oDR: Feature

‘We have to do something’: Lviv gears up to help those fleeing war

As displaced people flood into Lviv in western Ukraine, the city’s residents have united to assist new arrivals. Volunteers – and those they help – tell their stories

Maria Grinevych
25 March 2022, 12.00am
Volunteers serve meals to evacuees in front of the railway station in Lviv
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Newscom / Alamy Stock Photo

Thousands of people used to flock to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on public holidays, to wander the streets, eating and drinking. Tourists, all of whom spoke different languages, would attempt shouting “Glory to Ukraine” in Ukrainian in the street, garbling the words, and joyfully roaring with laughter as other festive drunks shouted back “Glory to the heroes!”

Today the city is hosting thousands of people for a different reason: they are fleeing Russian bombs in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and elsewhere. When you meet them, their faces are often grim, their voices quiet. Lviv’s train station has become a transit hub for helping people displaced by the war, and the city has become a new home for others planning to stay.

openDemocracy spoke to both residents of Lviv and new arrivals in the city to learn how their lives had changed after 24 February, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine – and ruined millions of lives in an instant.

Sveta, Lviv resident and train station volunteer

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Sveta helps new arrivals get their bearings: shows them where to get medical care, room and board, and evacuation transport to the border

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Marina Grinevych

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In comparison to the first days of the war, everything is more organised now. We can offer new arrivals more transport to the border and more opportunities for resettlement in Lviv. People can arrive and immediately head off somewhere that same day, whether they’re going abroad or settling in Lviv. We help people meet their basic needs: some food, a warm place to sleep and take a shower. Our first task is to guarantee a basic level of safety for them. As for their emotional state, we’re always ready to ‘smooth out the edges’. You have to understand they’re coming from places so scary that their panic and fear take a while to go away… You’ll find people who are unhappy that we aren’t meeting their needs fast enough, who think we should give them a car or something. But that’s just a few people. Everyone else is thankful for any help. Even if we send them to sleep in a school, where it’s warm and there’s food, they’re grateful for that.

Marta, Lviv Vegan Kitchen

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Marta helps to provide free vegan food for refugees

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Marina Grinevych

We’re Lviv Vegan Kitchen, and with the help of donations from other vegan organisations, we provide free vegan food for refugees and anyone else who wants some, even residents of Lviv. We also send vegan food all over Ukraine for people who can’t get vegan products because of the war or don’t have the means to do so. There’s a lot of war, but so far, we’re managing.

The influx of people has really only impacted our driver. Since 9 March, it’s been impossible to park anywhere in Lviv because there are so many off-road vehicles. We think they belonged to people who’ve already evacuated. The women and children move on to Poland, while the men stay behind with the vehicles. At least, I think that’s the case. That’s the only thing that’s changed since the beginning of the war: lots of big vehicles around. But I wouldn’t say life has changed in the city. There’s no trouble.

We used to take hot food to the train station. But then there was a time when things were in disarray, and we ran into some crazy people who started to bother us, saying the station was a strategic location and we couldn’t go inside. That’s why we decided to stop going there. Right after that we learned of another initiative, an esoteric hipster spot called Your Choice, which has become a shelter, a place to warm up. We take hot food there now.

Olena, photographer from Kyiv

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Olena volunteered, cooking food in a basement for the Ukrainian armed forces

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Marina Grinevych

We were in Kyiv for 11 days. From 24 February, we volunteered, cooking food in a basement for the Ukrainian armed forces, the Territorial Defence Forces and medics, and gathering supplies they needed. Things got more alarming there, though, so we decided to go to Lviv. Some acquaintances put us in contact with an evacuation organisation that used to help people from Belarus escape during the protests there (the Free Belarus Centre). Now they help people leave Kyiv and get to Lviv. It took us 11 hours. That’s relatively fast, as far as I know. And that’s how we ended up here.

I don’t think we can plan any further than the next day; it’s very hard. We can go to Krakow, we have a friend there. I asked if there was anywhere there that needed volunteers. I learned that [Ukrainian public TV channel] Suspilne needed help. I’m a photographer, though, not a camera operator. But I can help shoot segments.

