Andriy Sadovyi is a man under pressure. The mayor of Lviv, the cultural capital of western Ukraine, is managing a city bursting at the seams.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its third week, and Lviv struggles to cope with 200,000 internally displaced people who have fled here from other parts of this war-torn country – with tens of thousands more arriving every day – Mr. Sadovyi wonders where the international community is.
“We are in need of you here,” he said, addressing organizations such as the World Food Programme and the International Organization for Migration, which are not yet fully mobilized in Ukraine despite the fact the invasion had been loudly predicted by Western governments since late last year. “Our refugees are in need of you here. We need mobile facilities, makeshift facilities, for refugees. Food products, water, medications. Immediately. Today. Not tomorrow.”
In peacetime, Lviv was one of Ukraine’s most popular tourist destinations. Its elegant UNESCO-recognized old city reflects its history on the edge of different empires – Polish, Austro-Hungarian and Soviet. It also had a seedier side, with nightclubs and “show bars” that drew sex tourists from across Western Europe and the Middle East.
Today, the city, normally home to 700,000 people, is a hub for evacuees. Thousands of people were camped outside the main train station as evening fell Wednesday, warming themselves around fires of burning cardboard, waiting their turns to board westbound trains to Poland, which has received the bulk of the 2.2 million people who have left Ukraine. A young man sat at a piano outside the main entrance, playing What a Wonderful World.
The city’s main soccer stadium is now a reception centre for the thousands who arrive each day looking for a place to stay in a city where hotel booking services and Airbnb both show no vacancies. The nightclubs have been closed since the war began and martial law was imposed across Ukraine, a regime that includes banning the sale of alcohol.
While Lviv remains the best-supplied city in the country, and one of the few major cities with a functioning banking system, grocery store shelves are increasingly bare here, too.
Mr. Sadovyi said that during prewar planning, the city had expected to receive 100,000 people if Russia attacked – maybe 200,000 at most. He now believes Lviv may end up hosting double that worst-case scenario. And it can’t do it alone.
“You cannot even imagine how many resources we have already expended. Some of our volunteers, Lviv residents, they are on the cusp of emotional collapse,” he said, adding that the city was so far surviving solely on its annual municipal budget (less than US$500-million), plus the generosity of its residents. “Not a single international organization has introduced full-fledged operations here in Lviv. The ones that should be working here now were not prepared for” the war.
Mr. Sadovyi, who has been mayor since 2006, said planning by international aid organizations and Western governments alike had been influenced by expectations that Russia would conquer Ukraine in a matter of days.
He included Canada – which moved its embassy from Kyiv to Lviv on Feb. 12, then transferred all remaining staff to Poland the day the war began – in his criticisms. “Intelligence services, including Canadian ones, were sure that the war would be very short and Ukraine would be taken within days. If they see that we continue fighting, maybe they will be back. I have faith in this. Because there will be even more resistance on our part.”
He said that while Lviv had so far been spared direct attacks – while Russia focuses its efforts on capturing cities such as Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol – the situation could change at any moment. Air raid sirens are already a common occurrence in Lviv, which has one of the last intact airports in the country.
At the soccer stadium, hundreds of new arrivals milled about Wednesday, waiting to be assigned places to sleep somewhere in the city or the surrounding region.
Vadym Lykhoborov, a 42-year-old online salesman, said he’s been sleeping on the floor of an elementary school in Lviv since sending his pregnant wife and 12-year-old daughter to Poland last week (draft-age males are not allowed to leave Ukraine). The Kyiv native returns to the soccer stadium every day to access the internet. “It’s a good place to work. They have good WiFi here. And it’s warm. It’s freezing at the school,” Mr. Lykhoborov said.
“Our town cannot take such a big amount of people. They need to eat and they need to move – I have never seen so many cars in this city,” said Ivanka Horus, a member of the regional council who these days co-ordinates the soccer stadium refuge. “I don’t know how many more we can take, but I know the city has told every school, every kindergarten, that they have to make space for people to live.”
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