A letter from Split, Croatia
It’s 10 am in Narodni trg. In saner circumstances I’d appreciate the majestic setting of Split’s Old Town with a little more enthusiasm and appreciation. Locals and tourists sip espressos, smoke cigarettes, and casually socialize in mid morning sunshine. I’m a stone’s throw from the Adriatic Sea, where a spectacular view of Mount Mosor sits in the distance. Admiring my idyllic peaceful surroundings doesn’t feel appropriate though.
I arrived to Croatia last Tuesday: in what was then day six of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. An estimated one million war-fleeing migrants have left in interim— in what’s shaping up to be the most chaotic refugee crisis Europe has witnessed this century.
I fled Lviv, in western Ukraine, the day the war broke out, on Thursday February 24. Crossing the Ukrainian border, by train, from Przemyśl, Poland, I moved south to Split— via Kraków, Budapest, and Zagreb. My journey has been stress free. Others haven’t been so lucky. Close friends have shared horror stories about chaotic border crossings taking up to 36 hours. For most, Lviv was the last major Ukrainian city they crossed, as they said goodbye to a land they love.
I moved to Lviv two and a half years ago, trying to finish a novel. Often referred to as Ukraine’s cultural capital, it was once an important regional outpost of the Habsburg empire. The city has always been culturally closer to Vienna than Moscow. But since the 2014 Maidan Revolution, Lviv has become visibly pro-European, as Ukraine looks west, and attempts to turn away from its Soviet/Russian past.
During my time in Ukraine I’ve befriended many Lviv locals. In Split I’m sharing a flat with one of them. Nastya was born in Lviv in 1991: the year Ukraine gained its independence, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her father is back in Lviv. He has military training and chose to remain in the city to fight with Ukrainian reservists to defend his country. At the time of writing, Russian forces have yet to attack Lviv. But the possibility of a full scale aerial bombing, with civilian casualties, remains a real threat.
“False aerial bomb siren alarms have been going off at least two or three times a day in Lviv,” Karl Gallagher tells me, via a WhatsApp telephone call. “I feel like it’s going to go off sometime for real, if bombing actually starts, and people might not react when that happens.”
I met the Belfast native at an expat social meet up in Lviv a couple of years ago. Two weeks ago, Gallagher was faced with the option of fleeing Lviv, as the drums of war starting beating. “When I made a trip to the Polish border last week, and saw all the refugees leaving, I decided to stay in Lviv,” he explains. “It’s home for me now, so I felt I should stay and help out.”
Gallagher operates a business exporting Ukrainian furniture to the UK. He’s using his expertise in logistics to try and get humanitarian aid across the border, from Poland into Ukraine. Bureaucracy and security issues mean it isn’t easy though. Gallagher claims those left behind in Ukraine are being forgotten. “The refugees who have fled are the lucky ones, because they’ve got out, and they’re being cared for now in the EU,” he says. “But here in Ukraine, we have millions of displaced people who need help.”
“Children, for instance, are coming into Lviv on a daily basis to sleep in school halls on mattresses,” he adds. Gallagher describes the mood in western Ukraine as “calm and resilient.”
“The roads in every direction out of Lviv are barricaded with men and petrol bombs,” Gallagher explains. “If the Russians are expecting an easy time here, they’re mistaken, because western Ukraine is ready for them.”
Sofia shares Gallagher’s optimism. We first made contact last year, in Kyiv, via an online book selling network. She describes a huge wave of patriotism that is currently lifting people’s spirits, in spite of the chaos and the causalities Ukraine has suffered since February 24.
“We are optimistic here in Lviv, because the city is relatively safe right now,” she says.
Sofia spent the first night of the war in a Kyiv metro station, taking shelter underground, as Russian forces pounded the capital with rockets. She fled to Lviv the next day with her boyfriend.
The journey took two days. She is worried for her parents. They remain in Kyiv. She has close family in Kharkiv too, where over 34 civilians have been killed and 285 injured, according to the Ukrainian State Emergency Service. They claim total civilian casualties across Ukraine since Russia attacked now stands at 2000. That figure is likely to be much higher by the time you read this.
“I’m hearing stories of people in the Kherson region who are blocked in their basement for several days without food, or water,” Sofia says. “I also hear about people who have gone missing too.”
“Let’s hope the conflict is over sooner rather than later,” I say, as we conclude our Facebook audio call.
“I had the same hope eight years ago,” Sofia replies. She was then living in the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine. Over the last eight-years a conflict has been raging there between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian military. On February 21, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, announced that he was recognising the independence of two breakaway regions in the Donbas: the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. It was a precursor for the full scale war Putin launched across Ukraine three days later.
“When I left Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, for Kyiv, eight years ago, I thought I would be returning in two weeks,” Sofia explains. “Eight years later the war is still awful and I’ve had to move to Lviv, from Kyiv, to escape further conflict.”
“It’s terrible what is happening in Kyiv,” Miroslav explains, in an emotional phone call. “It’s similar to what my grandmother told when I was kid, about the time when Hitler bombed Kyiv in 1941.”
I’ve had regular contact with the Kyiv native over the last two years, renting accommodation from him in various locations, on the numerous occasions I have visited the capital.
Today, his voice is shaking as he describes the stressful journey he made with his family last Thursday, dodging bullets and artillery fire, fleeing from Kyiv. He is now hiding out in a small house in the countryside, 30 kilometres outside the capital. But he had to make a life threatening journey back into the city a couple of days later, to pick up insulin for his daughter, who is a diabetic.
“Every day all I can hear is the sound of rockets and tanks,” Miroslav tells me. “I communicate with people in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol too— and they tell me about the terrible things the Russians do.”
“The Russian government is saying: we only hit military targets,” he says. “But it’s total bullshit. “I have a brother in Kharkiv and rockets fall down in house where ordinary civilian people live. There are no military personnel living in these places.”
“I want all the world to know that Putin is a fu**ing fascist,” he concludes. “So many people are scared, yes, but in Ukraine we believe that we will win this war, because Ukrainians, we are very peaceful people, and we never attacked any country.”
Watching the war from afar like this feels surreal and strange. There’s now a scary realisation of the chaos that will inevitably follow. More deaths. More refugees. More burning buildings, bullets and bombs. And more war crimes: as Russian forces continue to hit civilian infrastructure, such as schools, shops, hospitals, apartment blocks and churches in various villages, towns and cities across Ukraine. I’ve visited many of these places over the last two and a half years. It’s heartbreaking watching them being reduced to rubble. Here in Split I’m just about to go on an anti-war protest in the city centre, organized by Ukrainian exiles. I’ve had a few days to reflect on my journey. I remember that initial sense of relief crossing the border to Poland 10 days ago. It didn’t last long. Like the rest of Europe and the wider world, I look on with horror, as Ukraine burns.