Soviet-era apartment buildings at the end of a tram line in this western Ukrainian town show a face that is indifferent to the world, empty and gray. But behind every lit window hides a story.
There is the couple who laments never living in the house that is being built for them in Bucha. There’s the family who spent hours in their basement in Irpin, trapped between the armies. There is the woman who fled Kharkiv, becoming displaced for the second time in a decade.
They all fled to Lviv, along with some 500,000 others – a small fraction of the 10 million Ukrainians who have been driven from their homes by war and resettled elsewhere in the country.
Many sleep on mats in cultural centers and schools, shelter in overcrowded rooms with relatives and friends. Some plan to move on, perhaps crossing the border into neighboring Poland and beyond. Others planted the first fragile roots. The others have no idea what to do.
Most just want to go home, if the house still exists.
No less than 50 people took refuge in a nine-storey building on Trylovskoho Boulevard. It is quiet; they can look out their windows and see a school, a playground, not a tank or rocket fire. It is a world away from danger that has driven them to flee their homes, although in recent days Lviv has also been targeted by Russian missiles.
Families live step by step. They don’t know each other, but they recognize displaced people like them by sight, without exchanging a word. Take the rattling little elevator, wander the dark hallways, and visit them in their temporary apartments, and you’ll find Limbo.
“It’s not my apartment. It’s not my life,” says Marta Kopan. “But now I’m here.” ___ Marta is 40 weeks pregnant; the baby, a girl, kicks her vigorously as she searches through bags of children’s clothes in the fourth-floor apartment the family borrowed from a cousin. Her birth plan, like so many others, was abandoned – the place where she expected to give birth was bombed.
“On February 24, our happy life came to an end,” says Marta, 36. She remembers looking out the window of the family’s kyiv apartment and watching the lines of cars heading for safety. Within days, the Kopans – Marta, her husband and two sons – joined them.
Now, about 300 miles away, she sometimes feels nothing. Sometimes it’s too much.
“I don’t need to read the news,” she says, and she starts to cry. “I just heard from my friends.” They tell him of destroyed houses and bodies found in pieces. A friend is now working to deliver babies in an underground shelter. He sent her photos of almost 200 pregnant women waiting to give birth.
Marta knows it could have been her.
kyiv is not the whole family left behind. A new home, designed by Marta’s mother, was waiting for the family in Bucha, just outside the capital. There are woods nearby, with hiking trails and opportunities for mushroom and berry picking. Now the Russian occupiers have retreated, leaving some of the worst horrors of war in their wake, and the family doesn’t know if their dream home has remained intact.
They want to stay in Ukraine, but they don’t have a long term plan. Marta and her husband are doctors and want to stay and help. For now, they live day to day. The eldest son, Nazar, 6, continues his education online.
Although he knows better, he sometimes asks to return home to kyiv. “I want my normal life,” he says.
Martha too. “I want my kids to have their own rooms with their Legos, with their different crayons,” she says.
The boy curls up and kisses his mother’s belly, a comfort to her and a greeting to his sister. “I hope he loves her when she cries,” Marta says.
A few hours later, just after sunset, the air raid siren sounded. The family, like many others here, does not go to the shelter. Marta sits in a puffy coat on the swings, alone in the dusk, while Nazar plays.
___ Iryna Sanina, 33, speaks in a stairwell on a concrete landing between floors. She leans on her husband, Volodymyr, and wears the only sweater she took with her when they fled Irpin. She has fluffy slippers and her ankles are bare, even when she goes out to smoke in freezing weather.
Her eyes fill with tears as she tells her story. She and her husband were trapped for days between Ukrainian and Russian forces, quickly learning to distinguish between incoming and outgoing fire. The bridge to safety was destroyed by the Ukrainian side to slow down the Russian advance. Even though her husband insisted that she leave, she wanted to stay.
They hid in a basement shelter in the yard. Whenever the shelling subsided, they came out to shout at their neighbours, checking to see if they were alive.
Volodymyr stayed at Irpin longer than her, helping with evacuations, but it was a struggle; the tires were quickly shredded by shrapnel on the ground. Without communication, Iryna could only reach him by text. “I could see he was getting the messages, but he couldn’t reply,” she said. “I didn’t know his fate for days, and it was terrifying.” Eventually, elderly neighbors persuaded him to leave for the sake of his 14-year-old son. The boy is now sheltering three hours from Lviv with his grandmother, in a safer place without any air raid sirens.
