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Yalda Hakim’s Diary: In the beautiful city of Lviv, Ukrainians steel themselves as the war moves further west

The station was chaotic as thousands jostled to board trains bound for Poland, while sons, husbands and fathers stood on the platform bidding farewell.

By Yalda Hakim

I first became intrigued by Lviv when I read Philippe Sands’ remarkable book East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (2016), a compelling family memoir that also tells the story of the Jewish legal minds that sowed the seeds for human rights law at the Nuremberg trials. Once a major cultural centre of Europe, Lviv changed hands at least eight times between 1914 and 1945. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful city of shifting borders and identities: throughout its history it has been known as Lemberg, Lwów, Lvov or Lviv, depending on who controlled it.

In the month since Russia invaded Ukraine, Lviv – the largest city in the west of the country – has turned into a hub for journalists, diplomats and international aid agencies. It has become a sanctuary for the millions displaced from their homes and a transit point for those fleeing the fighting convulsing the north, east and south of Ukraine. Lviv is just 70 kilometres from the Polish border; the conflict now feels like it is getting dangerously close to this part of the country. The citizens of Lviv told me that although military bases around them are increasingly being targeted by Russian missiles, they hope that their city, a Unesco world heritage site, will be spared destruction, as it was during the Second World War. But they also have no illusions about the potential for catastrophic violence.

[See also: The Zelensky myth]

The despair of departure

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. According to the UN the war has caused “one of the fastest large-scale displacements of children since the Second World War”. I witnessed the despair of families being torn apart at Lviv’s train station. Depending on the time of day, the station was either empty or chaotic as tens of thousands of people jostled to board the trains bound for Poland and beyond. Mothers gripped tightly on to their children – sometimes pushchairs were passed overhead to get a baby to safety. Those lucky enough to get on had to then face the pain of saying goodbye. No men of fighting age are allowed to leave the country unless they have written medical exemptions. Thousands of sons, brothers, husbands and fathers stood on the platform bidding farewell, uncertain of when – or if –they would be reunited with their families. The children, unsure of exactly what was happening, shared the fear and anxiety of their parents.

Rush for cover

The noise of air-raid sirens seems to haunt you long after they’ve stopped. The eerie soundtrack is a constant reminder that even in the relative safety of western Ukraine, this is a nation at war. It is a warning that Russian jets may be overhead or nearby. It also brings to an end the false sense of security you develop in a city such as Lviv where people are trying not to allow the horrors of this conflict stop them from getting on with their daily lives. Suddenly, no matter where you are, you must rush into an underground bunker for cover. I had visited this city numerous times as a tourist in the past and enjoyed the many museums, galleries, cafés and restaurants. Little did I know that beneath these spaces across Lviv there are bunkers that were built in the Second World War. All residents seem aware of exactly where they are and kindly steer you in the right direction.

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[See also: Ukraine is haunted by the ghosts of wars past]

United they stand

When the conflict began Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, called on all his people to unite to defend the nation. He told young and old to pick up arms. The Ukrainian people responded, waging a surprisingly successful resistance against their invaders. The country-wide mobilisation has led the government to share bomb-making instructions with grandmothers. In one former art gallery in the centre of Lviv, I met hundreds of university students who showed me how they were making camouflage nets for troops fighting on the front lines. Whether by 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, this fierce sense of unity and the people’s will to defend their homeland seems, so far, to have slowed down Russian forces. But Ukrainians know the road ahead will be long and brutal, and many tell me they are bracing themselves for whatever comes next.

[See also: Letter from Ukraine: A prayer for Odessa]

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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain