Updated: Mar 2
Picture: Locals in Lviv, Ukraine, walk by a building packed with sandbags. Photo: Jeff Farrell
Up to last week, the western Ukrainian city of Lviv was considered a safe haven for refugees fleeing from other parts of the country. Now, it has been targeted by Russian missiles, but its citizens remain unbowed
May 8, 2022
An air-raid siren wails. An explosion erupts – a deep rumble – and the ground vibrates. Lights flash on and off in cafés and bars. People who had been sipping cocktails and beers run for shelter under an archway below a building.
That was the scene in the city centre of Lviv in western Ukraine last Tuesday night, as Russian missiles struck power plants in the city where tens of thousands of people had been seeking refuge after fleeing from the east.
In the hotel on Lista Street, locals hung out in a restaurant-cum-bomb-shelter alongside Americans, including one ex-military person and a security contractor. No one was in a panic as they drank beer and finished dinner.
Julia, the bartender, laughed at the idea of being afraid. “You get used to it,” she said.
Arseny Suhachov, 20, had fled to Lviv from Kharkiv after the Russians shelled his city. Suhachov, who was wearing an Armani zip-up top, also shrugged off the danger.
"I am from Kharkiv, it is like this every hour there, the attacks. It is not a surprise for me. I'm not scared. In the first day in Kharkiv I was, but not now,” he said.
The American security contractor, a wiry fellow with a shaved head who gave his name only as Dan, complained that the explosion ruined his plans to go for a meal. The restaurants would be closed, but he wanted to see for himself. “Man, if I get killed here or out on the street, what’s the difference?” he said.
Suchachov then held up his phone, whih was playing a video that was circulating on social media.
“Look, see the explosions,” he said pointing to the screen which showed a missile cruising through the sky, before it plunged to the ground. Flames erupted and plumes of black smoke rose into the sky.
It later emerged that three missiles had struck Lviv, leaving one person injured. Russian strategic bombers launched the rockets, which hit power stations linked to the railway network, from the Caspian Sea.
Moscow is targeting the area as Ukraine is shipping in weapons to the eastern frontline through Lviv, which is just 40 miles from Poland. The last strike in mid-April killed seven people in an area which had previously been free from attacks.
Its proximity to Poland had made Lviv a hub for many of the millions of refugees fleeing shelling in other parts of Ukraine and it was considered a safe haven. But that is no longer the case.
On Wednesday, the aftermath of the strikes was apparent at one electricity plant where the ground had been blackened.
There did not appear to be any damage to the plant itself, but before this reporter could inspect further, a burly soldier emerged and spotted the “press” badge on my flak jacket. “No comment,” he said.
About 20 metres away, down a dirt track, Mikhala, a man in his 60s who declined to give his surname, sat in a garage, cleaning tools. Wearing work trousers and an oil-stained T-shirt, he described how he ran when the missile struck the electricity plant the night before.
Jeff Farrell (left) interviews a local man at the site of the missile strike
“I saw the rockets. I ran to my repair shop, things from the shelves and desks were falling down and damaged my car. I was afraid. My hands were shaking,” he said.
Picture: Mikhala tells of the Russian missile attack that struck an electricity plant linked to Lviv city's railway infrastructure. Photo: Jeff Farrell
Since Vladimir Putin’s attempt to seize Kyiv failed, his troops have withdrawn and regrouped around the city.
Russian troops have now launched a new push to take the eastern Donbas region but are meeting resistance from Ukrainian soldiers.
Further south, Russian forces have levelled the city of Mariupol, on the north coast of the Sea of Azov. On Friday, Ukraine said a new attempt was under way to evacuate scores of civilians trapped in a heavily bombed steel works in the city, after bloody fighting with Russian forces had thwarted efforts to bring them to safety the previous day.
In total, more than 3,000 civilians have been killed in the war and more than five million people have fled Ukraine, according to the UN.
More than 15,000 members of the Russian forces have been killed, according to analysts, while Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky has said about 2,500 to 3,000 Ukrainian troops have died, with most killed in fighting in the east.
Mikhala knows that people in Lviv have been spared the worst of Russia’s invasion, but he is tired of the war. “It’s not a problem in Lviv, but in Mariupol there are big problems. People are underground. I can sit in my car, go home, drink vodka and tea, but in Mariupol it is not possible,” he said. “I want the war to be over fast.”
The windows of an Orthodox church near to the electricity plant were shattered by the missile strikes, and a workman used a hammer to remove the remains of the stained glass from the frames. On the opposite side of the road, most of the windows were shattered in a 20-storey building from the aftershock of the missile strike, about 100 metres away from the power plant.
Petro Kurpita, a priest at the Orthodox church, had to run out of the building when the missile struck the power station. “I did not hear it, but we felt it. Thanks to God, I am alive. I am lucky,” he said in the grounds of the church.
Picture: Petro Kurpita, a priest of the Orthodox church, tells of the damage at his church building following the Russian missile strike that hit the nearby electricity plant in Lviv. Photo: Jeff Farrell
Kurpita, who was wearing a green vestment and a large gold cross decorated with purple beads around his neck, clenched his jaw as he cursed the Russian leader and his soldiers who have invaded Ukraine. “The Russians who did this attack here are killers, devils. They are invaders and savages,” he said.
Makeshift refugee centre
On Tuesday, before the missile attack, the square opposite Lviv’s train station was functioning as a makeshift refugee centre.
People poured off trains and buses before finishing their journey on shuttle buses which took them over the Polish border, where they could go on to cities such as Warsaw or countries such as Ireland.
Hundreds of thousands of displaced people have travelled through the city since the war began, with many stopping in the square, where charities work out of tents. Volunteers tended to basic injuries and provided food and shelter, as well as mental health counselling.
