From Lviv to Kyiv, Divided by War
The journey from the relatively safe west of the country to the capital reveals destruction, determination and new hope.
Life in Lviv is almost as it was before the war, with restaurants and shopping centres open, street lights working, traffic jams. Except, instead of tourists, the city is now overwhelmed by migrants from all over Ukraine and by people in military uniform. The city's population grew from 720,000 before the war to some 920,000 in just one month.
Cars on the roads bear numbers from different regions across the country, with signs on the windshield reading Red Cross, Volunteer, Press or simply Children. It is mostly women and children on the streets.
Reminders of the war come in the form of a 10 pm to 6 am the curfew, air raid sirens and the rare arrivals of missiles; most recently, the Russians fired at an oil depot and a tank factory located close to residential buildings. But otherwise, life in Lviv flows calmly, people meet for coffee, go to work and live their normal lives.
The west of Ukraine, and Lviv in particular, is not only a hub for the displaced but also a rear guard that feeds and supports those on the front line and neighbouring cities. That includes the capital Kyiv. Russian troops are stationed to the northwest and northeast of Kyiv, and despite negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, the threat to the capital remains.
Before the war, 3.6 million people lived in the capital. Now, according to Mayor Vitali Klitschko, half of the residents have left the city . The rest need food, medicine and fuel, all carried by the seemingly endless caravan of trucks along the Odessa highway.
This is the longer, but safer way into the city. The shorter Zhytomyr route is under Russian fire and the Ukrainian military blew up several bridges near Kyiv in order to impede the advance of enemy troops on the capital.
Therefore, it is better and safer to take a detour – and in any case, military checkpoints along the road make it a quick journey impossible.
The police, army and local volunteers from the territorial defence units check the documents of drivers and passengers and inspect cars to try and identify Russian saboteurs. If driving from Lviv to Kyiv took about six hours before the war, now it will take at least ten.
The trains are still running from Lviv to Kyiv but it also takes about ten hours, and last week, unidentified people fired small arms at several trains in the region of the capital. I decided not to risk it.
A WALLED CITY
At the entrance to Kyiv, there is a half-hour traffic jam at the checkpoint and signs warning of mines in the forests on either side of the road. There are roadblocks in the city itself, and the police stop and check the odd car.
After Lviv, it is surprising to see the number of concrete barriers, sandbags and anti-tank “hedgehog” devices on the roads inside the city. Their task is to slow down a possible advance by Russian tanks and to protect the firing positions of the Ukrainian defenders. In every neighbourhood there are dozens of armed volunteers who regularly train with the military or with the police. They are ready to deploy to man these concrete barriers as soon as the command is given.
The streets are unusually empty, with few people walking around and almost no women and children in sight. But a lot of people walk dogs, sometimes two or three at once; those who fled the city asked neighbours to look after their pets. Sometimes you can see people on bicycles and electric scooters.
Some car garages, hairdressers, cafes and hotels are working, and petrol stations are full of fuel. But there are not many places open and so you meet many acquaintances whenever you venture out. For example, in just an hour in one city centre cafe, I met a former member of the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, and a current deputy of the city council as well as many journalists and a political scientist.
Most companies that are still working open late and close early. The Kyiv curfew lasts from 8pm until 7am, with very little public transport running. It takes several hours to get to and from work, and people adjust their schedules to these realities.
Because of this, it seems that time in Kyiv and Lviv runs differently. While in Lviv you might easily manage to make it to two or three meetings in a day, in Kyiv you will be satisfied if you only move from the left bank of the river to the right. The reality here makes you more patient and philosophical.
The utilities also work: people sweep the streets, take out the rubbish. They remove the debris from houses after artillery shelling. It’s a rather surreal picture, when the street sweeping vehicles carefully go around and clean the concrete blocks on the road.
Despite the municipal services’ sweet concern for a half-empty city, in Kyiv the anxiety is palpable. Air raid sirens sound much more often than in Lviv, and somewhere in the distance, you can hear the sound of artillery salvos. It's like thunder, only with clear skies and no rain, and the peals can be heard for hours.
Leaving Kyiv is emotionally difficult. It's like you're leaving an old friend in trouble. And many in the capital cannot leave, not because they have nowhere to go, but because they do not want to go anywhere, despite the obvious danger.
Between 200 and 300 civilians were killed in the capital's satellite city of Irpin before the town was taken back from Russian forces this week, according to the mayor of the city of 20,000 - and this is only a couple of dozen of kilometres away.
But then you leave the city and head back towards Lviv, driving alongside the endless Ukrainian fields and see how farmers, despite the war, are taking tractors out to plant their crops. Then somehow you feel the arrival of spring especially keenly, the inevitability of life, and the hope that these seeds will sprout and that the grain will be harvested.