I met with Father Nesto Kysyk the same morning four Russian cruise missiles slammed into a military aircraft hangar on the edge of town.
According to Ukrainian officials no one died in the dawn blitz, but a massive pall of ink black smoke drifted overhead – a shocking reminder to families here in the west of Ukraine that Russia’s bombing reach is long and awesomely destructive.
27-year old Nesto, a priest at the Church of the Most Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in Lviv, said of the latest attack and war in general: “My view is the same as every Ukrainian. I have no explanation for it.”
“I am simply astonished that conflict can happen in such an advanced society as ours.”
“I really am lost for words.”
Nesto’s astonishingly beautiful church is one of a cluster of 15 in the centre of Lviv, a Greek Catholic stronghold with roots in a sixteenth century Jesuit movement.
Recently renovated 600-year-old statues of St Peter, St Paul and St Francis above the altar have been tightly wrapped in protective wadding and white linen to prevent damage if the church is hit by Russian rockets.
Masses are packed these days as Lviv’s population of 700,000 has been filled to overflowing with evacuees who’ve escaped from cities under siege like Kiev and Mariupol.
Nesto continued: “My parishioners have mainly two questions. The first is: how can they help the evacuees from other parts of Ukraine and secondly they ask: why is war happening?”
“The answer to first question is easy. They can give food and shelter to families who’ve fled conflict in the east and maybe offer them money.”
Regarding the second question I tell them: God doesn’t want war, but God gave us Ukraine and our freedom, now we have to stay and defend what we’ve been given.”
The church in cobbled Teatralna Street has tight links to the Ukrainian military and earlier in the week I attended the funerals of four Ukrainian soldiers killed in another missile strike close to the Polish border. One mother wept over the coffin of her second son to die in a war barely four weeks old.
Nesto is one of a large number of priests who travel to military bases to pray with troops before they go into battle in this deeply religious country.
“Yes, our soldiers are inspired by God,” he added. “I believe each Ukrainian has a duty, in front of God, to save our country.”
Sitting outside the church in the sunshine I found mother of three Maria. She fled the southern city of Zaporizhzhia with her boys and parents, having left her husband behind to fight.
She is one of three million displaced people, most of whom have fled across the chaotic border into Poland, Moldova, Romania and beyond to countries like Germany where they face further difficulties finding some where to live and food to eat.
Greek Catholic Maria told me she chose to stay in Ukraine: “We came to Lviv to be safe and to shelter. But now I don’t know.”
“Putin should stop his evil war. We lived in a peaceful land, now we’re refugees. I can’t believe this has happened here in Ukraine. I pray to God every day for the end of war.”
But there seems to be no end to Ukraine’s misery. The Russian advance, which began on February 24th, appears to be stalled raising fears here that Putin will step up indiscriminate bombing of cities to batter Ukrainians into submission and break their indomitable spirit.
Meanwhile exact numbers of civilian deaths are unknown because many are being buried in mass graves and in some cities like Mariupol, which is being shelled around the clock, it is simply too dangerous to go out and collect the dead.
Talks about peace remain elusive.
Ukraine’s President Zelensky – who as a defiant war time leader is currently enjoying rock star status on the world stage – says he’s ready for direct engagement with the Russian leader.
But seeking consensus on hot topics like the withdrawal of Russian forces, the demilitarisation Ukraine, the recognition of Crimea, and breakaway statelets of Donetsk and Luhansk as Russian territory, could take weeks of negotiation with neither side willing to concede.
Some observers say inscrutable Putin may even stall the talks to rearm his depleted and exhausted military for a fresh assault on Ukraine.
I asked Father Nesto what he prayed to God about.
“I ask God to give strength to Ukrainian soldiers to fight and for peace and survival of our country.”
“I also ask God to help Russian soldiers see what they’re doing is wrong.”
He paused and added: “Everything’s in God’s hands now.”
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