Lviv is a city increasingly defined by its refugees.
Every day, huge numbers of people come in and go out.
Found in Ukraine’s west, Lviv has a train line to Poland and roads to quiet towns a long way from bustle and fighting. It is, in short, the place to head for when you want to escape.
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But Lviv isn’t just a product of today’s war, but a city moulded by endless days of conflict over the course of more than 1,000 years. It has been conquered, invaded, sieged and sold.
And, in parts, it is beautiful, with grand architecture and wide streets. On one of them stands a cultural gem of the city – the Les Kurbas Theatre.
Except now, the stage is home to camp beds. The theatre has been turned into a home for displaced Ukrainians who are fleeing fighting in Kyiv, Kharkiv and beyond.
The scenery in the basement has been pushed to one side so it can be used as a bomb shelter. The stalls have gone; now there is food, drink, warmth and safety. Blessed, wonderful safety.
Natalia Rybka-Parhomenko normally acts and sings here. Now, she volunteers – helping to organise, manage and settle.
She said: “We thought about how we could be useful in such an alarming time and decided to make a refugee shelter, because we understood that there would be a great need for people to leave, especially from the east, because it is especially difficult there.
“There is a demand, the theatre works as a hostel now. We joke that this is a five-star hotel, because we have a bomb shelter here and people don’t have to go outside the theatre – just go down.
“We dress people and they have a place to rest and eat.”
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Among those sleeping in the theatre is Zhanna Chupis, who has travelled here from Kharkiv. She had spent six nights sleeping in a metro station, hearing the thumps of explosions.
She is, by her own admission, exhausted and anxious. When we first meet, and I ask how she is, she holds out a hand and wobbles it from side to side.
I ask her one simple question, about her journey to this shelter, and she talks for 10 minutes, with only occasional breaks to shed a tear.
Zhanna Chupis had spent six nights sleeping in a metro station, hearing the thumps of explosions
“Everyone has their own story – someone in the basement, someone at home, someone in the metro station – we were in the metro station. We were in the metro station for six days.
“We had sleepless nights, it was very uncomfortable, very cold. But it was our conscious choice, because it’s safe there.
“But there you can see the people in stress. Colossal stress, tension. You try to hide it somehow, not to succumb to hysteria, panic, you try to be an adult.
“The children there – they perceive everything. Did the children really deserve such a future? To return to the destroyed Kharkiv, or wherever they will go? All this – it hurts a lot.”
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Her eyes watered, and she cried.
There are times as a journalist when you feel intrusive. This wasn’t one of those because the fraught, shattered words came as an outpouring of relief.
It was, said Zhanna, the first time she had talked about her experiences, and she was pleased to have heard her own voice.
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Across Ukraine, this tension is being bottled up, replaced by stoicism and perseverance. But nobody can live with this level of stress for too long.
The theatre is packed with bags of clothes, donated by the locals. The kindness of strangers is a theme, but so is the relentless appetite of war.
As we left, they were readying beds for new arrivals from Kharkiv.
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