As Russia’s war expands, a Ukrainian tourist hub becomes a refuge for the displaced

Ukrainians trying to flee the Russian invasion gather in the Lviv train station to wait for a ride to the Polish border. (Photos by Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
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LVIV, Ukraine — When Tetanya Mudrianyets woke up at 5 a.m. to rumbling, she thought it was thunder. Her mind immediately went to the clothes drying on the line outside.

“I thought I’d go take the laundry in,” said the mother of eight, five of whom still live at home. But as she stepped out of her house on her family’s small farm just outside the town of Khakhovka, on the edge of Russian-occupied Crimea, “the sky lit up.”

Hearing news of the invasion, the children, ages 10 to 18, begged her and her husband to leave as the sound of the explosions moved closer. But by the time they found a taxi and set out, the roads had been taken by Russian troops.

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It was the beginning of a traumatic 560-mile, three-day journey across the front line and on to Lviv, a western city roughly 50 miles from the border with Poland that has become something of a refuge. Previously a hub for tourism, with its historic old town a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is now a hub for the internally displaced.

Its main train station heaves with a mass of people attempting to move on to Poland or other areas in Ukraine’s west. Some 152 community buildings such as schools, theaters and art galleries have been turned over to house the displaced, as well as 100 religious institutions. Residents have also opened up their homes to those from cities under bombardment.

But the mayor has said that arrivals should make themselves useful.

“I want to emphasize that today, Lviv is no longer a tourist center,” Andriy Sadovyi said in a public statement Monday. “All those who come here must remember that they are not guests. We should work together for the victory of our army!”

As they arrived in Lviv over the weekend, the Mudrianyets family rode the tram that rings the city for four hours in an attempt to keep warm, before seeing a sign for a restaurant that was giving free food to the displaced. “Our teeth were chattering,” said Tetanya’s husband, Anatoly, speaking after the family’s first hot meal in days.

They stayed at the restaurant eating and napping before catching an afternoon train to stay with relatives in the Transcarpathia, on the border with Slovakia. From there, they would decide whether to cross.

But the border crossings, with days-long waits, are daunting. Temperatures dropped over the weekend, and it began to snow, bringing more misery for an estimated 30,000 people who were lining up in cars or on foot at the region’s train stations and crossings with Poland.

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“Nobody wants to leave their home,” said 55-year-old Anatoly, who wept as he told the story of their escape, leaving behind what he described as an idyllic, self-sufficient life on their farm with 150 cherry trees, two cows, two bulls and 100 chickens. But getting his family to safety was more important.

“We just grabbed a backpack, documents, vests, underpants,” he said. His 11-year-old son, Ilya, brought a book. A few games were thrown in.

“The scariest part is going into the unknown,” Anatoly said. On the road, he said, they passed a burned-out Ukrainian armored vehicle and military truck, before passing the local hydroelectric plant, which now flew the Russian flag. Dozens of Russian military vehicles were outside.

Anatoly said he gave his children strict instructions not to take pictures for fear they’d be stopped and searched by Russian forces. Although some details of the family’s story were not possible to verify, their account matches satellite images that show the hydroelectric station under Russian control.

To reach western Ukraine, and a chance of safety, the family had to traverse the Russian-controlled bridge over the Dnieper River. The soldiers were waving civilian cars through. “It was very scary,” Anatoly said.

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“We didn’t see any fighting, but we saw the consequences,” he said. There was smoke rising from somewhere in the distance.

When he left his home, Anatoly thought he’d be able to make it out of the country to Slovakia, where one of his older sons lives. But in the days it took the family to cross the country, the government barred all men ages 18 to 60 from leaving.

In line with the nationwide call to arms, Lviv’s mayor said women, children and the elderly were welcome to stay in the city. “We ask military-conscripted men accompanying them to return to their cities and join the defense of our country,” he said.

The rule has made for agonizing separations or led families that were thinking of fleeing to stay. At the city’s train station, young couples who had gotten this far together contemplated being separated.

“I have eight kids to look after, and they tell me I should go fight?” Anatoly said. “My wife said, ‘Okay, I’ll cross but what are you going to do? Sit here for five years with no family?’”

But there were reunions, too. Two sisters who had returned from Poland to collect their children after fighting broke out were finally reunited after their grandmother brought them to the Lviv station on Sunday.

Maxim, 13, and Dasha, 12, gripped boxes holding their pet parrots while waiting for their mothers.

The birds “were hungry too,” said their grandmother, Valentina Perovna, 61, before her daughters arrived for an emotional reunion. “We all suffer together.”

Lviv is a way station as much as a new home for the displaced. Around 31,000 internally displaced people are hosted in the region, said Maksym Kozytskyy, the head of the regional administration. Another 100,000 have moved on to Poland, he said.

There are still 35,000 spaces available in temporary shelters and with people who have opened up their homes, Kozytskyy said. The main problem is dealing with the logistics of the flow of people, but the huge volunteer effort and donations mean there are no humanitarian needs, he said.

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There was a steady stream of residents delivering carloads of food, clothes and blankets to a buzzing aid distribution point in one of the city’s museums Saturday. Volunteers sorted donations to be sent on to shelters and homes. Among those volunteering were some who had been displaced themselves, eager to keep busy.

When the Mudrianyets family arrived in Lviv, they had spent all but $200 of the $1,500 they had. Their older children, who all live outside the country, offered to wire money, but with a cash crunch there was no way to withdraw it. They don’t know what they will do when it runs out.

The crush at the border, and restrictions on men of fighting age, have discouraged many from leaving. And with longer-term accommodation in the cities full, people are increasingly trying to find options in countryside villages, said Evgenia Nesterovich, a volunteer at the bus station.

But it is unclear how long the calm here will last, amid warnings that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will open up a new front on the border to the north.

“The front line could come very close to us,” Kozytskyy said.

Anastasya Ivanova contributed to this report.