“Don’t Feed Your Fear, Feed Your Faith“- From Burma to Ukraine.
9 September 2023
We were on a relief mission in Burma when the Russians invaded Ukraine last year. As much as we wanted to help the people of Ukraine, our hands were full in Burma, where very little help is given in what is the longest war in the world at 73 years. But God did open a way for us to help in Ukraine, and here is the story.
24 February 2022, Russia Invades Ukraine: A view from Burma
Karenni State, Burma: We were running down a road, dragging our mortally-wounded teammate. The Burma infantry was advancing behind us as mortars were landing with tremendous destruction around us. Burma Air Force jet fighters were diving, screaming down on the attack. A 250-pound bomb went off ahead of us, and then another one behind us as we zigzagged down the street. The jets came in again, and we all dove into a ditch. The explosion was deafening as the bomb hit 40 yards away and metal flew everywhere. One of our team was hit in the head, neck, and chest by the bomb fragments. As soon as the jets had ascended up and away again, we jumped up and picked up our teammate’s body as his life- blood poured out. We ran, carrying him as the jets attacked again, taking turns strafing us with cannon. Two of us were wounded on that run, and our friend died, but we got his body out. That day thousands fled and many were killed in Karenni State. That day, 24 February 2022, was one of many attacks by the Burma Army. It was also the same day that Russia invaded Ukraine.
We didn’t know about Russian’s invasion into Ukraine for the whole day, because in Burma it was one constant movement of helping people, evacuating wounded, and carrying dead as the Burma Army and Air Force juggernaut advanced. When we heard the news of Russia’s invasion, we were shocked and very sad. We know what war is like, as Burma has been in 73 years of war, with the last two years being the most intense. We’ve been serving there for 30 years and have lost 60 of our relief teammates. Half of these were killed in the past two years. Also in the past two years, over three million more people have been displaced and thousands more killed – this is in addition to the millions displaced before.
Because of the intensity of the fighting, there were news agencies with plans to come cover the conflict in Burma at this time. But when Russia invaded Ukraine, they changed their minds and went to Ukraine instead. I remember the Karenni asking me, “Are you going to leave us, too?”
I replied, “No way, not unless God forces me.” Although the situation in Ukraine is terrible, and they need help, they are getting a lot of support from all over the world, while here in Burma we have had almost no help and nothing to stop the Burma Army ground and air attacks. So, while we had been asked by different groups to come and help in Ukraine, we continued to focus on Burma while we prayed for the people of Ukraine.
A Ukrainian woman comes to help:
One year later, a young Ukrainian woman named Julia, who married one of our volunteers, Kingsley, asked if she could come to Burma. I asked her why and she said she wanted to share in the suffering because now the people of Ukraine know what that is like. And so she came with us on a relief mission. With every gathering of displaced Karen people, she would stand with a Ukrainian flag and tell the people, “We know what it’s like to suffer. I’ve lost my brother already, killed by the Russians, and my father is on the front line, and I don’t know now if he’s alive or dead.“ Tears would come to her eyes as she said, “We are the same as you and we want to share with you that God loves you. Jesus loves you, please don’t give up praying. Don’t feed your fears, feed your faith. We are with you and Jesus is with you. Keep asking Jesus and He will show you the way.” At that point I realized maybe we could do something in Ukraine; maybe we could take a small team and stand with the people in Ukraine. So we prayed together and, right away, Eliya, one of the Karen cofounders of FBR and the first Ranger and medic, said “I want to go. We need to stand with those people. People have helped us, we should help others.“
After being invited several times to go to Ukraine after the Russian invasion, and seeing how God had powerfully used our Ukranian friend to encourage those suffering in Burma, our team prayed and felt that yes, God was calling us to go. So we formed a small team consisting of my family, Eliya and his two sons, and Sky, a Free Burma Ranger (FBR) medic who had already been there and, in August of this year, we went on our first Ukrainian mission. We were joined by longtime friends Chuck Holton and Mark Tomlet, who work as Christian journalists, as well as two other journalists, Oscar Ramirez and Ben Bergquam. We linked up with an outstanding organization, “The Fund for Liberty and Justice,” led by an American named Joseph Bianculli, who has been helping since the beginning of the invasion. Joseph and his team, which included Dennis and Newcastle, supported by my dear friend John Gerlach, helped us to cross the borders and get to Kiev. We were also helped by an American missionary named Christian Hickey. Christian, along with his wife, Ashley and their three boys, Christian, Landyn, and Kelson, founded a faith-based organization called “Triple A Authority” (Advise, Assist, Accompany). One of Triple A Authority’s missionary pillars is to help other ministry organizations gain access and placement in Ukraine. They do this very well and were absolutely key in everything we did in Ukraine. They too need support and we plan on working closely with them, in any way God leads, to support chaplains and medical work in Ukraine. Julia and her husband, Kingsley, also helped us on our trip and it was wonderful to be reunited.