Natalia, candy store manager

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Natalia says people are buying sweets to distract their children

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Marina Grinevych

What native Lviv residents fear most are the air raid sirens. People who have been displaced don’t feel [the fear] so strongly.

How has the flow of customers and demand changed? Since there are now so many displaced people from Kyiv and Zhytomyr, lots of parents with kids come in. They buy a lot of sweets. Probably just to keep the kids distracted from the whole situation. Now, more displaced persons than locals pop in.

So, it’s a sort of return to normal life. People keep coming to Lviv to take a break. Only now, it’s a break from the war.

Natalia, bookstore manager

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Natalia says people who have been displaced by war have bought children's books to comfort their kids

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Marina Grinevych

How are things in comparison to before the war? We had tourists, Lviv residents. Guests from all over Ukraine, and other countries. Demand itself hasn't changed. Now we just have fewer local customers from Lviv.

That’s just the way it is in the country now. There aren’t any particular kinds of books that are in higher or lower demand. People who have been displaced buy more children’s books to comfort their kids. They buy books for themselves, as an escape, and for their kids.

We’re collecting books for refugees outside the country – both children’s and adults’ books. Slovakia, Lithuania and Poland are the places where we’re sending books – as a way to support Ukrainian culture.

Ivan, salesperson at local clothes store

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Ivan shows off local clothing brand Aviatsiya Halychyny

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Marina Grinevych

This is our local clothing brand Aviatsiya Halychyny (‘Galician Aviation’). All our items are made locally, right here in Lviv. The logos and slogans on our T-shirts are references to specific air brigades or units here in Ukraine. Like the 10th Maritime Aviation Brigade, or the 831st Tactical Aviation Brigade, and so on. Sometimes we just use these brigades’ slogans. For example, the 16th Brigade uses the phrase “Only by fighting can you truly live,” so we use it too.

These shirts are in high demand at the moment. During a difficult time for the country, people are looking for something patriotic. Something that has meaning.

Displaced persons, in particular, are buying our products too. There aren’t a lot of clothes shops open now. We’re a sort of oasis here. Our client base has grown a lot as many have become familiar with our products.

People from eastern Ukraine, who didn’t know about our brand, are now familiar with it. At first, they were buying things like T-shirts out of necessity – and they ended up liking the style. One person can come in two or three days in a row to shop some more for their family.

We donate a portion of our profits to the Ukrainian armed forces. The people receiving this money understand better what sort of things are needed at the front.

We’re planning to issue a T-shirt featuring the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ [a probably mythical fighter pilot who is said to have shot down numerous Russian planes]. You’ll soon find shirts with the “Russian warship, go **** yourself” meme in our stores. And we have a shirt with the legendary Mriya aeroplane, which is already iconic [the world’s heaviest aircraft, and only one was built].

Mriya was unfortunately destroyed in a blaze. I hope we’ll rebuild it.

Vyacheslav Bondar, Fled Hostomel with his wife and bedridden mother

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Vyacheslav escaped from Hostomel with his wife and elderly mother

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Marina Grinevych

Simply put, I lost absolutely all my material property. But by a stroke of luck, I managed to save the most valuable thing: the lives of my loved ones. That’s what matters.

We’re now in Lviv, recovering bit by bit. My mum’s also bouncing back, and she feels so much better after the hell she went through. (This is what a ‘true Russian fascist saviour’ does to us). She went from a state of almost complete immobility and unconsciousness to a totally stable condition. I plan to send my daughters further on to somewhere safe, but I want to return and do what my country needs.

How did we escape? By the skin of our teeth.