Last Tuesday, it was clear to see how vulnerable the Ukrainians who are fleeing are. A man shuffled along on crutches, a young girl chased a pink balloon, and people carried all their belongings in plastic bags or wheelie cases. Olena, one of the refugees from Odessa, said she had arrived hours earlier by bus and was bound for Warsaw with her two-year-old daughter.
Eight people were killed when two cruise missiles struck a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the Black Sea port city late last month. A missile struck the city again last week, knocking out the newly-built runway at the main airport.
Olena, holding her child in her arms, said: “I listened to the bombs and it was frightening. Everything changed in our life. Every day the situation was worse.”
Oleksandr Oliynyk, of the first response team of the Red Cross of Ukraine, works at one refugee tent. As a volunteer, he wants to help the refugees in Lviv but he expressed frustration at those who are returning to Ukraine having already fled into Poland, looking to return to their own cities after the first wave of fighting ceased.
There are no accurate figures for how many have returned to the country but this reporter met several on the bus from Krakow, in Poland, bound for Lviv. Oliynyk said that even though people wanted to return to their own families and cities, they should appreciate that the war was still raging in the country and could reach any city at any time.
Picture: Staff of the first response team of the Red Cross of Ukraine at their makeshift base outside the train station in Lviv, where millions of refugees have poured through. Photo: Jeff Farrell
“They come to Kyiv and it’s happening that their house is demolished, so what do they have to do? Go again to the volunteers: please give me some food or something, again, and volunteers have to do it again and again, and to help them leave the country. It’s all about the resources – they should stay where they are,” he said.
“There are more missiles in Kyiv, there’s no frontline, there’s no green zone. War is here, we have a red zone everywhere.”
Across town in Lviv, in Lista Street, on Tuesday, volunteers at a charity centre doled out nappies, wet wipes and tinned food while people rummaged through boxes, pulling out donated clothes. A woman in jeans and a blue crop-top, her hair in braids, tickled her baby in a pram.
Inside, Ely Afanasiev, a ponytailed man who is himself a refugee from Kharkiv in the east, was volunteering to help other refugees. He said he fled from the city after he saw the aftermath of a missile strike that hit his neighbourhood.
Afanasiev, 19, wearing a Milwaukee Beavers baseball team shirt, said: “There was a house where a rocket hit, and I saw two guys who were killed. They were literally everywhere in a 20-metre radius.” He lowered his eyes, sucked his teeth, and added: “Their brains splattered.”
His parents pushed him to head for the relative safety of Lviv, but despite the horror, he said it was tough to leave Kharkiv behind.
“It was a difficult decision to leave, because I didn’t want to leave them [family], but my father said to me it will be okay if [they] will die here in Kharkiv, because we have good and bad moments in our life – but you are young, you will make a child, so our blood and your blood will continue the family.”
Across town, near Pekarska Street, there is a makeshift memorial wall. Photos of those killed in Russian attacks were attached to a railing, decorated with flowers. One showed a child in a red baseball cap, his arms held up, smiling, in denim jeans and shirt. His name is Semyon Kudrin; he looked no older than nine or ten. Another, Yevhen Malyshev, couldn’t have been older than 15.
Locals stopped to take a minute to reflect. Among them was Roman Marstenyuk, a psychotherapist, wearing green combats and a light brown Columbia jacket. He said he was receiving training from US military veterans. He had a neatly trimmed goatee and buzz haircut.
“These guys served in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are teaching us how to fight and use weapons like AK-47s,” he said. “They told us: ‘we are training you to fight against tyranny, for democracy, that is what this war is about’,” he said. “I am not eager to go, but I will go if necessary. I am prepared for this, we are waiting to get called.”
Nodding at the memorial wall, Marstenyuk said: “All people died in this horrible massacre. The butchers of Mariupol.”
Picture: Locals pay their respect to the civilians slain in the war at a makeshift memorial wall on Pekarska Street, Lviv. Photo: Jeff Farrell
“I lost friends in the war as well, in the Ukrainian army, near Kherson. It is very sad, but we will win, and thanks for all countries in Europe and the US. They are our partners. And we thank them for the support, we appreciate.”
While Ukraine has largely been successful in thwarting Russian advances in key areas of the country, many are worried that Moscow will ramp up the invasion this week around the annual Victory Day parade on May 9 which marks the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.
Picture: A young boy is among the thousands of civilians who have lost their lives following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Jeff Farrell
Victory Day fears
Last week, Oleksandr Matsior stood at the Maidan, the Memorial of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes. It commemorates the 100 protesters who were killed in a five-day period in February 2014 as they pushed for Ukraine to have closer ties to the European Union.
The monument symbolises the events at Instytutska Street in Kyiv, where months of mass protests led to the ousting of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who had worked to forge closer ties with Russia.
Oleksandr Matsior and Olena Skora: ‘Around Ukraine, you can see the situation becomes more and more tough’
At the monument, the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag fluttered gently as two women tended to shrubs and removed weeds. Matsior said he was worried about any increase in the conflict ahead of Moscow’s May 9 celebration and fears it will be marked with an intensified bombing campaign against Ukrainian cities.
Picture: Oleksandr Matsior and Olena Skora: ‘Around Ukraine, you can see the situation becomes more and more tough’. Photo: Jeff Farrell
Referring to the missile strikes last Tuesday night, he said: “Around Ukraine, you can see the situation becomes more and more tough.”
Olena Skora, who was standing beside Matsior, said people had been living with the stress of war for months before the actual invasion.
“The tension for several months with the news building, all this pressure, and we just couldn’t believe that on February 24, we woke up, and could not believe what’s happening,” she said.
But she was confident Ukraine will win this war. “Absolutely, we are sure of that.”