No safe place:
On our first day in Ukraine, as we were driving in from the west, there was a missile strike against the oil refineries of Rivne. We could see the thick billows of black smoke pouring up. It was a reminder that nowhere in Ukraine is safe. Our daughter Suuzanne looked at the towering black clouds and said, “This is just like Burma, the Russians attack the same way the Burma dictators do.” There are daily rocket, drone and missile strikes all over the country. We arrived in Kiev for meetings with local relief organizations, Ukrainian chaplains, and Ukrainian officials. There we met Samaritan’s Purse, who are doing wonderful humanitarian work in Jesus’ name. They are truly God’s force of love and care and hope. They gave us Ukrainian Bibles and children’s Bibles, which my wife Karen handed out to children throughout our mission, as well as to men and women, in every place we visited. The children and adults loved them! We told all we met that we had come to help in any way we could even though we were small, and that we believe God is big and we wanted to help in Jesus’ name.
The first morning in Kiev, there was a Russian missile attack. These missiles were intercepted by the Ukrainian air defense systems, and were blown up above us. This was another example of there being no safe place in Ukraine. Around the outside of the city, ruins of homes and buildings in Bucha bore horrific testimony to how close the Russian forces came to Kiev in the beginning of the invasion last year. From Kiev we went east to Kharkiv, and then to the areas around Kramatorsk, and then towards Bakhmut. There were missile strikes every day, and every hospital we visited had been hit. Most of the churches we saw had been hit, as well as the schools. We could see this deadly campaign of death and terror, the same as we see in Burma, and it broke our hearts.
To the East:
We visited destroyed village after destroyed village along the front between the Ukrainian and Russian forces, from the Luhansk area down to the Donetsk area. We became very close to a group of Ukrainian chaplains who have been ministering to the soldiers and civilians as they try to hold off the Russian invasion. These chaplains are a united group of Christian Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventist, Evangelicals, Messianic and many other Christian denominations. They are bound together in love, and in faith that God has not abandoned the people of Ukraine. They realize this is not only a physical battle, but also a spiritual battle. They told us of the need they have for training, not only for soldiers and civilians who experience trauma and are back in hospitals or out of the battlefield, but also training to help chaplains provide spiritual, emotional, and mental support near and at the front lines. This is a huge need. There are not enough chaplains to help the Ukrainian Army. And, amongst the Foreign Legion of International Volunteers, we were told there are no chaplains. This need touched our heart deeply and we pray to be able to help in some way.
One Ukrainian volunteer chaplain named Katherine, whose husband is a local pastor, accompanied us to help translate and guide us. She was wonderful! Our new friends here in Ukraine helped us go forward to the eastern front areas where we were also hosted by the local police, who often are at the front lines defending the people and taking care of them when strikes come in. The police have formed teams of what they call “white angels,” to go into areas under attack and help rescue people. As the power was often knocked out, they told us they were in great need of generators as well as mobile lighting systems to help when they’re trying to do rescues after missile strikes. They also need support for more vehicles, including armored vehicles, to help evacuate people.
We told them we would share their needs and pray for them. We were able to help them in a small way and bought five generators for five different police stations that had been hit by the Russian military. We also provided combat, lifesaving, and trauma care, as well as medical training to police from many areas scattered along the worst-hit towns. Our medics, Eliya and Sky, along with help from Christian and assistance from our kids and Eliya’s sons, supported by super-translator Katherine, all did a tremendous job of training these police officers. We opened each training with prayer and a testimony of encouragement for them to call on Jesus. After the training was completed, Christian gave a powerful witness of what Jesus had done for him in his life, and how Jesus loves and would help all the police officers here. Following this, our team would give some small food assistance, as well as toys and encouragement, for the children. It was very touching to be with these families. We could see the uncertainty and fear in the eyes of the children and yet their smiles shone as they were given love and attention. Their parents have endured death and destruction and live in constant peril of their lives, like everyone else in Ukraine. Being with these families made us very grateful for all those who help the people of Ukraine, and we pray for more help.
We also went to the area hospitals, which were full of wounded soldiers and civilians. The attacks are continuous and so most of the hospitals have had to move their care and surgeries deep down into cellars. These have little airflow and are very moldy and wet. But that is better than dying in a missile strike. Walking through a hospital with cracked walls, blown-out windows, and running on emergency power as surgeons tried to save lives, was heartbreaking. The doctors came to us with a list of medical instruments and medicine that they needed. They said people are helping but it’s not enough; there are too many casualties. “Please ask people around the world to help us with more medical supplies so we can save these people,” they said.
We prayed for many of the wounded and one woman said, “Yes, I believe in Jesus, I believe He’s with me and He sustains me. Thank you for coming as servants of Jesus, we feel God‘s presence with you. Please tell people around the world don’t give up on us. We need everyone’s help and we pray to God for that. Thank you so much for coming.“ The woman, whose legs were badly wounded, began to cry and thanked us as we prayed for her. She also cried as she described being rescued after a heavy missile attack. She had watched as her neighbor was carried away, not knowing if she was alive or dead. She said she was out milking her cows when the Russian missiles came in, and that the terror has never left her. She was badly wounded in the legs, but we prayed she could walk again. We met many people like this woman during our time in Ukraine and prayed for them and told them we would share their stories.
