There is almost no place in Ukraine that feels truly safe.
Not underground bunkers. Not cities distant from daily bombardment. Certainly not military bases. Not even a relative’s house.
About the only place of true peace and refuge in this country these days is the one nature built – the high hills of the eastern Carpathians, thick with strands of silver fir dusted with fresh snow, dotted with villages now ballooning in size as tens of thousands flee here.
“As soon as we entered the mountains we felt safe,” says Miroslava Patsyadi, a young mother and school librarian from the heavily shelled city of Bila Tserkva, south of Kyiv. “It’s a subconscious thing. My daughter can sleep again. Here, we saw that life will go on.”
Unlike the millions who have fled to western Ukrainian cities, where nights are still interrupted by hours of air raid sirens, and where the crush of new people is a constant reminder of the merciless destruction they left behind, those who have fled to the Carpathians described a more genuine sense of being protected.
“Since the war began, I slept with my shoes and jacket on because we might need to run at any moment,” says Hanna Melnyk, who fled from city to city before making it here. “Last night, I wore pajamas. I never thought putting on pajamas would make me cry with happiness.”
Six hundred newcomers now sleep soundly in the village of Kryvorivnya, which normally has about 1,300 residents.
As day broke, local people caught trout in the Cheremosh River. Shaggy horses pulled wooden carts. Icicles dripped in the sun. Bells announcing Mass rang out from a 360-year-old church.
The Carpathians have hidden and sheltered people for centuries. Jews fleeing pogroms. Ukrainians fleeing Stalin’s Red Army. Locals here are descended from those previous waves.
“Every morning, our neighbor has brought us boiled milk. Those are the kind of people who live here,” says Volodymyr Hramov, Melnyk’s brother-in-law.
The placid surrounding is almost irreconcilable with the hell Hramov passed through to get here.
At a Russian military post on the western edge of Kyiv last week, he said he witnessed soldiers spraying bullets into a car carrying a family from his apartment building. He said that two children were shot and injured, and that their mother was killed. Further along, in Ukrainian-controlled territory, he said corpses of soldiers lay unburied along the side of the road.
Fighter jets swooped low overhead. Projectiles whizzed. Buildings smouldered.
“We drove to the mountains with our eyes closed half the way,” he says.
Most people arriving in the hills have left everything behind. Those who can’t pay stay and eat free. They pitch in by contributing to the local war effort – stitching camouflage netting for checkpoints, making Molotov cocktails, boiling pots of potato dumplings to send to the front line.
Patsyadi and her husband had just bought a new home in Bila Tserkva. Now they use a motion-sensor camera app on their phones to watch whenever a shell hits nearby and the house shakes. One day it will be destroyed, she thinks. It gives her motivation to make that extra molotov cocktail.
Even if the hills are a refuge, no one pretends there isn’t a war. The whole region is on high alert. The civilian administration has been converted into a military one, and Vasyl Brovchuk, formerly the top bureaucrat here, now wears fatigues.
“The people who come here have seen horrific things,” he says in his office, now reinforced with stacks of sandbags. “We have people staying in schools, lodges, private homes, government buildings. We hope they can get some respite.”
Respite last Saturday was a pot of tea and chocolate cake for Viktoria Hlazova, well-known in Kyiv’s cinema scene as the producer of 28 films spanning Ukraine’s Soviet and independent eras.
She had first come to Kryvorivyna years ago to shoot a film. Instead, she said she found God. Ivan Rybaruk, the village’s priest, baptized her. She chose her driver for her as her godfather for her, even though he is much younger.
Life in Kyiv had become harder before the war, though. Old age and illnesses claimed friends. She suffered a stroke, which made walking and talking difficult. Then Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, and Russian speakers like her felt ashamed.
She was close to wrapping up her 29th film – a documentary about a psychologist working in eastern Ukraine – last month. But along with the residents of 56 out of the 60 apartments in her building de ella in Kyiv, she fled to the railway station.
It took many days – she couldn’t remember how many – but she made it to the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, where her godfather was waiting for her.
“He didn’t forget about me,” she says, choking up. “This is where I found faith and it is where I’ve come now to seek God’s protection.”
She may never go home – she knows that. But at least she is still in Ukraine.
It gave Hramov solace, too, that while he had fled, he hadn’t deserted his country.
At 60, he’s just over the threshold for conscription. But he was once an army man, and he comes from a long line of rebels against Russian imperialism.
His father and grandfather both spent decades in Soviet gulags and prisons as so-called enemies of the state. He is proud of Ukrainian independence – it’s why he knows how to handle a Kalashnikov rifle to defend it.
If and when the time comes, he will leave Melnyk, his sister-in-law, in the mountains with the women and children of their families and return to the front.
“I will not leave – I cannot leave,” he said. “They may say I am not able anymore. I’m able. I’ve lived through wealth, and I will live through poverty. I’ve lived through peace, and I will live through war. Life will not stop.”
© The Washington Post
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.