Irpin, near Kiev, May 3, 2022 (Photo: Emilio Morenatti/Ap/Lapresse)

Laly’s victory

She is a mother from Kharkiv. For two months, as a refugee in Lviv, she lived in fear of the bombings. Then she arrived in Italy, where she participated in the Fraternity’s Spiritual Exercises. From the June issue of Traces.
Luca Fiore

I meet Laly Liparteliani in a café in Brescia’s Piazza Vittoria. Talking to a Ukrainian woman in a place with such a name in this period makes an impression. Victory is the most important word used in the propaganda of the Kiev government. There can be no victory in Ukraine other than a military victory. And all other victories, like the one at Eurovision, are in service of that victory. Laly, who fled Kharkiv, was a refugee in Lviv for two months and finally landed in Italy. She recounts the sense of injustice, fear, and uncertainty about the future that predominate in her and in the people of her country. She does not excuse the Russian invader, but the victory she tells us about is another kind entirely. And now that she has been able to attend the CL Fraternity Spiritual Exercises, she understands this better; she understands better what is happening to her.

“When we were forced to leave Kharkiv I felt that same feeling of rebellion as when, a year ago, Rostik, my husband, died of a heart attack. No one ever asked me if I would be able to live without him. And now, within hours, I had had to pack up and run away. Again, no one asked me if I agreed. One night they called me and told me to get everything ready to leave. But what is everything? How do you carry your whole life in a suitcase? But I had to get my two children, Maria and Georgij, to safety, and I got in the car.” Laly, along with Elena Mazzola and friends from Emmaus (the Kharkivbased NGO that cares for disabled orphans), tried to cross the border in early March. But she didn’t make it. Georgij, her eldest son, had just turned 18 and could not leave the country under the martial law. She could have left her boy and run away with her youngest daughter. But she did not. “We survived my husband’s death and were able to return to reality because we stayed together. Then I thought that Rostik would never make the choice to leave one of the kids behind. I didn’t want to choose between my two children.” So while Elena and other friends went to Italy, she stayed in Lviv.

“The most terrible thing for people living in Ukraine today is picking up your cell phone in the morning. You immediately go to see your latest WhatsApp messages. After you determine that none of your relatives or friends have died, you go back and read the messages from the beginning to see how many bombs have fallen in Kharkiv or Kiev. What has happened in Mariupol…” Laly speaks of how difficult it is to live in wartime even in a relatively safe city like Lviv. “You walk down the street and see sandbags protecting buildings and monuments from bombs. You notice this even in your church: the statues of Jesus and Our Lady are wrapped in white cloth like mummies. You know they are there, but you cannot see them. It doesn’t help to keep calm.” But the hardest thing to describe, she says, is what happens when you start hearing the sound of sirens. “They explain on television what to do in case of chemical attacks with chlorine or sarin. The moment the alarm starts, it’s like everything inside you shrinks. You are scared and feel a sense of helplessness. You know that in case of a chemical attack, you will not be able to protect yourself and your children. Every time I heard the siren I would go into shock. We lived like that for almost two months.”

Laly Liparteliani (Photo: Luca Fiore)

Laly explains that she has never prayed so much in her life. “What helped me is what I had experienced with Rostik’s death: discovering that there really is Someone who is more than me and to whom I can ask for what I need. In the face of war I am so small… The only thing I can do in front of what happens is to welcome it. To understand that everything is possible for God and to cry out to Him, ‘If this is Your will, help me and my children, who are Your children.’” As the days went by, Laly began to look at things differently, began to see signs of humanity in small things. “A lady I met in the bunker, when she found out we were from Kharkiv, left me her phone number and told me to call her if I needed clothes or blankets. I became friends with another lady who was a street cleaner. They were people who, implicitly, I could ask to help me see what was still good and human inside all that evil.” Then something resolved and a solution for leaving the country began to emerge. “I was praying that we would find a legal way to cross the border. They had proposed crossing in the woods at night, but if we were found out Georgij would face 30 years in prison. Eventually we frealized that he could enroll at a university here in Italy, and we started working on this solution.” Days and weeks went by. Bureaucracy is an ugly beast. Laly began to become disheartened. But one day she talked to an Orthodox priest who, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola, told her, “Act as if everything depended on you; trust as if everything depended on God.” She was not discouraged; she persevered–and things went her way.

“Laura, a dear friend from Brescia who had been in Kharkiv to study warned me that on April 17 a friend of hers was coming to pick us up at the border. It was Catholic Easter Sunday. And I told her, ‘Laura, that day is Easter, who can pick us up on such a day? Only an atheist or a saint.’ Mark came, a saint… It was my Easter, the victory of life over death. The victory of love, of humanity over evil. I think of the way Mark looked at us.” Two weeks later, Laly connected to the CL Fraternity Exercises and listened to Father Lepori’s meditation on Martha. “I am of Georgian descent, and we constantly have to take care of what’s on the table. There always has to be plenty to eat and we need to be able to recognize a guest’s needs by meeting his or her eyes: wine? bread? more food? This is how we were raised–we are always concerned that everything is okay. At Easter then… In my house we were all focused on food, but no one ever questioned what was really being celebrated. Martha is in my DNA…”

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Before her husband’s death, she thought she knew what was the “necessary” good for her, what made her happy, and how things would have to be for her to be happy. “But after what happened to Rostik, I realized that I already had everything to be happy. On that occasion I experienced that if I give myself to Jesus, He takes my life and makes it beautiful. But it is as if every time I am caught in amnesia and I go back to doing things the way I think they should be done.” After the Exercises, she wondered how she could practice leaving space for the silence Father Lepori talked about. “I started giving thanks for all the little things. The other day I was reading the news from Ukraine. More death, more suffering. Again, I felt great anger within me, because someone who is sick has demanded to come and treat you. Someone who themselves needs to be liberate came and ‘liberated’ us, without bothering to ask us first if we wanted to be saved. He came and stole our lives. I thought about all these things, but after a minute I saw something else: Someone, in the very same way–without asking our permission, for no apparent reason–had come and given me all of his life.” Laly says that she is talking about concrete people. She thinks of Silvia and Ruben, who opened their home and their lives to her in Brescia. “Everything they had taken away from me with the war, I received back here. I could not see it. Yes, they took so much from me, but I am receiving so much. When I think about that, my faith in humanity returns.”

She recently read something that really struck her: evil, that which is bad, sticks like glue to our thoughts, while good slips away like on a nonstick pan and you can’t hold it back. “I began to ask the Lord to be able to see what He gives us. And I am grateful for what is happening to me and for the fact that it is happening through the presence of friends. Today, when I wash the cutlery, I notice that there are spoons that I like very much. Silvia gave them to me, and every time I see them I think about how beautiful they are, and that I have to thank her for giving them to me. And Silvia is surprised every time because they are ordinary spoons. She says, ‘Stop thanking me.’ Yet they are so beautiful, I am glad I can use them.”