As refugee central, Ukraine’s Lviv lives between air-raid sirens and flashing blue lights

As refugee central, Ukraine’s Lviv lives between air-raid sirens and flashing blue lights
Lviv's town hall, the centrepiece of a town which has swelled from 700,000 to more than a million during the conflict. (Photo: Greg Mills)

Refugees are now totalling a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people. Lviv’s population alone has swelled from 700,000 to over a million people. In this, the second in a three-part series on the war in Ukraine, we report from Lviv as fighting rages in other parts of the country.

The third toast from a bottle of Texas Ranger whisky was made in silence and standing. 

“It’s for our friends who have died in the wars,” explained Sasha, as he struggled to his feet in the small kitchen of his fifth floor apartment. His friend, the bearded Volodymyr, served in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan Province at the same time as Sasha served in Herat in 1984 when he was wounded for the first time.

He was shot while serving with Soviet forces against the mujahideen – the bullet travelled through both lungs, destroying the second, before exiting his back. 

But that was nothing compared to his return to combat in 2014 in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where he was born. 

“Young people did not want to fight, so I joined to help,” he says, this time fighting alongside his son in a volunteer territorial defence unit, which lost 100 of its first 130 recruits in a bitter stand against Russian separatists. 

Sasha, then 50, was badly wounded by a mortar round, spending two years in rehabilitation in a hospital in the US.

Today he walks with a stick. “At least it’s my leg,” he laughs about his injuries, unable to bend his knee. 

With air-raid sirens wailing outside, he opens the door to his modest apartment, apologising. The entrance is taken up with boxes of food he is packaging for refugees, now totalling a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people. Lviv’s population alone has swelled from 700,000 to over a million people. The two-roomed apartment he shares with his older sister, Irana, also now provided a temporary home to Volodymyr and another former soldier, Sergei.

Refugees flock around Lviv’s central railway station – from Kyiv, Kherson, Kharkiv, Mariupol … these and other cities now a metaphor for a war fought in the 21st century with early 20th century tactics. 

Ukraine’s economy looks like it is caught somewhere between being Western and emerging from a Soviet nightmare, stuck between 1972 and 2022. The Soviet slab-style housing towers which ring Lviv contrasts with the superb collection of classical and baroque architecture in the old town, designated by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, its shops advertising big Western brands and crowds of Ukrainians and young volunteers milling through its walkways. 

It’s a schizophrenia that Ukrainians grapple with in other ways.

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Sasha grew up in a seemingly idyllic lifestyle, “skiing in the winter, swimming in the summer”, in the town of Shchastia – literally, “happiness”  – in the Donbas region. Born to a Ukrainian mother and Russian father, he was brought up “speaking and thinking like a Russian”. 

But there was a family history that cast a shadow: his maternal grandfather “disappeared” in 1937 and, despite his grandmother’s best efforts, including touring Siberian camps for eight years after the war, never reappeared. 

He fought hard in Afghanistan, ascending through the passage of soldiering, first, as a Siskin (or small green/yellow bird) taking things to the senior soldiers and learning on the job, then as a Molodoy (or young, learning how to fight), and finally to a Cherpak (or ladle, the core of the unit) and in the last few months, a Ded, or grandpa.

They were put on a train for five days and not told where they were going from the initial training camp in eastern Ukraine. “It was only when we saw camels, we realised we were somewhere in Asia.” Ten weeks further training followed in Uzbekistan, before deploying to Herat.

It was a tough existence. “You ate sand, you breathed dust, and you shitted grit,” he laughs. But his voice drops an octave or two when discussing his comrades.

“You see, I was a sniper. I had a big rifle, an SKS, which made it very difficult to get out of the APC [armoured personnel carrier]. And I was tall, six-two,” he adds. 

“On the first day my company commander said, ‘you will die on the first day’. But I learnt to survive. They say your first day is when you are first blooded. But that was not so bad, just a wound through the leg, no bone of anything. The second time was much worse. 

“My friend got hit by a grenade, which spilled out his guts. He asked me to shoot him, but I could not and tried to save him. But he died,’” he says, looking at the floor, “two hours later.”

The death of the Texas Ranger (Photo: Richard Harper)

On 1 October 1983, Sasha lost his company commander, deputy commander and the lead driver. “It became a war without victory. We would occupy a big camp, Then the supply convoy to the camp would be attacked. So we would attack them, and that would lead to further attacks and killings, fuelling more conflict. We just could not win it.”

Afghanistan had planted a seed of doubt in his Soviet mind. “What were we doing there? It was a big Soviet dream of exporting socialism, just like it was a Western dream now to export democracy [to Afghanistan].”  

