In Ukraine’s Lviv, help — and maybe hope — for the legions displaced by war
She ladled out one serving after another from a steaming cauldron, savoring how patrons relished the comfort-in-a-bowl elixir, all free of charge.
Vladyslava Ladysheva, 64, a great-grandmother in a quilted coat, was serving chicken soup at a food stand outside the main train station in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine.
“I get a lot of satisfaction being here,” Ladysheva said this week. “People feel safe and are taken care of.... Easter is coming and we want this to be over soon.”
She is among the army of volunteers mobilized to aid the many displaced by war descending on this city. Lviv is a both a way station for Ukrainians headed abroad, and a haven for the legions who hope to remain in their homeland but fled fighting in their areas.
A month after Russia’s invasion Feb. 24, the numbers are staggering: Some 10 million Ukrainians — almost a quarter of the population — have been forced out of their homes, including 3.5 million who have opted to cross into Poland and other nearby nations, according to the United Nations.
Attacks on civilian targets, including apartment buildings, schools, a maternity ward and a theater said to be sheltering children, are cited.
The influx has swollen the population of Lviv, a historic city of domed churches and cobblestone streets. The city, normally home to some 700,000, is packed. Recent sunny days have brought throngs to the streets.
“It has been a challenge for Lviv, but everyone is doing what they can to help out our fellow Ukrainians,” said Mayor Andriy Sadovyi,
who spoke outside a church before the funeral of a soldier last week.
Such services are an almost daily occurrence now, as the bodies of those killed in combat are brought home. Few people do not have a relative in the fight.
The son of Ladysheva, the soup lady at the station, is serving at the front.
Among those relishing her fare was Svitlana Nikonorova, 45, who came to Lviv a week ago from Odesa, the Black Sea port in southern Ukraine.
“The people in Lviv are so helpful, they assist us with everything — they feed us, they keep asking if we need something,” said Nikonorova, speaking Russian, which is prevalent in Odesa. “Everything is well organized.”
As a Russian-speaker, Nikonorova was especially irate at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s frequent assertions that Moscow’s invasion is meant in part to protect Ukrainians with “blood ties” to Russia.
“Everyone in Odesa hates Putin,” she said. “It is a lie that he wants to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine.”
Moscow’s war machine includes a popular TV talk show whose host, Dmitry Kiselyov, takes on anyone who contradicts Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Nikonorova was speaking outside the elegant 19th century train station, a hub for the displaced and for those helping them. Many people fleeing the war arrive and depart from the station. Volunteers in orange and yellow vests provide guidance and food. The daily train to Poland is generally packed, though it is often hours late.
Outside the station, an array of tents provide various services — first aid, psychological counseling, travel tips. Across the street, buses wait to ferry those displaced by the war to Poland and elsewhere — Germany, the Netherlands, Slovakia. The trips are free.
“We have two seats to Prague,” a volunteer helping to arrange bus transportation informed people gathered outside the station.
Many volunteers are from the area. But some have traveled a long way.
“As soon as I heard about the war, I knew I had to come back and help,” said Sergei Zelensky, 60.
A Ukraine native, he now lives outside Toronto. But, like so many in the Ukrainian diaspora, he says he felt the need to give a hand. Many Ukrainian expatriate men have returned to fight. But Zelensky — no relation to President Volodymyr Zelensky — was assisting at a food stand outside the station. He sends photos and videos to his family in Canada.
“Everyone does what they can,” he said.
While the war has hardly touched Lviv directly — there have been no ground battles, unlike in Kyiv, the capital, and other cities — the proximity of the conflict has manifested itself in other ways: The refugee crisis, the daily air-raid sirens, the whispers that something might happen anytime.
Last week, smoke billowed from the vicinity of the Lviv airport in the aftermath of what authorities called a Russian missile strike on an aircraft-repair factory. There were no fatalities, officials said.
On Wednesday, workers were putting plywood on the magnificent stained-glass windows of St. Andrew’s church, an imposing stone structure that dates from the early 17th century. A number of monuments are covered for protection, including four statues representing muses atop the city’s opera house, a late 19th century classical extravaganza that overlooks a broad esplanade where street musicians play and residents and the displaced alike come for a stroll.
Immense amounts of material aid — clothing, toiletries, shoes and toys — have flowed into the city, much of it from abroad. A soccer stadium and a downtown art building have been transformed into donation warehouses. Volunteers labor to sort seemingly endless piles of clothing, food and other items.
Public buildings have been turned into shelters, and many families have taken in the displaced.
“We left to protect our children,” said Katya Bobko, 38, a resident of a village outside Kyiv who was seeking clothing at an aid center downtown on a recent afternoon. “I would like to stay here, but if things start happening here, we will have to leave the country also.”
She and her two children, ages 12 and 14, are staying in the apartment of a family with three young children.
Amid warnings that Russia could resort to deadlier — and unconventional — weaponry, analysts say ground offensives could be stalling.
Armed service recruitment centers have seen long lines since Russia invaded. The military appears oversubscribed. Many volunteers say they have been turned away.
“My idea was to fight, but they say there is no room for me,” said Andrii Seredynskyii, 21.
He was studying in France, he explained, but returned a few days before the invasion to help his mother in the Kyiv area. After sheltering for several days, he finally managed to get his mother to the Polish border. Volunteers took her to Paris, and safety. He, too, plans to return to France now that he has not been accepted for service.
“Of course we will win,” Seredynskyii said in French as he waited outside the recruiting center. “Truth is on our side.”
Also among the displaced was Maria Pasichuyk, 17, a university student staying at a downtown theater that has been transformed into a shelter. She fled the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-most populous, site of a furious Russian blitz.
“It was chaos,” Pasichuyk said of the Russian advance, describing frequent explosions. “People were trying to get water to put out the fires.”
Like many survivors of the attack, she is dealing with considerable trauma.
“The world is changing,” she said Wednesday in a barely audible voice, seated cross-legged on a mat that serves as her bed at the shelter.
Other displaced women and children sharing the room had left for the day. Pasichuyk was by herself.
“At any moment you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Pasichuyk said. “You could lose everything you have.”
She has turned to reading, and art, for some solace.
On a stool next to her floor mat at the shelter sat a hardback copy of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the classic antiwar novel by Erich Maria Remarque, the German novelist and World War I veteran. Pencil drawings of old men with gray beards dominate her sketchbook. But her most recent work is a portrait of an animated young girl with braided hair and luminous eyes.
“I wanted to draw a girl who smiles, despite everything,” Pasichuyk said.
She says she feels safe at the shelter, even if her life is on hold. She hopes to get back soon to her university, heavily damaged in the fighting. Her dormitory was destroyed.
Like so many others stranded in Lviv, Pasichuyk yearns for a return to the lifestyle shattered a month ago. No one knows when that will come back. Soon, she hopes.
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