Young Ukrainians put life plans on hold to help nation at war

Volunteers in Lviv support displaced people and sign up to defend cities from Russian troops

In normal times, which Ukrainians already miss so much, Lviv draws well over a million tourists each year to its cobbled streets and quiet squares, medieval and baroque churches, and coffee shops brimming with life behind fading pastel facades.

Lviv is Unesco-listed and endlessly photogenic, but now its centuries-old statues are being wrapped up to prevent any Russian bomb turning them to shrapnel, and someone strolling through the old town taking pictures can arouse the suspicion of wary locals.

“We are students in normal life. But now we see that our city and country need our help, so we decided to help the police with street patrols,” explains Yuriy Kuzyk.

“I’m a student and a tutor of maths and English. We were volunteering, helping to prepare food for people [displaced by Russia’s invasion] and then we saw an advert for street patrols and joined up,” adds his friend Dmytro Prokopiv.


“We thought that if we can do something then we must. This isn’t the time to be sitting on the couch watching cartoons,” says Marian Kyrychenko, another student and part-time teacher.

"This isn't hard – it's much harder to shoot," he adds, thinking of his compatriots fighting for towns and cities in eastern, southern and central Ukraine where the Russian invasion has already killed more than 2,000 civilians and displaced one million people.

The three students are polite and friendly as a policeman checks the passport of a man they had spotted taking pictures around the old town. When he is cleared of suspicion, they agree to pose for their own photograph in front of what locals calls the Latin Cathedral, which was founded in the 14th century.

“Just not with the city hall behind us,” says Kyrychenko, “or any other buildings where security is important now.”


When Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of troops, tanks, missile systems and warplanes into Ukraine last week, the pro-western country of 41 million immediately mobilised in defence.

Men between the ages of 18 and 60 are now barred from leaving Ukraine and can be called up to its army, while tens of thousands of men and women have joined territorial defence units, and countless other civilians are trying to help any way they can.

Lviv, just 70km from the Polish border, is the main transit hub for Ukrainians fleeing to the European Union, and their presence and the now frequent wail of air-raid sirens are making this city of 700,000 people brace for what they fear is the inevitable arrival of war.

The active role of young Ukrainians is striking, just as it was eight years ago during the country’s Maidan revolution and its response to Russia’s subsequent invasion of Crimea and the start of war in the eastern Donbas region, where armed volunteers held the line against Russian fighters and local separatists led and supplied by Moscow.

“My dad took supplies to Kramatorsk [a Donbas city] back then. He talked about one guy who only had a tracksuit and trainers, a second World War helmet and a Kalashnikov,” says Yevhen Horovoi, who fled Kyiv when Russian missiles first struck the outskirts of the city last Thursday.

“The volunteers were like an army then, when Ukraine’s soldiers had hardly equipment,” adds Seryozha Koshelyev, who is from Kramatorsk.

“We’re going to stay here and help,” says Horovoi. “And if have to, we will fight. And we’ll really give it to them.”

Sense of unity

Vlad, a young man from the southeastern city of Kryvyi Rih – the mostly Russian-speaking hometown of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy – is now a co-ordinator for volunteers in a central district of Lviv.

“What is amazing is that lots of displaced people who have just arrived in Lviv immediately want to do something to help others. The sense of unity is really strong.”

This solidarity is one of many things that Ukrainians think Putin cannot grasp about their country: he portrayed the Maidan revolution as a western-backed fascist coup and now claims to be liberating Ukraine from “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis” who are supposedly using civilians as “human shields” – even as people sign up in droves to fight his invasion force and go unarmed into their streets to block Russian tanks and troops.

Marko Basarab (24) speaks fluent English and studied in Italy, Germany, Romania, France and Britain before returning to Kyiv to work towards a PhD in biomedical science.

Last week he left the capital for Lviv, his parents’ hometown, in a car with them, his younger brother and their dogs, and now he spends his days helping displaced people and his nights guarding a local administration building with other territorial defence volunteers.

“When I was smaller my mum told me it was a good idea to study outside the country and get experience and then come back and do something serious here, and maybe help people,” he says.

Around him, volunteers help displaced people fill in a brief registration form before showing them into the council building, where they can rest, have a hot meal and drinks, and then be taken to one of the many school halls, gyms and other sites around Lviv that now serve as dormitories for Ukrainians uprooted by Putin’s war.

“After the invasion started, we gathered lots of young activists and decided to set up centres around the city where we could help people. We took the decision in a couple of hours,” says Victoria Krevets (17), another co-ordinator of young volunteers in Lviv.

“We also have volunteers driving to and from the train station, 24 hours a day, every day, to take people to centres like this and to places they can stay for longer.”


As new arrivals get a meal and some respite in the main chamber of the district council, the floor below is filling up with boxes of food, medical supplies, hygiene products, blankets and other donations for distribution to parts of Ukraine affected by fighting.

“Our volunteer drivers are mainly going to Kyiv and Kharkiv,” says Basarab, cities that are respectively a 550km and 1,000km drive from Lviv in normal circumstances.

“They have to be careful because in some places it’s pretty ‘hot’ now.”

The centre is also collecting supplies and sourcing equipment for the army and territorial defence force – but not weapons or ammunition.

"It's almost impossible to get a flak jacket here now, for example. So friends in Germany and Poland are helping us find things like that, and also medicines that are hard to get here," explains Basarab.

Buses leave from the council building to take displaced people to Poland, and cars arrive bringing local men who want to serve in the territorial defence.

Basarab is scheduled to guard the building from 2am until 6am, but he will not have a weapon.

“So many people are signing up that there is not enough equipment,” he says.

“Just in this one district, something like 300 people are coming here every day to volunteer to patrol the area. The spirit is pretty massive.”

Putin's military has already faced fierce resistance and suffered heavy losses in eastern and southern Ukraine, where many people speak Russian as their first language and ties to Russia were strong and friendly before the Maidan revolution and its aftermath.

Lviv and western Ukraine, by contrast, have always been the bastion of Ukrainian identity, language and culture, and the heart of the nation’s centuries-long struggle to carve out an independent state from the empires of Russia and other powers.

Basarab could be working or studying anywhere in the world, but he says he will fight if Putin’s invasion force attacks Lviv.

“We are ready,” he says. “People here have been ready since the beginning of time to fight the Russians.”