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Ukraine’s unofficial western capital Lviv is calm but prepares for war

by Asami Terajima March 24, 2022 12:53 AM 5 min read
People walk on the Rynok Square in the historical old town in Lviv, Ukraine on March 18, 2022. (Asami Terajima)
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LVIV – At first glance, the city of Lviv seems almost normal.

In sharp contrast with war-torn parts of Ukraine, the western regional capital is bustling with life. People are walking down the cobbled streets in its downtown area and eating out in the city’s famous vibrant restaurants and cafes. Non-essential shops selling clothes, souvenirs and cosmetics are open. Even a tourist golf-cart still drives in Lviv’s old town square – a UNESCO world heritage site – for those keen to do some sightseeing.

Located about 70 kilometers away from the NATO and EU border in Poland, Lviv has been a safe haven. The city has welcomed more than 200,000 Ukrainians fleeing war-affected areas, as well as embassies and international organizations relocating from Kyiv.

The city and the region have only endured a few attacks thus far.

The most devastating one struck the Yavoriv military training ground in Lviv Oblast on March 13, killing 35 people and injuring 134.

On March 18, a Russian missile strike destroyed an aircraft repair plant near Lviv’s airport, with no casualties reported.

Despite these attacks, everyday life continues at the heart of the city.

For Kyiv-based restaurateur Valeriy Sozanovskiy, who recently came back to his native Lviv after spending the first days of the war in Kyiv, seeing the city bursting with life came as “a shock.”

“Here, for me, is like a super safe place,” Sozanovskiy told the Kyiv Independent.

The restaurateur said the first week of Russia’s war was “like a horror” for him and his family. After hearing his two-year-old daughter say “Daddy, I’m scared” every night, he decided to take his family to western Ukraine.

Sozanovskiy’s life has changed dramatically since Russia’s war began. An owner of Kyiv’s popular eateries, including The Cake, he turned into a volunteer to help those affected by war. Now Sozanovskyi is using the connections he built through business to supply defense kits and humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian military.

Sozanovskiy said that it was weird at first to go to restaurants in Lviv and see people eating and laughing. But he acknowledges that even with the ongoing war, it’s important for businesses to continue working, as the economy plays a vital part in the resistance.

His words are in line with the Ukrainian government’s encouragement for businesses in areas that are still relatively calm to continue operations.

Ukraine’s Casablanca

While it may seem from the outside like Lviv hasn’t changed much, what’s happening in the city is actually far from ordinary.

Lviv has become a major staging post for refugees fleeing from other parts of Ukraine as they continue farther west. About 500 public institutions from schools to theaters have been turned into refugee centers, as Lviv’s population has increased by almost a third since Feb. 24.

The city heaves with diplomats, government workers, and foreign volunteers delivering aid from abroad or coming to join the Ukrainian military.

There are also several international media outlets that are using Lviv as a base of operations to broadcast news bulletins. A usually quiet city with winding elegant Habsburg architecture, Lviv resembles a kind of 21st-century Casablanca these days.

With the unprecedentedly high demand, apartment prices have skyrocketed and most hotels are fully booked for at least a month.

And although Lviv has been barely targeted directly by Russia’s aggression, the city has started to brace itself for war.

“You don't feel safe in any city of Ukraine right now because you understand that bombs or rockets may fall on your homes… This is the reality that we live in,” Lviv resident Olena Ogonovska, 31, told the Kyiv Independent.

Signs that Lviv is preparing for war have become more apparent as the city accelerates its efforts to safeguard its cultural heritage, from churches to thousands of artworks.

Many historic statues that decorate Lviv’s old town, including a 200-year-old limestone depiction of the Roman god Neptune, have been carefully wrapped in protective layers of plastic to protect them from anticipated shelling. The stain-glass windows of Lviv's 14th-century Roman Catholic cathedral in the downtown area and the windows of the Museum of Ethnography are also covered with metal plates.

Sandbags also line the windows and doorways of government buildings, and anti-tank obstacles known as “hedgehogs” can be seen in the city.

“We are considerably safe, but there is still a war (going on),” another Lviv resident Tanya Guligas, 29, told the Kyiv Independent. “It could happen to us any moment.”

People walk down the streets in the historical old town in Lviv, Ukraine on March 18, 2022. The stain-glass windows of Lviv's 14th-century Roman Catholic cathedral in the downtown area have been covered with metal plates since early March. (Asami Terajima)

Grassroots initiatives

Lviv residents are stepping up to help internally displaced people feel comfortable in a new city despite the circumstances.

Some restaurants and cafes are serving customers for free, refusing to take any money. Often they have messages right outside their doors that read “a warm bowl of soup, hot tea for free.” Many others also have posters that say either all or part of the profit will be donated to the Ukrainian military.

Guligas, who owns a clothing store in downtown Lviv, has joined the effort. When she decided to reopen her shop in early March, she already had a collection of clothing items that locals had donated. She turned her shop into a place where anyone could come and try an item of donated clothing on – and if they liked it, they could wear it home.

But after speaking with many internally displaced people, Guligas realized that those who she encountered felt uncomfortable being given something for free even if they needed humanitarian assistance. So instead, the fashion enthusiast made her store’s items that have a price tag on them as affordable as possible.

Launching initiatives to support the Ukrainian military even from the other side of the country was also important for 21-year-old medical student Marko, who asked for his last name to be withheld for security reasons.

Lviv-born Marko started an online fundraiser, where he’s been able to raise a couple thousand euros. The money will go towards buying medical equipment for the Ukrainian military that could save lives on the front line.

He said that it’s always been important for the people in Lviv to be part of the effort to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, even if battlefields are quite literally on the other side of the country.

Potential threat

How long the peace will last in Lviv is uncertain.

Residential areas in other urban cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa have been shelled or targeted by airstrikes, but Lviv has thus far avoided such attacks. One explanation could be that the Kremlin left the city’s motorway and railway links open to funnel refugees into Poland, to deliberately create massive refugee crises in Ukraine’s neighboring countries, the Guardian reported.

Kyiv-based military expert Oleg Zhdanov said the recent Russian missile attack near Lviv’s airport was just another one of Moscow’s attempts to show the world that they can attack anywhere in Ukraine, including Lviv.

Zhdanov acknowledged that taking geography into account, there is still the threat that Belarus could send troops to western Ukraine. But he predicts that the chances of the Belarusian military reaching as far as Lviv are low due to a lack of combat experience.

Nevertheless, Zhdanov reminded that Russia could launch an air strike on any city in Ukraine including Lviv.

“Today, there is no safe place in Ukraine,” he told the Kyiv Independent.

Organized by the city council, activists placed 109 empty baby strollers to commemorate the 109 children killed since Russia began its all-out war against Ukraine on Rynok Square in downtown Lviv on March 18. (Asami Terajima)
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