- Share to or
‘Just throw me into hell’ How western Ukraine is preparing to defend itself. Meduza reports from Lviv.
The war in Ukraine has been raging for almost two weeks now. In that time, Lviv has become the main transit point for Ukrainian refugees on their way to Europe, most of whom are going to Poland (according to the UN, the migration crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is “the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II”; 2 million people have already left the country). Meanwhile, residents of Lviv, which has yet to see any combat activity, are preparing to protect their city from Russian invaders. Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova crossed the border from Poland to Ukraine — here’s what she saw.
‘Those people aren’t coming back’
Just past the Polish-Ukrainian border, there’s a purple minivan parked in the grass. The further we go into Ukrainian territory, the more of these vehicles we see.
“All of these cars were abandoned,” says Vladimir, a Ukrainian volunteer, pointing at an Opel parked sideways across the shoulder of the road. Vladimir is bringing humanitarian supplies from Poland to Lviv — cookies, sandwiches, and berry-flavored mineral water — as well as a journalist.
“These [vehicles] are from all the refugees who traveled to the border. Do you realize what it was like here? There were three rows of cars! It was practically impossible to get out. People were abandoning everything they had… Look, there’s another car,” he says, nodding his head. “People [left their cars and] went to the border on foot, and they didn’t need anything — not cars, not luggage.”
None of the cars have been touched since their owners left. One of the roads that connects with the border highway is almost completely filled with them (and that stream of cars was ultimately unable to make it to the main route). “Do you understand what the words ‘panic’ and ‘chaos’ mean? They probably would have torn the border down… Look, there’s a third one,” says Vladimir. He spends the next ten kilometers or so just counting cars aloud. “Five… Then there’s that bus… I doubt they’ll ever see their owners again. Once a person drops everything and leaves, they’re not coming back.”
Vladimir was part of the traffic himself: he helped evacuate refugees. Most of his passengers, he says, were women and children.
“You see, I refuse to utter even a word in Russian anymore [note: Vladimir’s actually speaking Russian now, with the occasional Ukrainian word thrown in]. You understand? It’s very very offensive. I’m seeing how people are willing to take up arms and protect what’s theirs. People are really offended, they’re hurt; it’s not their fault this war came to us. Whose war is it? What’s the purpose? Hey, hand me your passport,” he says suddenly, spotting an upcoming security checkpoint.
It’s only then that Vladimir realizes that the journalist he’s speaking to — me — is from Russia. “You need to change your passport,” he says. “No offense, but I’m desperate here. I mean, now I don’t know who you really are! I saw your citizenship, and it’s put me in a tough position. What’s really your angle here? Where are you going? Are you a saboteur or not? I’m sorry, but we just can’t trust anybody.”
The conversation comes to an end when we reach the security checkpoint outside of Lviv; in the days since the war began, these checkpoints have appeared on every road in the country.
“You won’t find anyone who says, ‘Ah, let them in! It’s alright — Russians, Ukrainian, who cares.’ You won’t find one person like that. The resentment’s here to stay,” says Vladimir. “For years and years.”
‘We’re not going back to the life we had’
At first glance, there don’t seem to be any refugees in the center of Lviv — only groups of tourists, identifiable by their camping mats and clothes, which are a bit too warm for March in Ukraine.
On Krakow Street, traditionally a tourist favorite, a crowd of people gathers every day on the weaponry store's front steps. Some of the rental apartments here can only be entered at certain times: the owners serve at security checkpoints and have to rush to give the keys to their renters before their shifts begin. There’s no traffic, but the police near the barricades outside of the Regional Administration building are liable to take aim at any vehicle that looks suspicious. Luckily, if you close your window firmly, you can block out the sound of the air raid sirens.
One of the city’s bomb shelters is located in the basement of the Church of the Transfiguration; most of the displays in the church’s local history museum (including the wax figures) have been blocked off, and the only light comes from two small glass enclosures displaying small hatchets.
Kyiv residents Olga, Marta, and Gabriela, who came to Lviv with their Spitz, Aperol (as in an Aperol spritz), have settled right across from the church. They still haven’t set foot in the bomb shelter.
For now, they don’t plan to continue into Poland. “Leave [Ukraine] and mooch off of some nice Polish family? No, we’d rather wait until we can go back to Kyiv,” says Olga. “For now, we’re planning on waiting five more days — we want to return home whenever we can. I recently bought a coat for spring and started remodeling the children’s bedroom. There’s no going back to the life we had before, but that’s still our home. Leaving Ukraine would mean breaking away permanently.”
“Dad came in at seven in the morning — I was still sleeping,” says Marta, a student, recalling the first day of the war. “He came in and sat next to me on my bed. I opened my eyes, and that was it. He didn’t even say anything — and I knew. And everything suddenly split into ‘before’ and ‘after.’”