Iryna and Volodymyr share their sixth-floor apartment with four other adults from Irpin, all colleagues at the pharmaceutical company where the couple works. It is very difficult to live with others, says Iryna, but “we know that many people have lost everything”. The couple do not want to let others know that they are from Irpin. They don’t want to look like victims. They want to go home, however devastated, and rebuild.
More than anything, says Iryna, “I want to go back and wake up on February 24th,” before it all started. She is in tears again.
___ The kitchen ceiling is peeling off. The bed is an air mattress. Rooms are mostly bare. But Olia Shlapak’s 8-year-old daughter, Zlata, pirouettes in her bedroom with a new friend and tells her parents: “Let’s stay in Lviv. Olya, 28, and her husband, Sasha, worry that there is not much to return to Kharkiv, and the house they bought just six months ago. On the first day of the Russian invasion, they left it to seek refuge in the subway, along with hundreds of other residents.
Olya remembers the “greatest fear of my life”, waking up her daughter to tell her that the war had started. Luckily, she says, Zlata hasn’t seen much fighting, but “when she hears loud noises, she tries to hide.” A week later they traveled to Lviv, thinking they would stay a day or two. They live with their cocker spaniel, Letti, in an eighth-floor apartment found by “a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend.” Finding a place in the crowded city of Lviv was difficult; some owners objected to the dog, or even to Sasha. “Many people say that the husband should be at the front,” fights, says Olya.
Sasha continues to work in information technology. Olya can’t bring herself to look for a job. It would be like accepting that they could be in Lviv forever. “I’m waiting,” she said. “That’s not the life for me now.” Years ago, Olya fled the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine amid fighting. This experience taught him not to panic. But she has been shaken by the effects of Russian war propaganda on the people she loves. She can barely speak with her parents in Donetsk, for years under Russian rule, about the war. It is difficult to convince them that Ukraine is not attacking its own people.
Friends in Russia sent similar messages, or worse. “You Ukrainians deserve to die,” one wrote. Olya told him to quit drugs and alcohol. That seemed like the best answer at the time.
For years, she had avoided watching the news. Now she watches him for hours. She is cooking. She is playing with her daughter. She volunteers, helping other displaced people.
To help fill in the time, the family assembles a puzzle on the floor. But the dog ate a few pieces and it may never be complete.
___ Olha Salivonchuk is not a displaced person, although she has long been preparing to be.
Unlike many Ukrainians, she took talk in the West of a Russian invasion seriously and packed a “travel bag” with clothes, medicine, food and documents in November. On February 24, her husband woke her up: “It’s started. Remembering that moment, she is in tears.
Head of the local association of apartment owners, Olha saw the building empty at the start of the war. “People who lived here, especially with children, just disappeared in an instant,” she says. “It was like an empty building. No light at night. No cars in the parking lot. It was very scary. But then, realizing that Lviv was not in the front line, people came back. And in the days and weeks that followed, Olha, 41, watched as Ukrainians arrived from places like Chernihiv and Kharkiv, sneaking into apartments with friends, family and colleagues.
Olha herself hosted a dear friend from kyiv in her ninth-floor apartment for several days before helping her move on. On the eighth floor, a family from kyiv moved in and asked what they could do to help. They helped make the camouflage nets that cover the city’s checkpoints, using spare fabric.
Olha never considered leaving, even when a Russian airstrike rocked their building. Her family has lived in the city for generations and she has been in the apartment for a dozen years.
Every time the air raid siren goes off, she, her husband and 13-year-old daughter, Solomiya, take their luggage to their makeshift shelter in their hallway. She put tape on her windows after seeing people who had fled eastern Ukraine do so. “Maybe they know something,” she said.
Olha is aware of the tender nerves of the newly displaced people around her. “I’m just saying you’re new,” she said. “I don’t want to ask questions. I’m not sure they want to talk about the war. But if they start this conversation, I listen to them. Few things are needed to create a new home, she says: tea, blankets, photos and conversation. Newcomers are learning it now.
“They are the same now, they are Ukrainians,” says Olha. They speak with nostalgia of the communities left behind, but “they understand that here they also have a home”.
(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)