When the Russian fascists showed up in Hostomel [a town outside of Kyiv], they went around all the bomb shelters. They took people’s phones, so we’d lose connection to the rest of the world, and then thoroughly ‘demilitarised’ our homes and vehicles. They knocked doors in and robbed 300 apartments clean in our apartment block alone (this happened in other apartment blocks, too). Overnight, they placed military equipment very close to residential buildings and positioned defensive artillery crews in playgrounds. While we hid in basements, they turned our apartments into barracks. They advised us basement dwellers to “stock up the essentials” and to keep our mouths shut (whoever argued was taken to who knows where). For some reason they were frightened whenever they saw that someone wanted to head off to the evacuation zones.

How did we evacuate? With the help of a guardian angel.

There was no guarantee I’d make it. My wife walked alongside and cried, while other evacuees went off far ahead

If this stranger hadn’t promised to help, and hadn’t lived up to that promise, it’s not certain we’d have remained alive. To put it extremely bluntly.

When I realised it would only get worse, I started listening to the radio constantly. That’s how I learned about a planned humanitarian corridor. They announced that the gathering point was 15 kilometres from us. They had blown up my car, and we wouldn’t get far carrying my mum (although she’s as light as a feather). I found a cart, the sort with one wheel, and carried her like that. I quickly learned that it would take a while to travel 15 kilometres down a bumpy road covered in debris, wreckage and other bits of scrap. There was no guarantee I’d make it. My wife walked alongside and cried, while other evacuees went off far ahead.

The gathering point changed location three times, and in the end, the evac buses took off from the same place we had started our travels. From one place to another, I carried my mum in my arms, carried her in an ice-cream fridge, pulled her along on a tire, and dragged her atop a shutter. Just when I had lost heart is when our guardian angel appeared, literally out of nowhere, and helped us. Near the end he got his hands on a grocery cart and I comfortably got Mum to the gathering point in no time. The buses were bursting with people, since only seven buses out of 30 made it to Hostomel. A lot of people that had embarked on this hellish quest to get to the evacuation point simply didn’t fit on the buses. But they let us on with my bedridden mum. A few guys who had managed to be among the first to sit down gave up their places to the women.

That’s how we set off, accompanied by the desperate gazes of the ones we couldn’t save on that day, uncertain that they’d be saved the next.

Ihor, Red Cross volunteer

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Ihor and his family spent seven days in Hostomel under shelling

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Marina Grinevych

My family and I spent seven days in Hostomel under shelling. The area was ours, then theirs, and brutal battles were waged. Our Ukrainian Armed Forces helped us break out to Irpin [a nearby town on the edge of Kyiv]. We also spent two days under artillery fire there. We were waiting for the evacuation train. When it arrived, the Russians shot at it. They also shot at the people waiting for it. The Ukrainian armed forces covered us while the train loaded everyone on. They’re our heroes.

We reached Kyiv, and then Lviv. We found lodging for our families and immediately went to the recruitment station. There they told us, “Stay put, the professionals are at work.” But “staying put” after what we’ve been through is impossible. We have to do something.

So we volunteered for the Red Cross. We have a heated tent where we can provide first aid. We send people to get settled in Lviv or tell them how to reach the border. There’s a lot of demand for help now, tons of people are leaving towns under fire.

Father Pavlo, archpriest of the Transfiguration of Christ Church

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Father Pavlo set up collections during services

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Marina Grinevych

We set up a collection during each service, everyone giving what they can. We’ve also collected money from our parishioners. We’ve gone several times with volunteers from our congregation to Poland to provide humanitarian aid, giving food, toiletries and clothing. Our parishioners in Italy have also collected money and sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine. We also sent some aid to the soldiers with chaplains from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

There’s an interfaith alliance of prayer during wartime. Bishops of all denominations pray for Ukraine and hold joint mass together. We pray for peace to come as soon as possible.

I wouldn’t say that people often come to me for spiritual aid. They come to mass regularly and pray, but there aren’t many that need one-on-one conversations.

Let me tell you about one case, though. When we went to Poland on a humanitarian mission, I saw a woman with a small girl and elderly mother in the queue. The father was driving them to the border, but they had run out of petrol and the women had to walk on foot. We helped them get to the border, and the woman asked us to baptise her daughter. So we baptised a child right on the border.

Translated by Chris Moldes.

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