“It’s just humanity in transit,” said Steve Gordon, a charity worker with Mercy Corps, of the Ukrainian city of Lviv. “From the queues on the borders to the center of town, everyone has a suitcase.”
Lviv was once a big draw for trendy European tourists attracted to its baroque churches and cool cafes. Now it has found itself at the heart of Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
Authorities are scrambling to absorb, feed and house the 200,000 people who have come here since the invasion began more than two weeks ago, and who have placed all of its services under unprecedented strain.
“We’re at the limits of our capacity,” the city’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyy, told the Financial Times. “I’m raising the red flag.”
Normally quiet, Lviv has been transformed into a kind of 21st-century Casablanca, heaving with refugees, journalists and diplomats all chasing an ever-diminishing pool of hotel rooms and restaurant tables. At breakfast, TV crews jostle for space with traumatized casualties of the war.
“We’re using all our available infrastructure” to take in the newcomers, said Sadovyy, with dozens of schools, theaters, museums and churches in Lviv opening their doors to refugees.
But with Ukraine’s national food distribution system thrown into chaos by the Russian advance, Lviv’s food stocks are running low. The city badly needs tents, temporary homes and other types of humanitarian aid, the mayor told the FT. “If we don’t get substantial support in the next week there will be difficult times ahead,” Sadovyy added.
Rally war in Ukraine has exacted an immense human toll. People in cities such as Mariupol have been subjected to constant shelling that has knocked out basic services including light, heating and water. According to the UN, 2.5mn Ukrainians have fled their homes.
Lviv, by comparison, has been an oasis of relative safety. Less than 100km from Poland, it is a haven for those seeking to wait out the fighting, as well as a landing-stage for those fleeing west.
Yet its advantageous position has left it bursting at the seams. Roads heave with traffic, the city’s streets teem with anxious new arrivals trundling suitcases, and its railway station is a sea of refugees trying to get out of Ukraine.
A strict curfew means most restaurants close at about 8pm, and early sittings are packed out: the sale of alcohol is banned. Anti-Russian sentiment runs strong: a sign in one café says: “Don’t speak the language of the occupier; switch to Ukrainian! ”
The exodus to Ukraine’s western outpost began before the invasion. As the drumbeat of war intensified, the embassies of the US, UK, Germany, China and the Netherlands moved most of their diplomats from the capital Kyiv to Lviv.
Though Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior government figures remain in the capital, civil servants from an array of ministries have also moved to Lviv, Sadovyy said. “It’s very difficult to work when bombs are falling on you,” he added.
Nelya Belyaeva runs a hostel in a residential suburb operated by Lviv’s social services department that is now full of displaced people. The demand for places is so great they have had to convert office space into bedrooms. The race is now on to find enough mattresses, food and toiletries for the new arrivals.
“No one expected such a massive influx,” she said.
Natalya Satukelo arrived here with her young daughter from the south-eastern city of Zaporizhzhia a day after the war broke out.
“We opened our door and heard explosions right next to the house and Russian helicopters flying overhead, and soon after we were gone,” she said. “I can’t go back there.”
Belyaeva said many of the displaced were being uprooted for the second time in their lives. They had fled the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, where fighting began between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops in 2014, relocating to cities further west such as Kyiv. Now they were once again on the move.
“These people have passed through the second circle of hell,” she added.
One example is Igor Bevzenko, a businessman from the Donbas. He lost most of his property in the 2014 conflict and moved to Kyiv, where he gradually rebuilt the business, becoming a major distributor of oil products and setting up a cement factory.
When Russian troops advanced on the capital he fled again, this time to Lviv. Now for the second time in his life he is facing financial ruin.
“Our losses this time are even greater than in 2014,” Bevzenko said. “Everything’s shut down, nothing’s working, I have no income,” he added, saying he feared the business would be pushed into bankruptcy.
For now the refugees are safe: Russia’s army has focused its firepower on eastern and central cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv.
But the fear is that once Russia is finished there it will turn its firepower further west and to Lviv. A city whose entire center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site fears the same kind of assault that has destroyed entire sections of Mariupol.
“During the first and second world wars, Lviv was not bombed,” Sadovyy said. “But you saw what the Taliban did to Afghanistan’s architectural monuments. Will Putin follow that path? I just don’t know. “
But if the Russians do come, he said, “we’ll fight for every inch” of the city. “Kyiv might be the heart of Ukraine, but Lviv is its soul.”