernible order or pattern. From one vendor to the next, as our hand cart rattled across the broken pavement, we sought cues, the many right and left turns remaining to our destination. We walked over five miles that day.

Pertru and I returned to Toretsk the following week with one van full of equipment and another loaded with food. It was meal time, and crowds had gathered at the kitchen entrances. Men stood together, avoiding our gaze, some talking while others stared aimlessly, lost in thought. The women, some chatting quietly, were otherwise detached, expressionless. Those approaching moved as if the weight of the war was their burden. Their slow, shuffling walk betrayed their aging joints, poverty, and resignation. This assembly is what remains of the population, primarily elderly with a few younger families and teenage children. For most, old age and illness, lacking the means or the courage, keep them in a familiar place, holding on to the hope that it will end someday.

In the months that followed, we returned with food, equipment, bedding, and supplies for people who lost their homes to shelling and fire. With familiarity, their stoic gaze was replaced by smiles of recognition and welcome, the room alive with excited conversation and cries of "Dyakuyu," "Spasibo," thank you in Ukrainian and Russian. It was a lively and joyous celebration, a wish fulfilled that brought renewed hope for the days ahead. Yet, as my driver, Petru Plantus, strummed his guitar, his voice hauntingly beautiful and sad, tears welled up, and lingering sadness returned.

As winter approached, our partners in Toretsk let us know many in their community still needed proper heating sources such as wood stoves or portable gas heaters. Our partner in Kharkiv, Ilyusha Khark, had a ready supply of stoves, so we arranged for his team to load up a full van and accompany us to Toretsk.

Ilyusha is a pastor who manages a network of churches across Kharkiv, Luhansk, and northern Donetsk Oblasts. In September 2022, we accompanied his team to make the first food deliveries to villages liberated in the Ukrainian offensive.

Kharkiv Tower

Ilyusha's church lies just south of the northern edge of the city and within the range of Russian rocket and artillery fire. Block after block of Soviet-era working-class apartments, concrete towers ravaged by the initial invasion and still threatened, whole sections reduced to rubble, their facades ripped away, revealing the living quarters within. Ilyusha's neighborhood is now a refuge for those with nowhere else to go. Ilyusha and his team support the thousands that remain.

We arrived just as Ilyusha and his team readied bags of food to hand to those in need. An endless line of hooded figures snaked down the side street, bundled in thick coats and scarves, huddled together against the biting cold as snow fell. We joined the human chain of volunteers, a bucket brigade passing satchels hand to hand from the warehouse to the street and into the welcoming arms of the next one in line.

It was late that night when we finally reached Toretsk, just before the military closed the roads. Our partner met us at a rail crossing outside the city to guide us. His car lights were all that lit the treacherous roads pockmarked with shell holes, some so large they could swallow our van, the surface covered in slick ice.

Arriving at the building that housed our kitchen, he and his wife led us to our sleeping quarters piled high with blankets and comforters; a sole gas heater glowed dimly in the corner. Unlike times before, the sound of shelling was constant. Just over the hill, the earth was being ripped apart, taking with it a generation of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers.

In the morning, we delivered stoves to warm the sub-zero-degree apartments without windows, their frames covered in cardboard and plywood. Layers of clothing were all the residents had against a bone-chilling, inescapable, biting cold, a reminder of the harsh realities they faced every day. With the stove's warmth, their frigid shelter became an inviting sanctuary. The dancing flames illuminate the walls at night, a comforting glow while a teapot warms.

Whatever else is needed gets added to the list we share over Telegram, along with daily photos of the day's meal. We have become a lifeline and the assurance they are not forgotten.  

Together, we can continue to offer crucial aid in Toretsk and uphold this community as it fights to endure the devastating effects of conflict.

Thank You

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1 comentario

I know, you do great things !

Your hands are the God's Hands , that keep us, warm us, feed us... etc.

A lot of thanks to you !

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