This is a tale of two cities on the periphery of the war, both transformed by the worsening conflict: Przemysl on the Polish border, and Lviv, the main city in western Ukraine.
Overnight, Przemysl became the anteroom of the war. Like Peshawar for Kabul, Nicosia for Beirut, Split for Sarajevo and Amman for Baghdad. Such places are theatres of misery, with an undercurrent of adrenalin and murky doings. Suddenly, rundown, sleepy Przemysl is flooded with refugees, journalists and beefy Americans with short haircuts and tattoed arms in civilian clothing, like the one who volunteered his flak jacket but refused to give his name, where he was from or whether he was with US special forces.
Poland’s generosity to fleeing Ukrainian women and children has been impressive. It contrasts sharply with the country’s previous refusal to accept non-white, non-Christian migrants, a hostility so total that the EU reprimanded Poland’s nationalist government.
Last week, gangs of Polish football hooligans harassed African and Asian students who had fled Ukraine. A Facebook page filled with photographs of dark-skinned refugees with texts saying, “We do not feel safe in our own city.” Police dispersed the hooligans and volunteers began transferring non-Ukrainian refugees immediately onwards.
Lviv is only 114km from Przemysl but it feels much farther east, and closer to the war. Between the two cities, the alphabet changes from Latin to Cyrillic writing. It is eerie to arrive at night in the midst of a blackout. Before the war, Lviv, with its graceful Polish and Austro-Hungarian architecture, was a trendy weekend destination for budget airlines. Everything closes at 8pm now.
Air raid sirens are infrequent and the cafes are still full, but the conflict is omnipresent. All alcohol sales are banned for the duration of the war, because the government thinks this is not a good time for people to get drunk. A beggar woman hawking religious postcards approaches us in a restaurant, then asks our first names so she can pray for our safety. Queues form in front of cash machines and gun shops.
Inhabitants of the city are on the lookout for Russian agents. An edgy man from the territorial defence force demands to see our passports when we enter a shop. A refugee from eastern Ukraine called Petro Semikin popped into a church. When he came out, he found that the territorial defence had let the air out of his tyres and called the police. They found the van's Donetsk licence plates suspicious.
Lviv’s sense of patriotism and solidarity is written on its cafe windows. One cafe posts a rolling list of the government’s official estimates of Russian losses, with little diagrams showing soldiers killed (11,000), fighter aircraft downed (44), helicopters destroyed (48), crippled tanks (285) and armoured vehicles (985).
“Today for defenders of Ukraine we are cooking free doner kebabs. Glory to Ukraine,” says the sign in the Kebab House. The Cat Café, where you can stroke a moggy while sipping cappuccino, offers a 20 per cent discount for servicemen. Another estaminet promises to donate 100 per cent of profits to the army.
A particularly long notice in yet another establishment is addressed “to everyone who has arrived in Lviv cultural capital of Ukraine to save your own life and the future of your children”. The six rules it lays down include not panicking during air raid sirens. “Men who have brought your families here, they are waiting for you at the military sign-up office/territorial defence (the sooner the better)” is rule number two. The last rule exhorts new arrivals: “Do not forget to thank everyone who does things for you and because of you.”
There is a whiff of doughnuts and incense in the damp, cold streets of Lviv’s old city on Sunday morning. Strains of choir music waft over a loudspeaker outside the 18th-century Greek Catholic garrison church of St Peter and St Paul, which is filled to overflowing. Stepan Sus, the Greek Catholic bishop of Kyiv who was forced to flee the bombardments, can be heard over the loudspeaker: “Pray for our soldiers as you would pray for your own children.”
The church has been dedicated to the military since before the war started in eastern Ukraine eight years ago. Cardboard boxes for the frontlines are stacked in the back. Shell casings lie at the foot of a wooden cross which was the only thing to survive a bombardment in Luhansk. Photographs of soldiers from Lviv who died in Donbas, and their orphaned children, hang nearby.
Bishop Sus talks to us after Mass. Ukrainians are ready to forgive, he says, “to not keep that evil in our hearts . . . because we want to be human beings after this war. This war is beginning in the heart of one person [Putin] who is spreading this evil around and wants to use it like poison.”
One and a half million people have now fled Ukraine, the bishop says. The west of the country could soon be attacked, “because they want to wipe out all human ideas from Ukraine”.
Sus thanks the Irish people for their willingness to receive Ukrainian migrants. "We have the same feeling in our soul as Irish people: we like singing, being happy. I've been to Ireland many times and I know we share a lot. We are both ready to fight with a smile and a song. We thank Irish people for standing with us."