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Ukrainians celebrate Easter in the shadow of war

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Lvov, Ukraine
CNN

They have endured intense battles, brutal airstrikes and unimaginable casualties, but this weekend many Ukrainians will try to celebrate one of their most important holidays of the year: Orthodox Easter.

Traditionally a time of reflection and rebirth, this Sunday will also mark exactly two months since the country was plunged into a devastating war after Russian forces invaded on February 24.

In his Saturday night address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reflected on the significance of the date. “Today was Holy Saturday for Eastern Rite Christians. The day between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. It seems Russia is stuck on such a day,” he said.

“The day when death triumphs and God is supposed to be gone. But there will be a Resurrection. Life will conquer death. The truth will conquer all lies. And evil will be punished,” Zelensky added.

As fighting intensifies in the south and east, many Ukrainians are leaning on their faith in search of solace, while others are choosing to return home from neighboring Poland to be among loved ones for the Easter commemorations.

“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 it was a dream,” says Anna-Mariia Nykyforchyn, 25, at CNN from Lviv, a western city largely spared from the Russian onslaught.

Nine months pregnant when war broke out, Nykyforchyn was one of more than five million people who made the difficult call to leave. She came back two days ago with her baby Marharyta.

“For me, it was extremely important to come home before Easter,” she says, before sharing her joy at the prospect of the couple’s grandparents meeting the newest member of the family. “I really wanted us to be together. It’s such a ray of hope that everything will be okay.”

Perched on the couch in her central Lviv apartment, Nykyforchyn glances at her 27-year-old husband, Nazar, whose attention is firmly fixed on the little girl napping in his lap.

“I had a very difficult 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 soon after.

“I moved in uncertainty: with strangers, with a stranger, in a city where I had never been, in a country whose 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 did not make any agreements. I didn’t know how it would be. But the main thought that kept me afloat was that my child should be born in safe conditions,” says Nykyforchyn.

Aware of his wife’s record, Nazar intervenes: “She’s not just a woman, she’s a heroine… If I were in her place, I couldn’t… I would have cracked. And she didn’t collapse.

While the gushing father is clearly thrilled to be reunited with his wife and daughter, this young family are among the lucky ones. Not everyone will have the same chance of reuniting with their loved ones.

A priest reminds parishioners of Jesus' sacrifice from the steps of the Church of the Intercession of the Blessed Virgin in Lviv, Ukraine, April 23, 2022.

Ukraine’s government has announced new curfews for the Easter weekend, amid warnings from authorities about the potential for increased Russian military activity over the holidays. And earlier this week, officials in the Luhansk and Sumy regions urged residents to attend virtual services, citing possible Russian “provocations”, while noting that many churches were destroyed during the invasion.

Despite concerns, Lviv residents descended on churches across the city for blessings of protection and prayer on Saturday. At the Church of the Intercession of the Blessed Virgin, worshipers ignored calls to stay home and instead lined up 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, patiently stands by his family as he waits for the priest to make his way.

“People often think that holidays should be joyful, bring relief and make things easier – and when they feel good, they don’t 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 paska (traditional Easter bread), sausage, ham and cheese nestled among candles and decorative eggs in her basket.

“Today in the morning there was an air alarm, but now, thank God, it is calmer and we were able to come. It is very important for us. It is the church that we visit often,” he adds.

Easter baskets will be sent to soldiers with decorative eggs bearing messages of encouragement.  Here, a note reads:

Nearby, Andrii, a 35-year-old church volunteer, dutifully loads Easter food collection boxes for Ukrainian troops. “We try to keep a festive atmosphere and a hope for justice and peace. This holiday, Easter gives even more hope. We must believe in victory as much as we believe in Jesus Christ,” he said.

Pointing to the containers that fill up quickly, he adds: “They will be sent to the military units that protect our land. (The) guys should have the opportunity to eat paska and sausages.

A gust of wind catches the beautifully embroidered fabric covering 35-year-old Maryanna’s basket. After putting it back on, she tells CNN her family heeded warnings to stay home.

An Easter custom is to bring a basket of food to bless with holy water before going home to share with family.

“It is frightening and there is anxiety in my soul. In Odessa today there was a missile strike… But we believe in God and hope that everything will end in victory,” says- her gently.

As the priest rounds the corner, his eyes quickly shift to his basket. “We have received a notification from our municipal officials that people should better stay at home, but we cannot,” she continues. “How not to bless the Easter bread? We missed it during a Covid pandemic – and now people are in desperate need of the holidays.

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