Dispatch

Fleeing Ukraine’s Last Safe Haven

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled to Lviv since the war began. But Russian attacks are getting closer.

A mother in a black coat holds her child's hand walking through a crowd. The child is wearing a light blue coat.
A mother in a black coat holds her child's hand walking through a crowd. The child is wearing a light blue coat.
A mother and daughter walk toward the Shehyni-Medyka border crossing on the Ukrainian side of the border on March 13. Michal Kranz photos for Foreign Policy
By , a freelance journalist.

Putin’s War

LVIV, Ukraine—In the early morning of March 13, Vasyl, a resident of the town of Neslukhiv near Lviv was roused from his sleep by several loud explosions. He and his family immediately rushed his grandchildren into the basement.

“We woke up the kids and, in the first place, protected the children,” said Vasyl’s daughter, Maria, who preferred not to give her family’s surname. “They were the ones who were most afraid.”

That morning, Russian forces fired about 30 cruise missiles at a military base near the town of Yavoriv, around 45 minutes from Lviv and 15 miles from the Polish border, killing at least 35 people. Although Neslukhiv is about an hour and a half from the base, Maria guessed that the blasts they heard came from Ukrainian air defenses potentially shooting down Russian missiles near their town.

A mother in a black coat holds her child's hand walking through a crowd. The child is wearing a light blue coat.

A mother and child walk toward the Shehyni-Medyka border crossing on the Ukrainian side of the border on March 13.Michal Kranz for Foreign Policy

LVIV, Ukraine—In the early morning of March 13, Vasyl, a resident of the town of Neslukhiv near Lviv was roused from his sleep by several loud explosions. He and his family immediately rushed his grandchildren into the basement.

“We woke up the kids and, in the first place, protected the children,” said Vasyl’s daughter, Maria, who preferred not to give her family’s surname. “They were the ones who were most afraid.”

That morning, Russian forces fired about 30 cruise missiles at a military base near the town of Yavoriv, around 45 minutes from Lviv and 15 miles from the Polish border, killing at least 35 people. Although Neslukhiv is about an hour and a half from the base, Maria guessed that the blasts they heard came from Ukrainian air defenses potentially shooting down Russian missiles near their town.

Maria, her husband, Ihor, and their children had relocated with Vasyl to Neslukhiv from the city of Lviv as soon as the Russian invasion began, believing they would be safer away from urban areas. But on the day of the strike on Yavoriv, they packed up their things once again and decided to leave the Lviv region, and the country itself, for good.

“Lots of refugees came to Lviv, and everyone felt comfort and security,” Maria said while waiting in a line largely made up of mothers and children to enter Poland at the Shehyni-Medyka border crossing on March 13. “But today, they feel that even here it’s not safe.”

Smoke is seen rising from an aircraft repair facility in Lviv, Ukraine, after it was hit by Russian cruise missiles on March 18.

Smoke is seen rising from an aircraft repair facility in Lviv, Ukraine, after it was hit by Russian cruise missiles on March 18.

Since the war began, Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine, has developed a reputation as a safe haven for internally displaced people from across the country. But as Russian missile strikes have inched ever closer to the city over the past week and a half, many residents’ sense of security has shattered. On March 18, Russia hit an aircraft repair facility in the city, striking within the city limits for the first time. Much of the city’s population remains steadfast in their desire to stay, but some families—especially those with young children—have decided to flee Ukraine altogether, feeling that what was once a sanctuary for them is no longer secure enough.

With a prewar population of just over 700,000, Lviv’s population has swelled to nearly 1 million with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people displaced from other parts of Ukraine since the Feb. 24 Russian invasion. Although the number of registered new arrivals sits around 200,000 people, city officials believe the actual number is even higher. As many of these internally displaced people (IDPs) have moved into temporary housing facilities and private homes, Lviv’s quaint, colorful streets have become consumed by an influx of traffic. Amid all this, life has gone on, and residents have become used to frequent air raid sirens, curfews, and the wartime ban on alcohol sales. But the risk of attack cannot be ignored.

