Reportage / 9 May 2022

When the Air-Raid Sirens Fall Silent

Focus: Ukraine

The last time I was in Lviv, my flight landed at Danylo Halytskyi Airport, named after Daniel of Galicia, a mediaeval ruler of Galician Ruthenia, who, in year 1253, received a royal crown from the Pope Innocent IV, and with it the title Dux Galiciae et Rex Ruthenorum. His bust is displayed in the check-out area of the Airport and in the Town Hall, and his equestrian statue on one of the squares in the centre of the town. Before the war, the Lviv Airport was, according to the number of passengers and of flights, the largest regional airport in Ukraine, falling second only to the Kyiv airports of Boryspil and Zhuliany. Since the first day of the war that broke out due to Russian aggression against Ukraine, the airspace is closed for civilian flights, the airports are closed, the passenger flights terminated.

When I entered Ukraine last Sunday (20th March 2022) through the Zosin-Ustyluh border crossing, the border guard looked at the Ukrainian stamps in my passport – most of them from Boryspil Airport in Kyiv – and stamped the name of the border crossing (Устилуг) next to them. I was travelling with a humanitarian aid convoy, and because of that the formalities at the border took only a few minutes.

Before that, I had to arrive at Zamość, a town located just 140 km from Przemyśl, where I started my journey; but covering that distance with public transport proved to be quite a challenge. Until World War I, the border between Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire ran right through this region of what is nowadays southeastern Poland – approximately at the location of the modern border between the Subcarpathian Voivodeship (which includes Przemyśl) and Lublin Voivodeship (which includes Zamość). Railway lines, built back in the day by the Austrians on the one side and Russians on the other, still lead into different directions, thus it is easier to travel from Przemyśl to Kraków, 300 km away, or even further, to Vienna and Prague, than to Lublin or Zamość. The old borders still exist, even if nobody is aware of that.

How to cross the border of a country in which a war is taking place, knowing that you are leaving the area of relative comfort and apparent safety, provided by the trust in NATO’s security umbrella? On Sunday evening, my head was spinning with hundreds of thoughts, but one was prevailing – soon, I will see Lviv again. How are things down there now?

It was a cold starry night when friends picked me up in Volodymyr-Volynskyi and we travelled to Lviv. A decent road with a new, smooth surface, led us from the border; on the left, an orange, almost red full moon was hanging low above the fields and forests, and on the right, the Orion was shining brightly, as if he were pointing the direction to Lviv with his sword. On our way, we passed many checkpoints, which are called »blokpost« – some were reinforced with concrete slabs and bags of sand, and covered with camouflage nets. Most traffic signs were taped or painted over in order to disorientate the enemy. We crossed the bridge over the Bug river and left Volhynia at Sokal, entering Galicia.

The roadways of Galicia

During the following days, I travelled extensively along the roadways of Galicia. Sambir, Dobromyl, Sokal: these are the names that most people – if they have even heard about them at all – associate with the chronicle of the battles on the Eastern Front in World War I or remember them from the stories in the novel by Jaroslav Hašek. The good soldier Švejk is present in Sambir, Dobromyl and in other Galician towns – including those on the Polish side of the contemporary border: his statue is standing in the very centre of Przemyśl, in front of the town hall. Today, travelling along these roads has a completely different dimension to it. Numerous checkpoints, rumours of war, petrol stations where one can often not find proper fuel – ore the desired quantity of it – and, at the same time, almost idyllic views of gentle wooded hills, of fields on which farmers are still, following an ancient habit (which is now strongly criticised in Ukraine), burning old grass in the spring – the spectacle of flames and black smoke invokes a sense of anxiety in the travellers. In the surroundings of Dobromyl and Khyriv, a hill ridge starts its ascent, being the overture to the Beskids, which lie further to the south and are a part of the Carpathian Mountains, where vicious fighting between the Russians and the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal army took place during World War I. Many Slovenians died there as well, and some of them are buried at the famous, historic Lychakiv cemetery in Lviv.

Lviv is the key word: the former capital of Galicia – the largest Imperial and Royal crown land – is a city which possesses a special place in the history and culture of many nations. Mostly the Ukrainian nation, of course, but also Polish and Jewish; and many Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Italians, Greeks and Armenians have also left their mark on the city. Thus, all Galician roads lead towards Lviv.


Semper Fidelis

I last visited Lviv at the end of last December. When I returned there today, it seemed as if it were many years ago.

