It`s Christmas at our farm near Prague – finally! I’m waiting for Santa Claus, I’m waiting impatiently. After a while he comes to our house. We’re unwrapping a few presents for the good kids, I’m packing a few things for what seems like a long vacation. I excuse myself for having to go, wish the family all the best, hand over the presents and with Santa get into the van belonging to Food for All London. We are leaving for a long journey to war torn Ukraine.
Santa Claus (Parashuram Prabhu) collected piles of money from sponsors in the UK to help the Ukrainian devotees who distribute prasadam to people in the war zone. He filled the van with pots, stoves, generators, spices, shoes, socks, sleeping bags, gifts, convection ovens and so on. Off we go – onward East. For doing service, for adventure and for helping out the devotees. Para, myself and Achintya, head chef at Food for All in London, cross the border into Ukraine the very next morning. We wanted to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp on the way, but somehow I sensed that it would be closed around December 25th, so we left it for the return trip. The plan was clear – to help the devotees distributing prasadam near the war zone, not to linger unnecessarily, do only the bare essentials and move on. The journey will be long and Ukrainian roads are not among the best, to say the least.
Shortly after we cross the border between Poland and Ukraine we make our first stop in Lviv. We`re just on time for the Sunday feast. The devotees there have already finished cooking and are distributing prasadam in bulk because it is said to be very cold and there are no more refugees. The temple fills up quite slowly, but around fifty devotees and guests are already dancing and singing to a boisterous kirtan before the feast. At first glance nothing special seems to be happening, but when we talk to the devotees it is clear that in fact a lot is happening. It is a country at war and our conversations are directed accordingly. The seriousness of the situation drains me of easy answers and advice. I shrug my shoulders and don’t know, I really don’t know what to say. It’s as if I ran with my frivolity into a hard wall of real problems. Nevermind. Next morning we go to exchange money for Ukrainian hryvnias. There is no electricity in the city, no traffic lights, and in the center there is a generator next to every house. Otherwise, there is no other indication that rockets sometimes slam in – here as well. Within a few months, Para collected a bundle of money to help the devotees – literally and figuratively a bundle. Everything was in ten-pound notes – 50 thousand pounds. The machine for counting banknotes was not working, so the lady at the exchange office took a long time before she switched from counting, to actually issuing Ukrainian hryvnias. She shows us what a million hrivnas looks like and asks, if we have a bag for such an amount. We don’t. So I fetch the cover from a sleeping bag, we throw two million hryvnias into it, and off we go to our van. We leave quickly, so that no one ambushes us. We head to Mykolaiv, in the south.
Arriving in the city was already an experience. At the checkpoints they wish us a happy journey, and the closer we get, the more often they check us. Sometimes they are barely twenty-year-old girls with a Kalashnikov on their back and a stern look on their face. Guns, rain, fog. On the way, we pass a wreckage. The police are covering two dead bodies lying on the road. In the city you can see the results of the bombing: smashed houses, adjacent houses without windows or with wooden fillings. The devotees in the temple are already waiting for us and welcome us warmly. We get garlands, the best prasadam under the sun, and the moon, and most of all, the warmth and sweetness of the Vaishnavas. I have to point out that it was real, volcanic kindness. In the evening I am unloading gifts from England, which our “Mrs. Mercedes” van is full of – power generators, pots, stoves, small convection ovens, spices, clothes, etc. In order to have a place to lie down, we have to throw sacks of potatoes and rice in to the warehouse. The devotees cook about 200 portions of prasadam every day in the temple to distribute on the streets. We are at the right place at the right time! The power goes out, there is no drinking water, only water from the river. Like everyone else in Mykolaiv, devotees have to go wherever they can find drinking water. Sirens announcing bombing atacks sound several times. As newcomers we`re freezing. The locals are accustomed. Sirens at night, sirens in the morning. In the morning, together with others, we go to two places to distribute prasadam. The city is alive, but it is obvious that only to a limited degree. People queueing for prasadam, waiting. We do kirtan in pairs to accompany the distribution of prasadam. Thanks to the Holy Name, everything becomes clear again and we gain confidence that everything is actually OK. A military jet fighter flies over our heads with a terrible noise – literally just above our heads! Suddenly the fun is over. In the afternoon we go to buy vans – not that many to choose. Para will donate them to the Mykolaiv and Kherson devotees.
