A Catholic Priest in Kyrgyzstan

In mid-June 2010, violence broke out in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. Many homes, like those pictured below, were burned, people were killed and thousands fled to the Uzbekistan border. Our friend Laura Sheahen at Catholic Relief Services is in Kyrgyzstan and sent us this on-the-ground report of a Catholic priest ministering amid the violence. We are grateful to Laura for her report and for the photos: 

Father Krzysztof Korolczuk is driving awfully fast for a Catholic priest. As we careen through streets near Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan, I ponder the sanctity of life—specifically my life, sitting in the back seat of his speeding car with a Catholic Relief Services colleague.

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Suddenly I realize he is concerned about our lives. There have been rumors of snipers in this section of town ever since violence broke out in mid-June. The furious mobs, the shooting, and the house-burning appear to be over for now, but it’s not exactly safe here. Father Krzysztof is driving fast to keep us safe from something.

CRS teams have just arrived to help the hundreds of thousands of people whose homes were looted and burned during the worst of the crisis. But Father Krzysztof—Westerners pronounce it “Kristof”—has been here for years. A 40-something Polish Jesuit, he and a handful of fellow priests live in this former Soviet republic, where the vast majority of people are Muslims or Orthodox Christians.

Father Krzysztof was as shocked as anyone when mobs engulfed neighborhoods in Osh and his own city, Jalalabad. Throwing burning bottles of gasoline, they destroyed thousands of homes, wounding thousands and killing an unknown number of people. Terrified families fled to friends or relatives outside of their cities. Others temporarily went to camps for displaced people in neighboring Uzbekistan.

A week later, the streets of both cities are calm, too much so. We roll up the windows, even though it’s hot and there’s no AC and “the windows really wouldn’t stop anything,” we agree. We pass streets blocked by felled trees or piles of stones, taking the other side of the road when the makeshift barricades allow.

Father Krzysztof pauses near a gas station. He knows a lot of people in the area, and he’s recognized a woman in a red car—because of her ethnicity, Father Krysztof fears she may be targeted. We wait for her car to pull out, and drive in front of her. Our presence as foreigners might keep her safe from something I don’t fully understand.

We draw closer to Father Krzysztof’s parish house in Jalalabad and he notices the red car has turned. “I thought they were going to her sister, but they’re going to the husband’s family,” Fr Krysztof says, relieved. “So they are OK now.”

As we pull up to his church/parish house (Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta parish), a drunken wounded man staggers towards him. He’s been shot—the wound didn’t happen today, but from the state of the bandage it’s recent. We jump out and Father Krzysztof drives him to hospital.

He’s back quickly. As we wrestle our luggage out of his car, I see bags of onions and potatoes in the trunk.

Father Krzysztof is worried about the security of our hotel, which is basically the only game in town. He takes us in and we stay at his parish house, several rooms and a small chapel surrounding a courtyard with a tangled garden, a fish pond, and a jumble of miscellaneous objects strewn about. “My bedroom was flooded the other day,” he mentions, and shows us the waterlogged floorboards he’s pulled up. On a wall a painting that references John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you… Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

In mid-June 2010, violence broke out in the south of Kyrgyzstan. Many homes like these were burned, people were killed, and thousands fled to the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Many survivors have since returned to their burned-out homes and are living in their yards or porch areas.  Others are staying with friends in houses away from the city.

The next morning, Father Krzysztof says Mass quickly. We’re scheduled to visit the burned-out neighborhoods, but first an older couple stops by with a note from a sick man who wants to be visited. Fr. Krzysztof promises to visit him later in the day.

We squeeze into Fr. Krzysztof’s car—he says a prayer as we drive out the gate—and head to the first of many city blocks now charred and in ashes. Gingerly stepping over broken glass and chunks of blackened roofing, we walk into the courtyard of one house. The family is sitting on blankets in a porchlike area that was not badly damaged.

The house owner presses large bullets into Father Krzysztof’s hands. “This is what they used when they shot at us,” the owner says. Father Krzysztof looks bewildered.

“I hid in the basement with my kids. The baby is two months old,” says one woman there. “We covered the children’s mouths so no one would hear them.”

We take notes on their most urgent needs and then head for the border with Uzbekistan, a short drive away. The paved road ends and Father Krzysztof steers his tiny non-SUV car over deep ruts. We stop several times so he can ask “Where are the people?” Eventually we reach a series of large farmhouses near grain and sunflower fields.

Inside one, a woman sits with her grandchildren. They’re being hosted by acquaintances; her husband is still in town at their house, which was spared. “With my own eyes I saw the shooting and the burning,” she says. “God grant I never see it again. It was terrifying.”

In the doorway, a boy plays with a toy gun that could be a water pistol. “Don’t shoot!”  Father Krzysztof says playfully. We ask what they need most, hear their story, and get ready to leave. Father Kryzsztof goes out briefly and hoists a bag of onions and potatoes from his trunk, giving it to the family.

Later that afternoon, the CRS team works on aid coordination and Father Krzysztof visits the sick man who sent the morning note. When he returns, a young woman stops by saying her family needs food. Father Krzysztof goes into a storeroom, scooping flour and pouring cooking oil to create a food pack her.

I work in a room with large aquariums kept by Brother Damian, a Jesuit who is helping people in the north right now. Father Krzysztof runs in, agitated. He’s carrying a beautiful goldfish as large as his hand, hoping to rescue it from the fish pond outside. “It’s Damian’s, it’s dying,” he says. He puts it in a tank, gently prodding it, hoping to bring it back. Its lips move feebly, but it doesn’t make it.

At least Brother Damian’s very active turtle is OK--it crawls around the courtyard with astonishing speed. The rest of the fish are doing well too.

In mid-June 2010, violence broke out in the south of Kyrgyzstan. Many homes like these were burned, people were killed, and thousands fled to the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Many survivors have since returned to their burned-out homes and are living in their yards or porch areas.  Others are staying with friends in houses away from the city.

The second morning of our visit, an elderly disabled man knocks at the gate at 7 am. “Do you have anything to eat?” Fr. Krzysztof rushes to the kitchen and feeds him. “He comes often,” Fr. Krzysztof says later as he pulls jars of preserves from a newly flooded storage area under the floor.

We head to more burned neighborhoods with Brother Vladimir, another Jesuit at the parish house. He translates for us so Father Krzysztof can see some parishioners who need help.

We’ve gathered enough info that we can head back to Osh, where other CRS colleagues are. Father Krzysztof drives us. “Watch out for the turtle!” he cries as Brother Vladimir opens the gates for the car. The fastest turtle in Kyrgyzstan doesn’t get squashed.

Speaking of the “grave conflicts” in Kyrgyzstan, Pope Benedict XVI expressed “heartfelt closeness … to all who are suffering.” Father Krzysztof is as close to the conflict as it gets, in the heart of a deeply divided region. The suffering are all around him, and every day he goes to help them.

The turtle, the goldfish: they are not Father Kryzsztof’s, but he cares for them. Father Krzysztof is Polish; the people in Kyrgyzstan are not, strictly speaking, his people. Also, he is Catholic; they are not. But he cares for them, ministering to them and grieving when they suffer. If a peace the world does not understand is ahead for Kyrgyzstan, if its people will someday not be afraid, it will be thanks to people like him, who stay close to the suffering.

Laura Sheahen

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