One Night in Lviv (Makes a Hard Man Humble)

March 28, 2022

Yesterday (Sunday, March 27) started out like a fairly normal day here in southeastern Poland and ended in a bomb shelter in Lviv, Ukraine. I started the day, like I had the previous two, working on the safe house in Jaroslaw, Poland. I was planning on a day of manual labor, dressed in camo pants and a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt, digging a garden with some new volunteers from North Carolina. An older Ukrainian woman had told us to dig where the mole hills were because that ground was softer. Then Sally, our fearless leader, came out said, “Randy, if you want to go to Lviv, now is your chance.”

That day’s trip to Lviv, Ukraine had been postponed because the Russians bombed it the day before. But here things change on a dime and the window was open. Sally’s 19-year-old driver, Vitali, hadn’t made the trip yet and she wanted me along as assurance the supplies got to their destination in western Ukraine, most to be sent on to Kyiv. As I’ve written, I have an unhealthy attraction to chaos so without anything other than my work gloves and a light bomber jacket, I hopped in the van with Vitali and we made a b-line for the war zone.

Crossing the border into Ukraine is a bit of a logistical nightmare, with endless roadblocks. More powerful there is the stream of Ukrainian civilians, fleeing on foot, and walked into the EU by Polish soldiers, into a waiting array of social networks to begin their lives as refugees. Once through the final check, Vitali hit the gas and we sped eastward, the smoke from the oil depot the Russians had just bombed rising in the distance. A faster target was harder to hit, he reminded me, Russian hip hop blasting at full volume. Sandbags, anti-tank hedgehogs, Ukrainian national and red and black Ukrainian Insurgent Army flags, and billboards that read, “Слава Україні!” (Glory to Ukraine!) lined the route to Lviv. We were in.

We GPS’ed our asses to the heart of the city, where we were meeting contacts (where, I won’t say). All the supplies we had ferried into the city were quickly distributed, some into waiting cars, some stored to be carried eastward. The suitcase I had bought at a Portland Target, and all the medical supplies inside it, were marked for Kyiv, currently under siege. The plan was to unload everything and get back on the road for Poland before the 10 pm curfew, but the border crossing took longer than planned and, as the sun dipped down, we were stuck. And it was getting Russian winter cold. I was not dressed appropriately.

Our Ukrainian contacts, all in their twenties, invited us to stay in their shelter and have dinner. I was thrilled at the opportunity to break bread with these local heroes who were housing refugees from all over their country. I ate pasta, sausages, and tea cakes from a wedding that had just occurred upstairs. I talked religion, Polish film, and Kevlar vests with sanctuary seekers from Horenka, Irpin, and Donetsk. It was a beehive of energy, mothers with children, men who were prepared to be mobilized into the fight, and plenty coffee, tea, and bonhomie.

As it got late, it was time to turn in. The women (and their children) had one sleeping room and the men (and at least one kid) had another. Vitali, who had been sick, was already sound asleep when I dropped on to my pallet on the floor. The air raid sirens and then the sound of Russian jets had me thinking I might be closer to the chaos than I needed to be, but the strong coffee and a prolific snorer put my mind on other issues, like when would sleep rescue me from this bizarre scene.

This morning, after maybe an hour of dreamtime, I went for a walk around Lviv while Vitali waited for some important documents that had to be delivered by Poland. I was struck by how normal life appeared in a time of war. Workers painted guardrails and mothers pushed baby carriages like it was any other Monday morning. I grabbed a cappuccino from a kava stand and a phone charger at a computer shop. Lviv is a massive city so the odds of a Russian missile hitting the block you were standing on were slim. Not zero, but slim.

Back at the shelter we got word from Sally that there was a Lviv family that had found placement in a home west of Krakow and we were to extract them from the city. Saying goodbye to our hosts, we hopped in the van and found a mother and her three daughters more than ready to get out of the city that had, until that weekend, been safe from attack. Vitali, in Top Gun mode, and me as, sadly, the goofy dad, loaded them in, with the air raid sirens again wailing, and hit the road west out of Lviv. It felt like escaping death, like an Underground Railroad out of hell. On the way, the mother explained the red and black Ukrainian Insurgent Army flags. “It means blood and death,” she said in Ukrainian, “and the Russians hate it. That’s why we fly it.”

We brought the family to Zreszow where another driver waited carry them the rest of the way. They seemed a bit shell-shocked to be so quickly displaced into a new country. I wondered if the three girls would remember their flight out of Lviv (and the cookies we shared) in their later years, or if it would all just be one traumatic blur. It felt good to be back on the safe side of the line but I had to acknowledge the electric thrill of getting that close to the action. I started to see why war veterans dream of returning to the fight.

While this work is “satisfying,” it’s greatly guilt inducing. Guilt in never being able to do enough. Guilt from concern about playing the “white savior” role and “rescuing damsels in distress.” And guilt from getting off on the adrenaline rush of heading into danger. Am I here for the right reasons? I also feel guilty that I probably won’t be here long enough to figure it out. But I know this work is making a tangible difference. And I don’t feel guilty about that.

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