The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered Europe’s largest movement of people since the Second World War. More than four million people have left the country and a quarter of the population displaced. For weeks, Ukrainian cities in the north, east and south of the country have faced constant bombardment from Russian artillery. Many towns, villages and communities have been flattened. Lives have been lost. Homes destroyed. Livelihoods overturned. Most of those trying to flee the brutalities of this war, have been making their way west – to the relative safety of Lviv – just 70 kilometres from the Polish border.
It is the city’s main railway station which has best captured the human struggle of this conflict and the story of the Ukrainian people. It is a story of pain and sorrow. A place where hundreds of thousands of families are torn apart as mostly women and children frantically try to board the overcrowded trains heading to Poland and beyond; while sons, brothers, husbands and fathers stand on the platform bidding farewell. Men of fighting age aren’t allowed to leave the country. So they say their goodbyes and head in the opposite direction – uncertain of when, or if, they will ever be reunited with their families again. As a journalist, I have reported from many conflict zones, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Libya. What I find striking about the war in Ukraine is the number of women and children fleeing the Russian invasion.
When the conflict began, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian turned war-time leader, called on the citizens of his country to unite. He told young and old to pick up arms. The Ukrainian people responded by waging a surprisingly successful resistance against their invaders. The country-wide mobilisation has seen the government share bomb-making instructions with grandmothers. In one former art gallery in the centre of Lviv, I met university students who showed me how they were making camouflage nets for troops fighting on the frontlines. 20 year old Alina tells me just 8 weeks ago she was at school studying and is now responsible for the operation at the centre. The petite, perky young woman has her golden locks pulled back in a high ponytail, with blue and yellow ribbons – the national colours of Ukraine – woven through her hair. She says there are now 180 volunteers working here. “We make roughly 40 nets a day and the soldiers come and either pick them up or arrange the transportation to send them to the frontlines. I’ve never done anything like this before but like all the people here, I want to do whatever I can to help. I believe victory will be ours.”
Whether it is opening up their homes for those who are seeking shelter or making Molotov cocktails, the volunteer movement has stepped up against this Russian invasion. The thriving civil society in Lviv has focused on solidarity, activism and charity as part of its war effort. Despite the devastation that this conflict has caused in other parts of the country – so far – this fierce sense of unity and the will to defend their homeland seems to have slowed down Russian forces. While spirits are high in a place like Lviv, this is also a city on edge. The haunting soundtrack of air-raid sirens, a daily reminder that this is a nation at war. It is a warning that Russian jets may be overhead or nearby, forcing people to rush into the many underground bunkers for cover. I had visited this city numerous times as a tourist in the past and enjoyed the many museums, galleries, cafes and restaurants. Little did I know that beneath these spaces across this city, there are bunkers which were built in the Second World War. All residents seem aware of exactly where they are and kindly steer you in the right direction. Their faces often full of dread as they made their way into the shelters – some from Lviv itself, others, strangers to the city but all too familiar with the eerie sound of the sirens. And even though everyone went through the motions once they started blaring, the fear was always the same — knowing that somewhere, something was being struck.