Lviv remains semper fidelis – the always faithful city (this is the motto inscribed on the city historical coat of arms) – faithful to its traditions, its principles, its unique genius loci. Its inhabitants proudly repeat that it is a free city of free people. However, today it is different than it used to be a few months ago. After 10 o’clock in the evening, Lviv turns off, the streets become empty, the numerous bars for which the city is famous are closed, there are no trams and taxis – the curfew is in force in the city. During the day, on the other hand, the city is bustling and resembles a pulsing beehive, where some kind of a great, organic project is taking place. Lviv is nowadays, economically speaking, the most important Ukrainian city, because it covers the hinterland of the war in the east, south and southeast of the country. Actually, the city is a single large logistics hub for volunteers, where almost everyone who can do anything pro publico bono and can support the Ukrainian armed forces works as a volunteer.

I am observing the famous team of volunteers – Halinka, also known as »Perlinka« (which means »The Little Pearl«), Zhenya, Markiyan, and the others – who are, from early morning until late at night, taking care of thousands of logistical issues: they have hundreds of telephone calls, receive and reload shipments, acquire »dual-use items« that is so desireable yet difficult to obtain nowadays: kevlar vests, helmets, meals, first aid kits, medications, footwear, uniforms ... At the time of the beginning of the Russian aggression, the Ukrainian armed forces amounted to about 250.000 men; after the mobilisation, their numbers have quickly doubled, and apart from them, they have to supply the territorial defence units, volunteer battalions and other formations. Because of that, every pair of hands counts and each shipment from abroad is welcome.

The largest hotel in Lviv, the Dnister, which is located on a hill overlooking the Ivan Franko park (the former Jesuit gardens) in the vicinity of the University, is nowadays home to many foreign reporters; on its parking lot, cars with extraordinarily diverse licence plates and insignia of manifold international organisations are huddled. On the ground floor of a former beauty salon, a military aid centre for the Ukrainian army has been established; it is led by young women – instead of performing manicures and pedicures, they are now sorting clothes, medications and meals into cardboard boxes, which cover almost the entire space of the repurposed salon.

The famous gastronomical holding !Fest from Lviv, which includes more than a dozen popular culinary establishments, hotels, and other enterprises, has now opened the door of its restaurant Beer Theatre »Pravda« on the Rynok Square for the needs of the Ukrainian Media Centre – one of the two (along the one in Kyiv) currently operating in Ukraine. It has also transformed a large part of its premises under the Vysoky Zamok (High Castle) hill, known under the name FESTrepublic, into an aid centre, where, among others, the World Central Kitchen operates. Other local businesses have offered their help in similar fashion.


A city of monuments

The sculptures of ancient gods adorning the wells at the corners of one of the main squares – Neptune, Diana, Amphitrite and Adonis – are protected from potential damage caused by air raids, as are the priceless vitrages in the Latin Cathedral, the recently renovated baroque Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church (formerly Jesuit), the Armenian Cathedral, the Greek Catholic Cathedral of Saint George, and in numerous other churches that beautify this city and testify to its rich cultural heritage.

Lilya Onyshchenko, head of the Office of Historical Environment Preservation in the Lviv City Council, tells us how the city is striving to protect its monuments from war damage:

»When the war started in our country because of Russian aggression, we immediately started to plan how best to protect the numerous monuments from potential damage or even destruction. The old city centre of Lviv is added to the UNESCO List of Cultural Heritage Sites; that is why we turned our attention to it first. We were advised to introduce – at the national level – a legal mechanism, the so-called »Blue Shield«, which can establish a historical nature of a certain area; Lviv had, as the only city in Ukraine, introduced this appellation years before that. According to their colleagues from UNESCO, this should have been enough, because the destruction of historical monuments is prohibited by the Hague convention of 1954. However, judging by the destruction already inflicted by Russians on Kyiv, Mariupol and Kharkiv, I genuinely don’t know how to respond to this piece of advice. In Kharkiv, for example, 20 to 30 monuments of modernist historical architecture from the 1930s, for which the city is famous far and near, have been severely damaged or completely destroyed.

Because of that, we started to take measures on our own. Among other things, we consulted experts from Croatia who had acquired experience of wartime monument protection; we engaged volunteers with prior restaurationist knowledge, we have urgently expedited the categorization of monuments, we started purchasing fire blankets, fire extinguishers, other firefighting equipment, seeking other ways to cover and protect open-air monuments. We are still encountering many troubles – mostly the lack of firefighting equipment, which is not available for purchase in Ukraine at the moment; and we must also carry out tasks that call for extraordinary measures, such as the preservation of the famous Siemiradzki curtain at the Opera House.[1] Of course, we are experiencing a lack of funding: the City Council is currently relying exclusively on human resources, we cannot count on any material support; the state of Ukraine is currently, understandably, focused on the tasks of defending its independence and protecting the lives of its citizens. Since 2007, we have been cooperating with Polonika, a Polish institute for the preservation of historical monuments – and we have received the greatest amount of support from it, because our Polish friends have, thanks to the personal endeavours of its director Dorota Janiszewska-Jakubiak, her colleague Anna Kudzia, and Michał Laszczkowski from the Cultural Heritage Foundation at the Polish Ministry of Culture, gathered – in record time – financial and material support amounting to more than 1 million PLN (more than 213.000 €) and sent it to us. The Dutch Prince Claus Fund also offered help amounting to 35.000 €. Lviv is a city that belongs to the common European culture, and because of that the protection of the city’s monuments from potential barbaric destruction is not of utmost importance only to us – the inhabitants of this city and the citizens of Ukraine – but for the whole of Europe.« – Mrs. Lilya concludes.

That was no film

When on a nice, sunny spring day the air-raid sirens suddenly go off, some of the inhabitants leave for the shelters, some streets are temporarily emptied, but many people of Lviv ignore them. Life goes on. When the sirens start sounding in the middle of the sunlit Lviv’s old town and the announcements are heard from the loudspeakers, calling on the people to head for the shelters, the feeling is surrealistic; at first, it seems as if we had found ourselves inside some kind of a film scene. However – as the once popular Polish band Myslovitz used to sing – this was no film.

It seems that there are more people on the streets as usual, cars with licence plates such as AA, KA, AX, AE are pared everywhere; these plates reveal that they have travelled from the war zones: from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro and other cities in the east and south of the country where armed engagements are taking place. Since there are more than 200.000 refugees currently in the city, searching for accommodation is not as dependent on one’s wallet as on their web of acquaintances – almost every available apartment is either rented or its owners are already hosting their friends, the friends of their friends, the close or more distant members of their family, and sometimes complete strangers. I have heard a story about how, for example, the refugees from the Obolon District in Kyiv are living in an apartment in the Zamarstyniv District in Lviv; the owners of this apartment are now living in an apartment provided to them by their friends in the Kleparz of Kraków; and these in turn are living somewhere in the Netherlands.

There is also a shortage of storage spaces in the city – almost all logistics in the country has moved from the east to the west and therefore all available warehouses have already been leased for a long time and Lviv is now perhaps the most important logistics hub in whole Ukraine. Shops and restaurants are open, although there are many empty bars in the city centre – the total ban on the sale of alcohol does not encourage partying (from 2nd April the sale of beer and wine is permitted until 8pm). »Alcohol is not for sale. We will party after we have won,« announces a bulletin hung on the doors of many bars and shops. The belief in ultimate victory and the resoluteness of resistance when faced with aggression are palpable, even though one can also sense tiredness and uncertainty arising from the half-unspoken question: »Why are they not shelling Lviv?« Until yesterday, 26th March, the »only« buildings in the city proper that had been bombed were airplane repair and production facilities near the airport and the area of the drill centre at the Yavoriv military base. In the city where air-raid sirens go off multiple times a day – in the middle of the night as well as in sunshine – these questions seem valid.

The only way to access the area of the now already abandoned Lviv airport is through checkpoints reinforced with concrete slabs and sand bags, monitored by territorial defence units – but only if you have the correct pass; the same applies to any travel outside the city gates.

Yes, there is no »real« war in Lviv; many foreign reporters, politicians, volunteers and even people who are curious about »what life in a country at war is like« are arriving here, but war is very tangible in the city, even though the spring sun shining on the beauty of the city’s architecture sometimes dispels thoughts of war. Especially when the air-raid sirens fall silent.

About Lychakiv

I am finishing this text already back in Przemyśl – a city located about 12 km from the Ukrainian border – which has become a sort of a »second home« to me in the last month. I managed to slip back to Przemyśl through the pedestrian border crossing Shehyni/Medyka (which probably deserves a description on its own) almost at the same time when in not too distant Rzeszów American President Joe Biden started his visit to Poland. Przemyśl lies only 90 km from Lviv; the cities are connected with common history and with the urban tissue that has been consolidated in the times of Austria-Hungary; now it seems, however, that they belong to two different, though mutually fulfilling worlds, separated by the border – tangible and destructive as never before in the last thirty years.

The question asked by my friends from Lviv during my stay in the city: »Why are they not shelling Lviv?« was answered by the Russian aggressor on 26th March at 16.30; they fired missiles from Belarusian territory at the city. The Russian missiles fell on the northern part of the city, where there were three explosions – fuel depots, a military unit and other targets were hit. One of the missiles fell on Lychakiv, the district with the famous cemetery where persons of merit regarding Ukrainian and Polish culture are buried: writers, painters, architects and historians. The Polish writer and poet Maria Konopicka, the world famous mathematician Stefan Banach, the painter Ivan Truš, and most importantly one of the greatest Ukrainian authors Ivan Franko – his significance and his contribution to Ukrainian culture can be compared to that of Ivan Cankar in Slovenia; both were active in approximately the same period, both were connected to Vienna, both were citizens of the same country – Austria-Hungary, they belonged to a similar intellectual milieu and the same Central European cultural space. Among those who also lie buried here are Slovenian soldiers who fell in the fighting in Galicia during World War I, the rebels in the Polish-Lithuanian uprising of 1863, and those who took part in the Polish-Ukrainian hostilities of November 1918. The Pantheon of the so-called »Eaglets of Lviv«, where those who took part in these fights on the Polish side are buried, was built between the two wars; the Soviets have almost completely destroyed it in the 1970s, but the Polish people have been meticulously restoring it for a long time after the year 1989.

The Sirens and the Erinyes

The Lychakiv Cemetery acquired its present form around the year 1855, when an irregular layout of avenues on the wooded hills was finally resolved. Many precious headstones stem from that time. We won’t find any skulls or bones on them – here, death is most commonly represented in the form of a dream motif. Such depictions of death are connected with the Renaissance and antiquity – both of these being so characteristic of the city’s cultural tradition.

Lychakiv – the toponym comes from the polonised German name for the former suburb Lutzenhof, Łyczaków – has, aided by Lvivite urban folklore, acquired an important place in Polish literature, poetry and culture in general, it occurs in many poems, literary texts, on the pages of novels – including those by contemporary writers, such as the famous author of noir crime thrillers Marek Krajewski. Krajewski often uses motifs from ancient mythology in his novels; these serve as special codes for the realities of Lviv which he recounts – mostly from the time between the World Wars. Thus, for example, one of his novels is titled Erinyes; these deities from Greek mythology personify vengeance as compensation for all injustice and, at the same time, the repentance with which the main hero of the novel, Commissioner Edward Popielski from Lviv, is struggling.

In the city, where the sirens are dying on a sunny spring day, I have been looking at the towers and roofs of the Old Town, I have stood in the park on the site of the former Austrian Governor’s Ramparts, next to the mediaeval Gunpowder Tower, by the gate on which stone lions, the symbols of the city, sleep, and I have been thinking about many things: about the extraordinary history of this city, about its magnificent architecture, about the Renaissance poetry of Szymon Szymonovic – a writer, poet and humanist from the 16th century, who was born in Lviv and who created a new genre of poetry, called the bucolic literature; about the Latin, the Greek Catholic and the Armenian Cathedrals, about Orthodox churches and once numerous synagogues, which have left their mark on the image of the city; about the University, founded in 1661, whose seat is now located, in a similar way as in Ljubljana, at the former palace of the regional parliament and in front of which stands the monument to Ivan Franko, who gave the University its current name. What we see here is an uncanny mixture of Greek and Latin traditions, which created a unique symbiosis and formed the cultural identity of the city. I am also thinking about Slovenia, which is both far away and near and is supposed to have been, as Joseph Roth wrote in his famous novel Radetzky March – an ode to the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, which at that time had already been disintegrated – »the South Slavic sister of Galicia«.

When the sirens fall silent, you can forget about the war for a few moments and devote yourself to your thoughts. For example, you remember the story of Odysseus, who tied himself to the mast and sealed his sailors’ ears so they could not hear the voice of the Sirens – the mythological figures, half women, half birds, whose song brought ruin upon seafarers – and could thus not be enticed to sail against the surrounding rocks. The sirens that we hear today in Lviv, warning us about a potential Russian missile strike, will fall silent some day, the stormy sea of war will be calmed, but I fear that the Erinyes, woken up by an invading state that had devoted so much energy to convincing everybody – including in Slovenia – of the supposed cultural greatness of its nation, shall be talking for a long time about the war crimes of Putin’s regime and his followers, and about the immense human misery they have caused.

Lviv, Przemyśl, 27th March 2022

This text has originally been published in Razpotja. Translated from the Slovene by Aljaž Glaser.

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[1] This curtain, especially produced for Lviv Theatre in 1900 by the painter Henryk Siemiradzki, measures 12 x 9 metres.