Western Ukraine watches, fears and prepares

At first glance, Lviv looks like a normal Central European city with some bustle on the streets.

In its central square, the yellow trams still run as they have since 1894 with service interruptions only during the First and Second World Wars; and there are even tourists walking around to inspect the city’s historic buildings.

But look closer and the tourists are not real tourists but evacuees from other parts of Ukraine waiting to join the huge exodus to Poland and overwhelming border crossings. Or they are just spending time because they are stuck in Lviv, unable to leave because among their group are men aged over 18 and under 60, who are forbidden to leave the country because they could be drafted to fight.

Lviv is an increasingly nervous city, especially following news that Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko is expected to launch his 48,000-strong army into the war raging in Ukraine in the coming hours or days to reinforce Russia with its pulverized invasion of Ukraine.

If Belarus enters the war at full speed, the fear is that a new front could open in northwestern Ukraine involving Lviv, whose outskirts are flooded with evacuees and where there is a line of 40 kilometer cars waiting to enter Poland. And Lviv residents are watching with growing anxiety and anger what they see happening in Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city where vicious Grad rocket attacks hit residential neighborhoods on Monday. , killing a dozen civilians and injuring many more.

They fear that the same will happen to their city, if the war continues, and they are preparing for the war to affect them much more directly than they are already experiencing in the form of an ever-increasing flow of evacuated to the outskirts. But they are also angered by the missiles and rockets raining down on towns east of them, noting that the targeting of civilian infrastructure and residential neighborhoods came despite Russian leader Vladimir Putin reportedly saying this week to French President Emmanuel Macron that he was “ready to commit” to ending attacks on civilian infrastructure while peace talks in Belarus were underway.

Like many Ukrainians, they fear Putin’s choice will now be between “negotiation or Grozny”, a reference to the near destruction of the Chechen capital from late 1999 to early 2000 when Putin was prime minister and on his way to succeed Boris Yeltsin as President of Russia.

Prepare to fight

The firmness and tenacity of the defense of Kiev and Kharkiv inspires people here in Lviv, a city that has been no stranger to wars throughout the centuries. “Our fighters are hungry,” Yury, a server, tells me. “They have a lot of combat experience from years of fighting in the Donbass and now they want revenge and finish off the Russians,” he adds.

“I don’t think Putin realized what he had been taken and how we were going to resist,” he said.

A woman reads a list of volunteers needed to meet emergency needs. (Jamie Dettmer/VOA)

Air raid sirens sound here three or four times a day and while a few days ago most people didn’t take the sirens seriously now most stop what they are doing and head towards n’ any nearby bunker, or they seek the best improvised shelter they can find. A hotel owner has now started to demand that his customers head to the bunker and not hang around the entrance. “It’s good practice for them to make a habit of going to the bunker,” says Mykola, a burly 55-year-old who only opened his hotel in October.

Others prepare differently. Pravda of Lviv (Truth) The brewery has appealed for donations on social media to help make a variety of different sizes of Molotov cocktails.

The owners say they made the cocktails for the Maidan uprising in 2014, which toppled Putin’s ally Viktor Yanukovych from power. Taras Maselko, director of public relations at Pravda’s holding company, says people are scared but resolute. “No one wants war, but we are preparing to defend ourselves,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to prepare,” he adds. He says it’s hard to witness the plight of evacuees flooding the roads around town.

More and more evacuees are appearing hourly now in the city center pulling their wheels and struggling to carry bulging backpacks.  They come downtown to see if they can find accommodation.

More and more evacuees are appearing hourly now in the city center pulling their wheels and struggling to carry bulging backpacks. They come downtown to see if they can find accommodation.

More and more of them are appearing every hour now in the city center, dragging their wheels and struggling to carry bulging backpacks. They come to the city center to see if they can find accommodation or head to the besieged station to see if they can get a seat on one of the crowded free trains to Poland. Foreigners find it even harder to get a train ride, with authorities here giving priority to Ukrainians.

Few shops are open other than grocery stores and pharmacies – the city’s largest mall has been closed for days. And 80% of restaurants are closed. Bar BQ is not one of them. A large message stuck to the window explains that the restaurant will provide free meals to all evacuees and that they will also be able to rest inside for a few hours.

The Bar BQ restaurant plastered its window offering free meals to evacuees.  (Jamie Dettmer/VOA)

The Bar BQ restaurant plastered its window offering free meals to evacuees. (Jamie Dettmer/VOA)

“We are all people and we understand how they must be feeling,” says Maria, the 28-year-old manager. “Maybe they don’t have money for food, and we give them shelter because, well, that’s what we should be doing.” She says people passing by come from all over – from Kharkiv, Donetsk and Kyiv. Supplies become a challenge. “We get help from other restaurants and stores,” she says.

Not far from there, in the historic heart of the center, Marian, 22, is having coffee with three of her friends.

In the historic center, Marian, 22, is having a coffee.  He works for the meal delivery company Glovo, which donates profits to the Ukrainian military.  (Jamie Dettmer/VOA)

In the historic center, Marian, 22, is having a coffee. He works for the meal delivery company Glovo, which donates profits to the Ukrainian military. (Jamie Dettmer/VOA)

They work for the food and meal delivery company Glovo, whose yellow insulated bags are ubiquitous in Ukrainian cities. “Most expensive restaurants have closed,” he says. “Fast food and kebabs are always open,” he adds happily. Any profit Glovo makes from delivering meals is sent to help support the Ukrainian military, Marian tells me.

Will he go into battle? He says he will when called. Others don’t wait for the call. Two veterans of the 2015 fighting in eastern Ukraine, where armed pro-Russian proxies with Kremlin backing seized parts of Donbass, are on their way east to fend off the torrent of refugees in Kyiv.

Oleksandr, 34, and Ihor, 42, say they have to go east to fight.

Oleksandr, 34, and Ihor, 42, say they have to go east to fight. “We weren’t called because there are no places and so we are going as volunteers and there are many who want to fight against the Russian invasion,” Oleksandre, said. (Jamie Dettmer/VOA )

Among them, Oleksandr, 34, and Ihor, 42. “We weren’t called because there are no places and so we are going there as volunteers and there are many who want to fight against the Russian invasion,” explains Oleksandr, a computer scientist.

“This is our homeland,” Ihor said. “Asking us why we want to fight is a silly question. It is our homeland. We have to fight. We have to fight. That’s it. My girlfriend is not happy that I go but she understands why I have to go,” he adds.

A pharmacist says she has no bandages and has run out of antibiotics.  Another has no painkillers of any description or strength.  (Jamie Dettmer/VOA)

A pharmacist says she has no bandages and has run out of antibiotics. Another has no painkillers of any description or strength. (Jamie Dettmer/VOA)

As Lviv prepares for what it fears will visit soon, food stores and pharmacies are starting to report that they are running out of stock. A pharmacist says she has no bandages and has run out of antibiotics. Another has no painkillers of any description or strength.

In a supermarket, they don’t have bread. Another lack of fruit.

Hotels still offer meals, but many only have an evening meal with no other options. Under the orders of the mayor of the city, no alcohol can be sold by stores or offered by hotels or restaurants in the evening or at night. Authorities say the ban is necessary to try to stop a rise in alcohol-fueled antisocial behavior.

There are also concerns about alcohol affecting the judgment of nervous Armed Volunteers who are beginning to appear in outlying villages.

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