ashland.news
July 21, 2024

Dispatch from Ukraine: Building may be shaken, but spirits aren’t

Statues in Lviv such as the famed Renaissance portrayal of Neptune in the Rynok Square are swathed in protective coverings in event of a aerial attack. Paul Huard photo
July 6, 2023

Lots to unpack: Barely landed in Lviv, supposedly far from the fighting, Ashland school teacher takes shelter from missiles landing nearby

Editor’s note: Ashland High School teacher and Ashland.news freelance reporter Paul Huard is volunteering this summer in Ukraine. Here’s his second dispatch about his experience.

By Paul R. Huard for Ashland.news

LVIV, Ukraine, July 6, 2023 — In this city of 728,000 souls, people work hard to simply go on about their lives.

As the city bustles in the morning with workers rushing to their jobs on foot or in their cars, there is a sense that Ukrainians do everything they can to maintain a sense of normalcy. If nothing else, it is a way of fighting back, of showing Vladimir Putin and a Russia bent on conquest that Ukrainians remain unbeaten.

Paul Huard

All of Ukraine is at war, yet this city was lucky. Lviv has not suffered the regular missile and drone attacks of Kyiv or the battlefield cities of the east, tempting some to dub it a “rear area.” Located in the westernmost part of the nation and only 100 kilometers from the border with Poland, Russia rarely tempts fate with a missile attack that could veer off target and strike a NATO-member’s territory rather than Lviv’s infrastructure or civilian population.

Lviv’s luck came to an end shortly after 2 a.m. this morning. Air-raid sirens blasted through the night, and the alert-app on my phone began to wail.

Forced to shelter in place, I rode out the attack by sitting in a hallway with multiple walls between me and the exterior wall. The alert lasted for more than an hour and four missiles hit near my location, the explosions violently shaking my building.

So, there is a reason why windows are taped to prevent flying glass propelled by the explosive force of a missile warhead. There is a reason why you cannot walk any street without passing men and women in uniform, moving in groups of ones and twos and even dozens.

There are even reasons why Ukrainian civilians find every way imaginable to wear the national color of yellow and blue: ribbons tied on wrists, shirts displaying the bicolor, and other items of clothing decked out with the tryzup, Ukraine’s trident coat of arms. It is an act of defiance.

Perhaps a quieter act of defiance are the foreign volunteers sprinkled among the population. In this most Ukrainian region of the country — Lviv is considered one of the birthplaces of modern Ukrainian nationalism — outsiders other than tourists were once very rare.

Before the war, Lviv was building its reputation as a post-Soviet, super-cool hangout that would draw visitors from Western Europe and North America interested in its coffee-house culture. Afterall, the city at one time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — every coffee shop is a miniature Vienna.

Like many buildings in Lviv, the windows of this museum are taped to limit flying glass in the event of an Russian aerial attack. Although it has been bombed, Lviv has escaped the majority of missiles and drone attacks leveled by Russia at civilians in Ukraine. Paul Huard photo

That is now part of what is called “The February 23 Mindset,” a reference to the day before Russia escalated the war against Ukraine and its forces rolled toward Kyiv. Within days, thousands of foreigners were making plans to come to Ukraine, some to fight, others to help with humanitarian assistance.

Most do not belong to major organizations like the Red Cross. Some are former military (the Ukrainian government wanted only individuals with military, law enforcement, or first-responder experience as members of its Foreign Legion), but most are 100 percent civilian. Many are of Ukrainian ancestry, but there are volunteers who do not have one drop of Ukrainian blood in their background.

“I was here already, and I began by helping French speakers cross the border when the war exploded last year,” says my associate Wahid, a Lebanese businessman of French ancestry with connections both in Ukraine and Poland. “I stayed because my family knows what it means to be on the sharp end of a war. It was my grandparents in France during World War II; It was my immediate family in Lebanon during the civil war.”

He rents warehouses in Lviv and in Przemysl, Poland, and, using a tiny fleet of trucks and vans, moves donated supplies from across Europe into Ukraine. Wahid has made dozens of border crossings in less than a year, earning him special status with border police that allows him expedited passage.

“I am a crazy man,” he said about the number of crossings he has made. From Lviv, the supplies go everywhere: Freeze-dried goat milk for children in besieged cities, beds for hospitals treating military casualties, and sundry items such as hygiene supplies and construction materials to villages constantly suffering battle damage.

A Ukrainian volunteer helps package meals in a Lviv warehouse for transport to outlying villages where the food is needed. Paul Huard photo

Elena is another volunteer. An American university instructor who teaches Slavic languages, she works at a Polish shelter that is different from most in the region. It lets families bring their pets, so traumatized people who have already lost everything do not need to make a choice between a roof over their head or losing yet another beloved family member.

“I am Ukrainian, so naturally I want to help,” she said. “I could have helped from home by just donating money, except I was so angry because of the Russian invasion I knew that it would not be enough. I had to be here.”

But she also works in Lviv, crossing the border to offer her services as a translator to different journalists who do not have her language skills. “It’s important that the story gets told, and that is difficult to do for someone who doesn’t speak or understand Ukrainian,” Elena said.

There has been a share of undesirables. War tourists still show up, looking for battles in the way a junkie looks for a fix. Some who volunteered to help thought Ukraine was a modern-day Wild West where anything goes, and they behaved accordingly.

“I just cringed when I heard one guy at a bar in Lviv call friends back home and brag, ‘I am really in the shit here! I am in a war!’ while he downed drinks,” said Katerina, an American volunteer who has been in Ukraine on and off for the last 16 months.

Of the thousands of foreign volunteers scattered throughout Ukraine, what seems truly to bind them is a genuine love of Ukraine and Ukrainians. The volunteers admire the people’s tenacity; they are heart-broken by the suffering they see; they have loved ones they want to protect by protecting their nation; or they just believe it is the right thing to do.

To read the first Dispatch from Ukraine, click here.

To read the third Dispatch from Ukraine, click here.

Paul R. Huard was a reporter who covered government and the military for Gannett newspapers. His freelance work included assignments in Estonia and Spain. During the summer of 2022, he volunteered as a humanitarian relief worker in Przemysl, Poland, where he assisted Ukrainian refugees. This summer, he will continue his work by volunteering in Ukraine.  He lives in Ashland. Email Huard at paulrhuard@gmail.com.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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