As refugees flee, a city mobilises for war

Anna holds back her tears as she describes how she left her home in the middle of the night with just a few hastily packed suitcases.

Russian forces were within 40km (25 miles) of the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia and had begun shelling the area.

The 35-year-old leans forward in her chair as she explains: “There were so many explosions, it sounded like it was New Year.”

When intense shelling caused a fire to break out at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – on March 4, Anna’s husband and brother persuaded her to leave the city.

“People were staying in Zaporizhzhia till the last moment,” she says, fiddling with the cord of her hoodie, “but fighting around the nuclear power plant meant it was too dangerous.”

Anna was surprised to discover that trains were still leaving the city, but the station’s platform was packed as hundreds of families attempted to flee. Anna managed to squeeze aboard an overnight train with her mother, mother-in-law and eight-year-old daughter, Zlata. The journey was long, uncomfortable and crowded.

Her husband remained behind to fight the invading forces. She begins to describe the moment she said goodbye to him but stops. The room falls silent. Anna flicks her wrist, indicating that this is a reality still too new – and too raw – to talk about.

A day later, on the afternoon of March 5, they reached the relative safety of Lviv, a city in western Ukraine that has found itself at the crossroads of the country’s refugee exodus.

They have been put up in a spacious room provided by the Jesuit Refugee Service, one of the many humanitarian organisations operating in Lviv these days.

As Anna recalls their journey, her mother, Tatiana, who is sitting on the bottom of a bunk bed, begins to cry. Zlata, who has been resting her head on Tatiana’s shoulder, reaches out and places her palms on her grandmother’s cheeks before whispering something to comfort her.

The four have been wrenched from the security of their home and still appear to be in a state of shock: the atmosphere in the room oscillates between lighthearted laughter and moments of raw anguish and tears.

Anna had enjoyed her job as an electrical engineer, and Zlata, who is confident and composed, had excelled at school, harbouring dreams of becoming an IT programmer. Now, they face an uncertain future, but they plan to stay in the country’s west. “We feel safe here, we don’t want to leave Ukraine,” says Anna resolutely.

The city of Lviv, Ukraine’s sixth largest, had been considered relatively safe compared to other major cities such as Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol which have seen weeks of bombardments and heavy fighting. But on Sunday, a series of missile attacks targeted Ukraine’s Center for International Peacekeeping and Security, located 40km (25 miles) northwest of Lviv, threatening to break the city’s tenuous sense of calm. According to Lviv regional governor Maksym Kozytskyy, 35 people died and 134 were wounded in the attack.

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