Ukraine war stories set tone for Remembrance Day service

Hundreds gathered at the Niverville Heritage Centre on November 11 to spend a moment in thoughtful reflection over the ravages of wars past and present, and to commemorate the men and women who’ve served and continue to serve.

“This event brings people together in a spirit of learning and fellowship,” Remembrance Day committee member Donald Stott told those gathered. “It’s through intergenerational conversations that the torch is passed on so the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice will continue and that the values that they fought for will live on in all of us.”

This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the Dieppe Raid, where almost 5,000 Canadian soldiers came ashore on the heavily defended French coast alongside British and American allies. It was known as Operation Jubilee.

The strategy led to important lessons learned, which would eventually influence the success of D-Day two years later, but not without sacrifice. More than 900 Canadians lost their lives on those shores and thousands of others left wounded or were taken as prisoners of war.

Special guests at this year’s event included the Leushko family, who represent the thousands of other families currently caught up in the modern-day war in Ukraine.

Introduced by Roger Armbruster, the family of ten successfully fled their wartorn homeland and arrived in Manitoba as immigrants in March of this year.

“I find it significant that some 148 years ago, back in the year 1874, evacuees from the area that is the present-day Ukraine came to this region in order to find a safe place,” Armbruster said. “Today, in the year 2022, we once again have evacuees from a war zone in Ukraine coming to [Canada].”

Two of the Leushko children performed a song for the audience in their native language, described as a prayer of mercy for those still suffering the ravages of war back home.

Through the use of an interpreter, father Leushko followed, providing attendees with an inside look into life in the midst of war.

Life for the Leushkos was similar to that of most Canadians before the war broke out in February. The children all attended school and the eldest daughter was happily enrolled in her first year of university. Mr. Leushko held down a number of jobs to provide for his family.

On February 23, the day before the war started, Leushko’s son turned 16 years of age. He was never able to celebrate his special day.

“Many cities in the Ukraine, including ours, became targets and were hit by various missiles,” said Leushko. “Many people suffered. There were a lot of casualties and buildings were destroyed. These people had to evacuate.”

News came to the Leushko household from relatives living in Russian-occupied cities. They told of people being robbed or forced from their homes by Russian soldiers.

Leushko heard from a friend who’d barely managed to escape with his family.

“He dressed up his daughters in very ugly clothing and put mud all over their faces,” Leushko said. “That way, if the Russian soldiers came up to them, they wouldn’t find these girls appealing and rape them.”

By March 3, Russian soldiers began closing in on the city where the Leushkos lived.

It was then that the Leushko parents made the difficult decision to uproot the family and flee their home. Sometime after, the city was completely flooded out when a nearby dam was targeted by Russian missiles.

For many Ukrainians, these maneuvers have only strengthened their resolve to stay and fight the war. Leushko’s youngest brother was among those.

The Leushko family managed a successful exodus to Germany. Stories followed them of family members back in the Ukraine who were unsuccessful in their attempt to leave. Cities were destroyed and the numbers of deaths and casualties were high.

According to Leushko, the media is only portraying the horrors of what’s truly happening in Ukraine with five to ten percent accuracy.

Now in Canada, the Leushko family remains in contact with other Ukrainian families looking for ways to immigrate here. One of these is the Shchaslivy family.

The father, Sergei Shchaslivy, was a pastor in the Ukraine prior to his family’s exodus. While leading a convoy of parishioners out of their bomb-riddled city, the Shchaslivys’ vehicle was fired upon by Russian soldiers, in spite of the banner indicating the many children occupying the vehicle.

Seven-year-old Anastasia Shchaslivy died from a gunshot wound. Her 11-year-old sister Lida sustained severe head trauma. She underwent one surgery in the Ukraine before the family fled to Italy where Lida awaits a second surgery to remove a bullet fragment from her brain.

“This is a family that is very close to our heart and we’re trying to bring them over here,” said Leushko. “He’s unable to work, as he has to be by his daughter’s side.”

Leuskho and others have since begun a fundraising campaign to bring the Shchaslivy family to Canada. They’ve already received Canadian visas to work and study here. A total of $13,500 is needed to purchase flights from Rome.

As for Leushko’s hopes and dreams for the future, he says they are simple ones for now.

“We would be very happy to stay here in Canada if the government allows us to, so we can raise our children away from danger,” he said.

The Friday Remembrance Day ceremony closed with the laying of wreaths by a variety of dignitaries as well as Melanie Bergen’s rendition of the wartime song “We’ll Meet Again.”

The song was first introduced at a Niverville Remembrance Day ceremony by local war bride Cecily Wallace some 15 years ago and has continued to serve as a traditional part of the service to this day.

Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen