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Molotov Cocktails And Refugees: West Of The Worst Horrors Of War, Ukraine's Lviv Has A Home-Front Feel

The Differ fitness gym has been transformed into a shelter for families fleeing Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (Photo: Mark Raczkiewycz)
The Differ fitness gym has been transformed into a shelter for families fleeing Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (Photo: Mark Raczkiewycz)

LVIV, Ukraine -- On the top floor of a sleek business center in the western city of Lviv, a spacious fitness gym that opened 10 months ago has been converted into a shelter for families fleeing Russia's war against Ukraine, where most of the death and devastation lies further east.

Most of those on the run westward -- mainly from the capital, Kyiv, and from hard-hit Kharkiv, the second largest city -- stay for a day or two before moving onward to neighboring European Union countries, said Lilia Yunko, the gym's owner.

"But I have some who've been here since I converted the place into a shelter on the second day of the invasion," she said, referring to February 25.

Differ fitness center owner Lilia Yunko converted the gym into a shelter the day after Russia attacked.
Differ fitness center owner Lilia Yunko converted the gym into a shelter the day after Russia attacked.

On March 3, about 60 displaced people were sheltering at the gym, where they get three meals a day and have access to personal hygiene products and WiFi. There are activities and toys for children and teens.

It's one of the ways that the government and private citizens in Lviv, a city of nearly 1 million that lies 70 kilometers from the border of NATO-member Poland and has so far has been largely unscathed amid Russia's multipronged attack, have been contributing to the war effort.

It's not that the war seems far away: On the first day of the invasion, Russia struck military installations near the city's airport with long-range missiles. A curfew is in place, as is a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages, and air-raid sirens blare daily, prompting people to take refuge in bomb shelters.

And Lviv is clearly a potential target. On March 3, after French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin, an aide to Macron said that Putin appeared intent on seizing "the whole" of Ukraine, which is roughly the size of France.

But given the city's relative safety so far from the intense Russian bombardments and fighting further east, it has seen an influx of "thousands of residents from other parts of the country," the mayor's office said on Telegram on February 28.

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On March 3, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said that 1 million people had fled Ukraine in seven days, "uprooted by this senseless war." Lviv has set up several coordination centers to help displaced people find shelter, food, and educational activities for their children -- school has been suspended since late February, including remote learning.

In a post on Telegram, Mayor Andriy Sadoviy said the city was doing everything it could to accommodate the "forced internally displaced people," and he specified that "we accept women, children, and people of a frail age."

"We urge conscripted men accompanying their families to return to your settlement of origin and protect your own land," he added. Shortly after the invasion began, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy ordered a general mobilization of men up to age 60.

Across town from the gym, there's been a different kind of repurposing at Pravda Beer Theater, a craft brewery that has devoted its production capacity to making Molotov cocktails -- handheld incendiary devices often made with glass bottles.

The brewery and pub, a popular tourist destination, stopped selling anything with alcohol content on February 28, a day before the citywide prohibition. "We did it because we need people with clear, sober minds right now and drinking alcohol doesn't help with that," said Taras Maselko, public relations manager at Pravda Beer Theater.

Some of the more than 2,000 Molotov cocktails the brewery made as of March 1 were shipped to areas where there is fighting, Maselko said, and the rest were distributed to territorial defense units -- regional forces recruited as the Russian threat mounted before the invasion -- in the Lviv region.

Molotov cocktails produced by the Pravda Beer Theater (photo: Pravda Beer Theater)
Molotov cocktails produced by the Pravda Beer Theater (photo: Pravda Beer Theater)

Other businesses in Lviv have also turned their attention to the war effort.

Maria Bardyn's company, Honey House, normally makes chocolates and candy from honey but is now making energy bars for soldiers, with help from volunteers. "God, you people are incredible!" she wrote on Twitter, thanking volunteers and donors who have contributed equipment and ingredients.

Some in Lviv are using their job skills to target Russia. Mykola, who described himself as an IT specialist, says he is part of an "informal tech community" that is directing distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks at the websites of Russian government agencies and state-owned companies like Sberbank. Mykola did not want his last name published due to the nature of his activities.

Fearing that Russia's war could move westward, he said he had sent his pregnant wife and their two sons to live with relatives in Slovakia, which borders Ukraine south of Lviv. "Nothing is off the table," he said of what Russia's next moves might be.

Mykola is also involved in support for displaced people: He is part of a network focused on finding living space for fleeing Ukrainians, and takes in refugees who to stay with him for one or two nights before heading further westward.

Back at the business center, the lobby is now being used to store cases of bottled water, diapers, dry goods, baby carriages, strollers, and other items being donated by nearby residents. Some of it gets distributed to internally displaced people in the city, gym owner Yunko said, while some is shipped to besieged cities like Odesa, a port city on the Black Sea more than 600 kilometers southeast of Lviv.

"Yesterday, we loaded a 20-ton truck headed for Odesa," she said.

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    Mark Raczkiewycz

    Mark Raczkiewycz is a Ukraine-based journalist. A former RFE/RL news editor in Washington, he is the Kyiv correspondent for the New Jersey-based Ukrainian Weekly newspaper. He also contributes to the English-language Kyiv Post and has reported for Bloomberg, the Financial Times, the Associated Press, the Irish Times, The New York Times, and other publications. 

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