March 4. 2024. 11:26

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Lviv buries its dead, treats its wounded and looks to the future

Beneath Lviv’s historic town hall and the cobblestone market square that surrounds it, the work of running Ukraine’s “safe haven” city whirrs on as air-raid sirens wail above ground.

The chambers and tunnels in the building’s basement have been turned into brightly lit offices and art-lined corridors, and mayor Andriy Sadovyi and colleagues have grown used to these surroundings during 12 months of all-out war between Ukraine and Russia.

Descending yet again as sirens moan for the third time that day, and a few hours after air-defence systems downed seven Russian missiles over Lviv region, Sadovyi says such inconveniences barely register amid a year of bloody upheaval for his city and country.

You must always remember that you have a choice – money or freedom. If you take money, you lose freedom, so choose freedom and you will never be ashamed

Andriy Sadovyi

“Five million internally displaced people (IDPs) travelled through Lviv, and on some days there were two million extra people here,” he says of a city that had about 750,000 residents before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th last year.

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Lviv buries its dead, treats its wounded and looks to the future

Lviv buries its dead, treats its wounded and looks to the future

Russia claims to have gained ground in Kharkiv as Kyiv accuses it of ‘nuclear terrorism’

Russia claims to have gained ground in Kharkiv as Kyiv accuses it of ‘nuclear terrorism’

Most moved on to Poland, whose border is just 70km away, and to other European Union countries as Russia’s military threatened to seize Kyiv, Kharkiv and other major cities in central, eastern and southern Ukraine during the first weeks of the invasion.

“Today we are hosting about 150,000 IDPs full-time,” says Sadovyi, whose role as mayor of picturesque Lviv changed overnight from running arguably Ukraine’s most investor- and tourist-friendly city to crisis-managing the key transit point and refuge for a nation facing possible occupation by one of the world’s most powerful armies.

“On the first day of the Russian invasion I had stress. By the next day, it was just my job. If you go to the frontline and spend a few days with our soldiers there, this is good anti-stress treatment,” Sadovyi says of the need to keep the strain of his work in perspective.

As fears over Russia’s intentions grew through 2021, his administration took advice from Britain’s Emergency Planning College to ensure Lviv was prepared for any crisis, by improving co-ordination between officials and emergency services and making infrastructure more resilient – work that paid off as the city’s population suddenly tripled.

“More than 11,000 injured people passed through our municipal hospital alone – that’s women, children, the elderly, soldiers, everyone,” Sadovyi says, while praising Lviv residents and volunteers for helping the city and its new arrivals cope with the war.

“Lviv hosts IDPs like they are our own. I hosted a family from [partly occupied] Zaporizhzhia region in my home and my colleagues did the same.”

Unesco-listed Lviv drew well over a million tourists a year during peacetime, and though its cafes and restaurants are still busy, its centuries-old statues and many of its medieval and baroque buildings are now boarded up to protect them from any explosion.

[ Lara Marlowe: Lviv’s cultural treasures threatened by Russian onslaught ]

The old town has not been hit by missiles, but Russian rockets have struck military sites and civilian infrastructure near Lviv, with the latter causing hours-long power cuts that plunge homes into darkness and sometimes also cut heat and water supplies.

The front line is 900km away, but air-raid sirens and blackouts are not required to remind Lviv about the war, when every day injured troops arrive for treatment and soldiers and civilians gather at its historic garrison church to honour fallen fighters.

“Thousands and thousands of Lviv citizens are on the front line. Every day we have funeral ceremonies – today for four of our heroes, yesterday for three of our heroes — and every day we are looking after the wounded,” says Sadovyi.

“So one part of my head thinks about the current situation – how to support Lviv’s citizens, our new citizens [IDPs], how to support our army and build up our territorial defence force. But I must also think about the future.”

Through a project called Unbroken, Lviv is building a state-of-the-art hospital complex offering the full range of medical support required by Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, from emergency and reconstructive surgery, through physiotherapy and rehabilitation, to robotic prosthetics and psychological help.

At the same time, Lviv wants to create jobs and income for residents and IDPs by using its relatively secure location near Poland to attract investment, develop the IT sector and others, and welcome firms that have fled more dangerous parts of Ukraine.

As Russian troops moved in early March last year to within about 25km of Kyiv, many western embassies relocated to Lviv and there was speculation that it could become the de facto capital of a free Ukraine if the Kremlin’s invasion force seized the country’s main city.

“No,” says Sadovyi. “Kyiv is our capital – it is the heart of Ukraine and Lviv is the soul of Ukraine. And this collaboration is very important for our country and our future.”

[ Biden makes surprise Kyiv visit ahead of first anniversary of war ]

Lviv is a stronghold of Ukrainian culture and identity, but for centuries it was part of Poland, and bloody episodes in the neighbours’ shared history have long tainted relations.

Now, however, Poland is perhaps Ukraine’s strongest ally, having taken in more than one million refugees and lobbied tirelessly for more military and other support for Kyiv.

“We have very close ties with Poland now. We understood that we have one common enemy, and that is Russia. This bear is wounded, and a wounded bear is more dangerous than a normal one. Our only chance to survive is to push this bear back as far as possible to its den,” says Sadovyi.

He describes his nation’s fight to escape Kremlin domination as a battle that has lasted not for one year, nor for the nine years since Russia seized Crimea and fomented war in eastern Ukraine, but for 400 years.

“Now we have a unique chance to have a truly independent country, with your help,” he says, calling on western leaders to send arms as quickly as possible to Ukraine.

“If we receive new military equipment…we will more quickly de-occupy our territory, we will have less IDPs, less wounded people and we will start to rebuild our economy,” Sadovyi explains, while urging the West to resist the temptation to seek an expedient deal with the regime of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

“This evil has very actively crawled into all spheres, including culture and sport, and Russia has corrupted politicians and political parties and will keep on doing it. So we have to cut that off,” Sadovyi adds.

“You must always remember that you have a choice – money or freedom. If you take money, you lose freedom, so choose freedom and you will never be ashamed,” he says. “We have chosen freedom.”

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