The presidency of Viktor Andriyovych Yushchenko, from 2005 to 2010, was the nightingale who sang Sasha’s tune, however, in his punting of ideas of closer European integration, Ukrainian identity and Nato membership. In a warning of what was to come, his main political rival, Viktor Yanukovych, accused Yushchenko’s father, who had been a Red Army soldier and was imprisoned at Auschwitz, of being a Nazi.

The year before he became president, Yushchenko fell seriously ill, his face disfigured apparently from dioxin poisoning. His election to the presidency went ahead amidst the Orange Revolution, a civil resistance campaign to head off election fraud favouring Viktor Yanukovych. A second run-off held on 26 December 2004 was declared free and fair, with Yushchenko winning 52% of the vote. 

Criticised for his indecision and secrecy, by the end of his term Yushchenko had the lowest opinion rating (below 10%) of any Ukrainian politician. 

But he turned Sasha’s life around. “I am one of those people. He made me realise I was not Russian. I was Ukrainian.”

On taking over in 2010, Yanukovych’s presidential turn quickly soured as Moscow’s man. He fled from Kyiv to Russia on 22 February 2014 following the Euromaidan, or Revolution of Dignity, protests centred on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) against the influence of oligarchs (such as the president), government corruption, the role of Russia and the violation of human rights in Ukraine. The protests were sparked by Yanukovych’s decision to go against the parliament’s ratification of the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement, preferring closer ties to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. 

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Unlike the bloodless Orange Revolution, these protests resulted in more than 100 deaths and sparked the Russian annexation of Crimea and the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk republics in the Donbas region.

Pro-Russian demonstrations were held in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, which was annexed four days later, declaring its independence the following month. The next month, demonstrations by pro-Russian groups in the Donbas region of Ukraine escalated into a war with Ukraine.  With the war reaching a stalemate, the 2015 Minsk II agreements were signed by Russia and Ukraine, but were not fully implemented. 

And so the stage was set for this year’s conflict. 

Sasha’s Shchastia was controlled by the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic between April and June 2014, after which it was retaken by the Ukrainian army. Now 80% of Shchastia has been destroyed in the ongoing conflict – being occupied on the first day of the war on 24 February – much of it by shelling. 

Through their methods, Russians have ignited a fierce Ukrainian nationalism and left hatred in the wake of their destruction. In an interview with The Economist, President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that Ukraine’s fighting performance is down to its self-belief. 

This is our home, our land, our independence. It’s just a question of time,” said Zelensky

In the process, Moscow seems to have learnt, quickly, that the combination of Ukrainian resistance, Western support and a vast geography – the second largest country in Europe (after Russia), about half the size of South Africa and about the same size appropriately as Texas – was going to make it impossible to occupy. Presumably, this explains the concentration, now, of Russian forces in the south and east. 

Sasha’s son is still fighting in the east and his daughter now lives in Poland with her family. He makes no bones about the record of the battalion he fought with, admitting that those who came after him carried out abuses against the Russian population. 

“They did not go to the battlefield, but went inside the country to steal, and worse,” he discloses.

This region is hard on people.

It was freezing when we returned through Lviv after midnight, the cobbled streets and tramlines glistening in the eerie light. The flashing blue lights behind us offered a reminder of the curfew in place, while the sandbagged monuments and buildings illustrated that this is a nation at war. We were woken at 4am by another air-raid siren to go down to the bunker, once the spa in the small hotel. 

Vladimir Putin’s misconception of Ukraine – of a state riven with corruption and by division – is a primary reason for Russia’s military setbacks. This seems to have been informed by a Russian worldview predicated on what they think they have lost, rather than what they might give and could become. 

By contrast, Ukrainians have pulled together. For the meantime, they have learnt quickly to use their assets to their best advantage, integrating closely their administrations, both civilian and military, and using this moment to recognise and address the levels of corruption and poor governance which hampered their progress since independence. 

The mayor of Lviv Andriy Sadovyy. (Photo: Richard Harper)

As the mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyy, an electro-mechanical and economist engineer by profession, puts it, “the next month will be crucial. The Russians will place enormous pressure. We expect new attacks on Kyiv and Kharkiv.” 

But his team had readied themselves through resilience exercises and developed multiple contingencies, including finding new avenues for the transport of essential imports and exports, and in creating new ways to keep water and other essential services flowing without electricity. 

Military men and women in camouflage mingle with civilians in the corridors of the Town Hall. If the most notable takeaway from the first month of the conflict is how poorly the Russians and their equipment have performed, the opposite is true of the Ukrainians, a resourceful enemy fighting on its own territory. This will be tested as Putin doubles down on a strategy of destruction and denial in the absence of victory on the battlefield.   

So far, the more Russia pushes, the more Ukraine hardens. “I hate Putin” is the most common refrain of Ukrainians. Or “fucking Russians”, as Sasha prefers. 

It is going to be some time before Russians can live this down. And so it should be. DM

Read Part One here.

Dr Greg Mills is in Ukraine.


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