“It’s scary to think that so many people hate you for no reason,” says Olga, referring to the most recent opinion poll from the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), in which Russians were asked about the war. “It said that 68% support the ‘special military operation’ — I thought it was 98%. But it all depends on how they word the question. Yesterday, I watched an interview with a psychologist who talked about a survey of factory workers done in Soviet times. ‘How do you spend your free time?’ it asked, and they all claimed to watch ballet — mostly Swan Lake — and read classic novels.”
Olga’s friend has lived in Moscow for a long time — but she still owns a house in Ukraine’s Chernihiv region. “She left the keys with her neighbor, and my friend asked the neighbor to open the house and give away everything she could find to volunteers,” says Olga. “I don’t even know who has it worse right now: she’s a stranger over there, but she won’t be accepted here — no matter what she says or does.”
A crowd is gathered in front of the Stvol weaponry store. Eventually, a man steps out onto the porch and calls, “Number 77!”
Number 77 turns out to be a young doctor named Taras. It’s his turn to purchase a shotgun. Like the rest of the men in the crowd, Taras has been on the waiting list since February 24 — the day Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of the self-proclaimed “republics” in the Donbas.
Number 76 is still in the store: buying a weapon requires filling out a large amount of paperwork. “We’ve been standing out here for two weeks already. I’m trying to get my hands on a shotgun,” says Taras, then mimics a shutter-clicking sound. “It’s not as deadly: you’ve got a higher chance of wounding someone but not killing them.”
Taras has only ever fired a gun for sport before. “I’ve shot skeet,” he explains, “but I’m generally against hunting. I’ve been trying to enlist, but I’m a doctor, so the territorial defense told me that if I get a weapon, I can serve with them as a doctor. An armed doctor who knows how to shoot.”
Dmitry, a young man who’s exempt from conscription because he’s a student, has been trying to sign up to fight for days now. “I feel like I’m in an armed conflict with myself; I have survivor’s guilt, the guilt of someone who’s been saved from catastrophe. It’s really been eating at me the last five days. To be honest, I just wanted to go to the draft board and say, ‘Here I am — take me and throw me straight into hell.’”
The only other young person at the enlistment office right now is 19-year-old Mykhailo, who’s here to get a certificate confirming he’s unfit for duty so he can leave the country; the medicine he needs is rapidly running out in Ukraine.
If he doesn’t get his medicine, Mykhailo’s joints will start to hurt and his vision will rapidly deteriorate. “I have rheumatoid arthritis. That means my immune system ‘attacks’ my joints, and I have to take medication to suppress it,” he explains. “If I get stuck in the trenches or the streets without medication, my symptoms will get worse and I won’t be able to clench my hands — or use my gun.”
‘Leaving Ukraine has always been a last resort, a bad dream’
Natalia Tikhonova, a Russian woman, leads a group of volunteers in organizing evacuation routes out of Ukraine for refugees. Tikhonova herself was forced to leave Lviv, where she lived, on a day’s notice; she’s now based in Warsaw.
On a white board, Tikhonova has meticulously divided out the names of all of the cities currently in the conflict zone into three columns: green, red, and black. The volunteers are still trying to figure out what to tell the people trying to escape the conflict zones.
“People are contacting us from all over,” says Natalia. “Right now, we’re dividing the cities into red zones, there’s currently combat going on; green zones, where we can send people; and gray zones, for the ones we’re still not sure about. It’s just a huge a responsibility, when you tell someone, ‘Leave your city and run” — what if something happens to them? Is it better not to tell them to leave at all?”
Tikhonova left Lviv on February 24, the first day of the war. “That morning, I was still saying I wouldn’t go anywhere,” she recalls. “And then the sirens began. And I was like, ‘What? A siren in Lviv?’ And suddenly we had a suitcase, a backpack, and two boxes. Some things were easier just to leave than to take.”
She left on one of the first evacuation trains. “The whole car was full of babies and small children — so many children — as well as women; the only man was a Belarusian guy who was traveling with his wife and kid. A young paramedic was crying: ‘How can I leave my work behind?’ She’s still a student, and her mother had convinced her to leave. I think she felt guilty about leaving when she could have been useful as a doctor.”
When it was time to show her documents at the border, Natalia immediately felt “uncomfortable.” “My bag was lying on my knees,” she recalls. “And I reached for my passport, quickly opened it up to a random page to avoid showing the front, and put my residence permit on top of it. The woman took it, stamped it, and gave it back without a word.”
“I’m just scared, as a Russian person, that I won’t be able to go back,” says Tikhonova. “I don’t want this to be the beginning of my new life. Leaving Ukraine has always been a last resort, a bad dream. And it came true: they’re bombing Troieshchyna [a neighborhood in Kyiv]. How am I supposed to wrap my mind around it?”
Translation by Sam Breazeale
- Share to or