With Joseph, we also visited one of the newly liberated villages to see how we could help. As we were going through the destroyed school, Russian missiles went over our heads, and slammed into a village behind us. Ukrainian soldiers holding this village from the Russians were in front of us. The Russians attack this village, and others, regularly with missiles, artillery, and airstrikes. Despite the danger, the village headman bravely took us to his home and gave us coffee and little cookies while we asked him how we could help. He said, “We hope that the Russians will fall all the way back to Russia and that we can move back, but as you can see, most homes are completely destroyed by bombs and shells. Some, however, are still standing; but even those have lost windows. Can you help us with some sturdy plastic windows that won’t shatter when shelling occurs nearby? Winter will come, and if anyone can stay here, we will need windows.“ We prayed and agreed that we would do our best to help with windows for this village. We plan to do this through Joseph and his excellent team.
From there we went and met American and European members of the foreign legion that had come to help stop the Russian invasion. These men are extremely brave, committed, in love with the people of Ukraine, professional, and very effective in slowing down the Russian advance. Over 200 of them have died, and many more have been wounded. Still, they dare to stand with the Ukrainians under brutal assault in the name of freedom. We prayed with them and encouraged them to call on Jesus’ name and let Him guide them in all they did. We also prayed for their families back home, for their protection, for the protection and healing of relationships, and for God to be the center of their lives. These men are heroic and helping to support the Ukrainian military in saving the people of Ukraine. We saw the bravery of the Ukrainian soldiers and their good cheer even though they are in the midst of deadly attacks. We prayed for the needs that we saw and felt like there is a way we could help. As we got ready to leave, Sahale sang a Ukrainian song of love, faith and hope that Julia had taught her. This brought the police and others with us to tears and we felt the bond of love grow deep.
We are planning to bring small teams of chaplains and medics from FBR to work alongside the Ukrainian chaplains: to give spiritual as well as medical training and medical care at and near the front lines in support of the Ukrainians under attack. We also pray daily for the Russian government and the Russian military, that their hearts would change. We pray that they would fall back and that they would not stay in Ukraine. We also pray for reconciliation one day.
One night as we were following behind some volunteers to provide medical treatment, a massive artillery and rocket barrage broke out. This was a first-world, peer-on-peer, modern, and absolutely devastating assault of mortars, rockets, missiles, and tank fire. At the same time, going in a different direction, over and a ways behind us, missiles streaked towards the cities and towns which were well behind the front. In this case, the missiles went over us going hundreds of miles to the west and exploding into random villages and cities. This is the nature of this war: brutal fights at the front with rockets and missiles going far to the rear to kill and terrorize civilians. Fortunately, the team we were supporting was able to get out alive and unscathed this particular night, but when we got back to the rear, we found out that one of the missiles that had gone over us had hit the town of Lutsk near the Polish border, well to the west, and had killed three civilians. These attacks against towns and villages in Ukraine go on every day and night.
Over 500,000 people have been killed and wounded in this war so far, and, since writing this, many more have been killed, and some of the volunteers we met have been badly wounded. The people of Ukraine need a massive infusion of humanitarian relief and military help to enable them to survive and stop the Russian onslaught. I believe it is only with prayer and enough force to stop the Russian attack that there will be the possibility of negotiations and an end to this fighting.
One important relationship that we want to highlight is the fact that Burma and Russia are both closely connected: not only in the level of destruction being brought against people, but also how there is direct military cooperation from each government for each other’s attacks. This cooperation also includes Iranian and North Korean involvement. For example, in Burma, the Russian military provides jet fighters: Yak 130, Mig 29, SU 30, Hind attack helicopters, and heavy weapon systems to the Burma Army to kill their own people. Many of our Rangers have been killed by Russian ordnance. Iranians also provide drones to the Burma Army, while the North Koreans provide heavy weapon systems, and the Chinese provide aircraft such as K8 Khorakoram jet fighters. In Ukraine, the Iranians provide the Russian military with weaponized drones, while the North Koreans also provide support to the Russians and now the Burmese Army is providing 120 mm mortars to help the Russians kill Ukrainians. This is an alliance of evil between Russia, Burma, Iran, and North Korea.
Facing this, we need an alliance for good. We ourselves are not always good, but God is, and if we listen to God, we can form alliances to do good. At the same time, we are praying for our adversaries, and that all of our hearts would change, and we could find ways to live together. We thank the United States and many European countries that are standing with the people of Ukraine. We pray that they would stand even more, as if it was their own families at stake in Ukraine and in Burma. We pray that we can stand with the people of Ukraine as we do with the people of Burma, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.
When we came on this mission, one of the first things we were reminded of was how big God is. God is bigger than our affections, our responsibilities, our families, our relationships, and our missions. When God calls us to expand our work or to go to other areas, we can trust God that He will take care of the people that we are committed to. We all have limits, but God’s love does not, and we pray we will follow Him wherever He wants us to go. Thank you so much for praying for us and enabling us to help people wherever God opens the door, from Burma to the Middle East to Ukraine. May God bless and lead us all to follow Jesus and share His love everywhere we go in the world.
Dave, family and FBR