Early in the morning the very best devotee, Nama Kripa Prabhu, leads us to Kherson, about sixty kilometers away, a recently liberated city on the Dnipro River. From the other side of the river Russians are constantly bombing the city. Just to make the Ukrainians suffer even more. We leave when it`s still dark, to the sound of sirens, to the rumble of defrosting engines. When drive out of the city at dawn, the sight of destruction spreads before us. Desolation everywhere. The Russians attacked Mykolaiv, but did not take it, so they retreated to Kherson. We pass a completely destroyed village, hundreds of houses stretching for kilometers, blown-up gas stations, charred tanks and here and there unexploded rockets in the field. It’s not only cold outside, but also inside of us. Those who haven’t experienced it won’t believe it. Those who haven’t seen it with their own eyes won’t understand what it looks like. We slowly enter the ghost town. It is early in the morning and there is no one – only the ruins of houses, which are increasingly visible. Sometimes a car drives through the potholed road. Some of the holes are from rockets. We arrive at the edge of a housing colony and stop at a large iron gate of a family house. After a while, a devotee opens the door for us. Vasilij, the pinnacle of our adventure, the reward for all the hardships of the past and the future, the most powerful encounter, a gift from heaven. Ohe Vaishnava Thakura!
Vasilij cooks every day
Together with a handful of local devotees Vasilij distributes hundreds of portions of prasadam daily, in a city under fire. The Russians retreated to the other side of the river a few weeks ago. From there they constantly shell the city. Our enthusiasm knows no bounds, we go to the best kitchen in the world. We enter an empty swimming pool where Vasilij, with a completely calm expression on his face, cooks on a fire in a large cauldron. We enter with sacred respect, with respect for the great sacrifice that this noble devotee performs here, day after day, regardless of the crazy situation around. Even when the city was under the rule of the occupying forces, Vasilij cooked and distributed prasadam, although it was even more difficult than now. But he was able to do it. He’s such a heroic devotee. Completely unperturbed by external circumstances. After offering the food to Krishna, we take prasadam – it is definitely the best I have ever eaten. The nectar that everyone is craving for. Krishna`s mercy. Meanwhile our ecstasy of meeting these Vaishnavas is interrupted by loud explosions coming from the city. Sometimes further away, sometimes quite close. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’m in a city that`s being shelled – non stop. An explosion is heard every few minutes. We are really hesitant to accept the invitation of the devotees to go with them to the city to distribute prasadam and do harinama samkirtan. There`s a bloody war going on out there! Should we go with the devotees? For several hours! Heroism mixes with cowardice, like waves on a sandy beach, back and forth, back and forth. What should I do? We’d rather unload the van quickly and go to more friendly places. But we just can`t get away from it. Common sense does not prevail in such a situation. We are fascinated by these devotees who act as if there wasn`t a war raging all around them. They are fearless, convinced that they must serve in all circumstances. Mesmerized by their determination, we join them.
Kirtan and explosions
Hundreds of people, mostly elderly, are already waiting at the site. We also meet other devotees and start a kirtan together, just a short distance away from the prasadam table. Kirtan accompanied by harmonica, mridanga, ukulele, kartal and the occasional explosion of enemy rockets. It is not at all difficult to seek refuge in the Holy Name. There is no other refuge here! People are friendly and grateful for a warm meal in an almost depopulated city where there is no drinking water, electricity, gas, and where almost nothing we are used to in the normal world works. What works here is the will to live, to survive and to prevail. After an hour, we go to the second place, where several people died during a rocket attack a few days ago. The intersection is filled with people waiting for devotees. For many in this cold weather this is the only way to get a warm meal. Only the flyover of a military fighter in close proximity to the intersection disturbs this peaceful place in the middle of war. A place where life can end at any given moment. An unforgettable experience. At one point, devotees are handing out books and prasadam and there is a beautiful kirtan, and at the same time there is shelling and fighter jets flying overhead, an intersection where the neighboring houses are destroyed by rockets. Hare Krishna!
Dnipro and Kharkiv
We unloaded the van, said our goodbyes and drove on. Further north to the temple in the city of Dnipro, with fantastic devotees who stayed there despite the frequent bombardment of the city. Despite all the difficulties, they cook two thousand portions of prasadam a day and distribute them to refugees from the war zone, of whom there are around two hundred thousand in the city. We meet a devotee who is fighting in the Ukrainian army and we give him a super special winter sleeping bag, as well as maha prasadam from the Radha London Isvara Temple in Soho. Then we continue north. Endless fields with the most fertile soil in the world are often lined with miles of military trenches. We pass the defense line, bunkers, checkpoints, tanks. At last we arrive in Kharkiv – a city under fire since the beginning of the war. The devotees who we go to visit and hand over the power plant, spices and other things also distribute prasadam every day. When I ask them if they are not afraid that something may fall on them, and that`s the end, they just answer me with a cool head: “We take care of Krishna and He takes care of us.”
What many devotees strive for through all kinds of tapasya, vows, vratas, japa, sadhana, visiting holy places, immersing themselves in shastras, what for us “ordinary devotees” is an often unattainable dream, for them has become a daily reality. Glory to them! Glory to the Ukrainian devotees!