Iuliia Mendel is a journalist and former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Lviv has become a destination for displaced Ukrainians, diplomats, aid workers and journalists. But the war is here, too. The fact that Russia retreated from attacking the capital, Kyiv, appears to have tricked some around the world into believing that Ukrainians were heading to a fast victory.
But fear, trauma and grief are still part of our daily lives. Russia continues to terrorize the population. Russia continues to threaten our territory and our democracy.
I returned to Lviv on Sunday night following a trip to Kyiv. On stops along the way to the capital I met survivors of Russia’s aggression. I saw my people in a state of shock and pain that is difficult to describe.
I met two sisters, Tetyana, 54, and Oksana, 47, in Polonne. They had returned to their native city after fleeing the Kyiv area. They decided to stay with friends — because they didn’t want to expose their 74-year-old mother to their anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
Oksana lived in Irpin, where her husband was killed just outside their home. “We were outside and the shelling started,” Oksana says. “He told me ‘run to the cellar!’ The two of us ran, he was only about two meters behind me. I turn around, stunned by the explosion, there’s dust all around.”
The shelling continued for hours, days perhaps. She was not sure. Then she left the cellar to search for her husband, Oleksandr. She found him in the evening, in a flower bed. “I couldn’t pick him up to bury him. He was so heavy. I just folded his arms in front on his chest,” Oksana recalled.
Oksana’s house was destroyed. She doesn’t understand how she survived. She left the city by walking through the backyards and gardens of smoldering houses. A man helped her find a quieter route. Later the same man buried Oleksandr’s body. Oksana reached Ukrainian soldiers on March 25. “They couldn’t believe that I reached them by myself. It’s a miracle I’m alive.”
Her sister Tetyana lived in a cozy house in neighboring Hostomel, where Russian troops took over an airfield to land their forces. Together with her husband and godson, Tetyana spent 16 days hiding in a well underground.
They ventured outside when the shelling stopped: sometimes very early in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon. The Russians “were flying so low that I thought I could look into the pilot’s eyes,” Tetyana said.
It was humid and freezing in the well.
“We struggled to sleep in the small space, we felt exhausted,” she said. “You don’t know when it’s going to end. Every day is the same. We just really believed, we really wanted to live.”
The Russians had promised humanitarian corridors for civilians, but they always thwarted them with shelling. On the 16th day they heard familiar voices in the street nearby and came out to find that people were waiting for a bus to leave. The bus never arrived, but, desperate, they all walked, hoping no one would harm them.
“We walked for about an hour and a half or two hours. There were many Russian checkpoints, many Russian soldiers. In our group, there were several people with disabilities. Volunteers found construction wheelbarrows for them and carried them that way,” Tetyana said. They reached the outskirts of Bucha, where they were picked up by the Ukrainian military.
Like many towns and cities, Polonne is now full of Ukrainians who were forced to flee. I left Polonne and approached Kyiv from the direction of Irpin and Hostomel, where Oksana and Tetyana lived. I wondered how they will feel when they return home. There are burned trees and tanks along the road. There are bombed-out houses, stores, restaurants.
The sisters told me they are still afraid of loud sounds. I’m shaken by the destruction — how will they cope, having lost so much?
But they said what they wanted most of all was peace and to return home. “We had everything, we were happy,” Tetyana said. “Most of all we want to live like we did before the war.”
Of course, that won’t happen anytime soon. Most Ukrainians are prepared to endure this for as long as it takes.
Back in Lviv, the raid sirens blare again and I head to the windows and close them, almost by instinct at this point. I sleep with my clothes on, ready to go down to the shelter in case the explosions get too close.
I think about the sisters in Polonne. Of Oksana, who said before I left: “How I wish this would all end.”
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.