“There is not a single person or a single city, regardless of whether it’s in the west or in the east, which can have some sort of insurance of being secure,” said Lviv’s deputy mayor, Serhiy Kiral, after the recent strikes.

A large crowd of people wait in line near a building.

People wait in line at the Shehyni-Medyka border crossing on the Ukrainian side of the border on March 14.

At the city’s grand Art Nouveau train station on March 17, refugees from Ukrainian cities like Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, and Sumy piled into buses and trains headed for Ukraine’s borders with Poland and Hungary. Local volunteers, part of a network of individuals and organizations that have stepped up to welcome arriving IDPs in Lviv, manned information centers, distributed food and other supplies, and helped direct people to trains out of the country.

Ludmila Smutna, a volunteer waiting for a group of people to arrive at the station from the city of Severodonetsk in the Donbass region, said families from Lviv have been among the crowds leaving the city.

“When they hit Yavoriv, people started fleeing,” she said. “And primarily those who fled were mothers with small children.”

One family originally from the town of Brovary, near Kyiv, who had arrived in Lviv just a week before, decided to leave on March 18 after the strike on the aircraft repair facility sent thick black clouds of smoke billowing over Lviv’s skyline. Standing on the platform where trains bound for Przemysl, Poland, would arrive, Tania and Viktor Myslivsky looked lovingly at each other as they took in some of their last moments together before they would be forced to part ways. Tania and her mother, Natalia, were leaving, but under martial law, men ages 18 to 60 are barred from leaving the country, so Viktor had to stay behind.

The couple have no children yet, but Tania is pregnant, and the baby is due in about a month. “Maybe a little less,” Viktor said with a smile.

“We are thinking it’s better to go to Poland to guarantee peace for the baby,” he said.

A woman wrapped in a blanket looks up at a man in an olive-colored coat.

Tania and Viktor Myslivsky exchange loving glances at Lviv’s train station in Ukraine on March 18.

According to Kiral, Lviv’s deputy mayor, the exodus seen at the border crossing and at Lviv’s train station is the exception to the norm. He believes most people in Lviv have gradually become inured to the realities of the encroaching conflict. Still, he said, one of the goals of the municipal government is to create as secure of an environment as possible.

“Our other task is to do our best to keep people here, to make sure people actually stay in Ukraine, stay where they belong, where they were born and where they feel a part of,” Kiral said. “To do that, we need to make sure that there is, of course, a sense of security. This is what we are doing in Lviv.”

Kiral said the municipal government is continuing to provide citizens with basic resources—such as water, heating, and electricity—and is working with grocery stores and health care providers to guarantee that food and medicine remain available. Kiral added that the city is helping to coordinate humanitarian assistance to displaced people and is trying to retain business investments that he claims are vital for Lviv’s economy during wartime.

Despite creeping security risks, there are plenty of people who are committed to staying the course in Lviv.

“Not everyone is going yet. At the beginning, I said that I will never leave from Lviv,” said Smutna at the Lviv train station, adding that she makes traditional Ukrainian dumplings, called varenyky, for arriving IDPs as part of her volunteer work. “We have to help those who are getting shot at.”

Another volunteer at the station, Roman Broz, who works as a doctor in Lviv when not delivering medical supplies for displaced people, was even more blunt.

“I’m not planning on leaving under any circumstances, even if there was a massacre,” he said on March 20. “Whoever broke, whoever caught the fear, he in half an hour gathered his things and left. Maybe he will regret it in two or three days.”

A line of cars is on the right. A car on the left comes toward the camera.

A line of cars stretches toward the Shehyni-Medyka border crossing on the Ukrainian side of the border on March 13.

Among those staying behind in Lviv are thousands of men who, like Viktor Myslivsky, are forced to stay and serve their country rather than accompanying their loved ones to safety. Ihor, Maria’s husband, arrived at the Shehyni-Medyka border crossing to escort his relatives to Poland but returned to Neslukhiv alone.

“We’ll have to defend our country, if it will come to that,” he said. “We’ll see what the situation will look like at home.”

When asked about whether he believed Russian forces could one day destroy his home city, Ihor replied, “For now, we won’t let them.”

Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist reporting on politics and society in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the United States.

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