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A city transformed by war

On the night before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a musician was singing on a cobblestone street in the heart of Lviv’s old town, the glow from heat lamps casting a soft light on a yellow stone house.

Until the war, it was the home of Wild House, part exhibition space, part barbershop, part TikTok studio, and a gathering spot for artists and digital nomads. Now, it is a boardinghouse for people fleeing Russia’s assault.

It started informally, with word of its existence spreading in rushed phone calls and frenzied text messages. As the war expanded, so did word of Wild House, now part of an elaborate volunteer network dealing with a never ending stream of need.

Nadiya Opryshko, 29, an aspiring journalist turned humanitarian, is the driving force behind its transformation.

“The military of Russia, they are fighting for nothing,” she said. “They did not know and cannot understand what they are fighting for.

“Ukrainian people, we know what we are fighting for,” she continued. “We are fighting for peace. We are fighting for our country. And we are fighting for freedom.”

Her story, and that of Wild House, in many ways mirror the broader transformation that her city and her nation have undergone in only a few weeks of war.

The signs of change are visible everywhere, at once strange but also oddly familiar, former rituals playing out in a radically altered context.

A family stands on a corner with their suitcases near a French cafe, as the voice of Edith Piaf wafts in the background. But they are not tourists. In their suitcases are lifetimes condensed, whatever time and space would allow as they ran.

Two people share coffee at Black Honey. Not old friends, but a soldier of fortune and an Australian journalist. The hotels are all full, but the travelers are not tourists drawn to the city’s magnificent architecture, but relief workers, diplomats, journalists, spies and an assortment of other people whose pursuits are harder to divine.

And, always, there are the air raid sirens, wailing reminders of the destruction raining on cities across the country that, with the horrific strike last week on a military base just outside of town and another attack Friday near the airport, are drawing ever closer to the city itself.

But every day that Ukrainian forces around the capital, Kyiv, and other cities fight off the Russian onslaught is another day for Lviv to harden its defenses. Artwork is now stowed in bunkers. Four limestone statues in Rynok Square, meant as an allegory for the Earth, are now wrapped in foam and plastic, turning Neptune into a silhouette with only his trident identifiable. The stained-glass windows of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded in 1360, are covered in metal to protect them from Russian rockets.

The majority of the 3 million people who have fled Ukraine have passed through Lviv’s train and bus stations. And for millions more internally displaced people, Lviv is the gateway to safety, however fleeting, in the west. The city is overstuffed with people and emotion. Energy and despair. Anger and determination.

The morning after the first air raid siren sounded before dawn Feb. 24, however, there was mostly uncertainty. People emerged bleary eyed and unsure, lining up at bank machines and stores, rushing to collect valuables and making plans to wait out the storm.

Most of the shops closed, taxis stopped working and seemingly everyone went on Telegram to watch videos — some real, some fake — of Russian fighter jets roaring over cities and Russian missiles crashing into buildings.

The hotels emptied as people rushed to join loved ones in Ukraine and outside the country.

“They are afraid for their families, afraid for their friends,” Denys Derchachev, 36, a doorman at the Citadel Inn, said on the first morning of the war.

Christina Kornienko was in line to collect her valuables from a safe deposit box. But even in the shock of the moment, she had an idea of what would happen next.

“The women will go to Poland and the men will fight,” she said.

She was right. Shock quickly turned to anger, which fueled a remarkable sense of solidarity.

Less than a month ago, Arsan, 35, was the owner of a local coffee shop. He was about to go to the gym when his wife told him the country was at war. Four days later, he was learning how to make firebombs and spot the fluorescent markers placed by Russian saboteurs on buildings to direct missile strikes.

“We can learn to shoot because we don’t know how this situation will develop,” he said. He said he was scared of what “crazy people may do,” particularly President Vladimir Putin of Russia, with his talk about nuclear weapons, but Arsan was confident in the army.

“The Ukrainian army is doing a great job,” he said. “They are super people.”

A month ago, Arsan’s confidence could easily have been dismissed as bravado. Few military analysts gave the Ukrainian army much of a chance against what was assumed to be the Russian army’s superior firepower and professionalism. But with each passing day — as Ukrainian forces defend Kyiv, hang on with grim determination in Mariupol and mount a spirited campaign to keep Russian forces from advancing on Odesa — the nation’s belief in itself appears to deepen.

Periodically, the Ukrainian military makes expansive claims, impossible to verify, about its achievements on the battlefield. This month, for example, it said that since the start of the war, its forces had killed 13,500 Russian soldiers and destroyed 404 tanks, 81 planes, 95 helicopters and more than 1,200 armored personnel carriers.

These numbers, that Western analysts say are almost certainly inflated, are cited by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his daily talks to the nation — once, twice, sometimes three or four times a day, as he channels the nation’s anger and tries to lift its spirits.

It is a routine he has managed to keep up for weeks, often bringing Ukrainians to tears while inspiring a resistance born of baristas, computer programmers, accountants and lawyers.

But an army, as Napoleon once said, moves on its stomach, even a civilian one. And the effort to supply the nation’s ever growing cadre of citizen-warriors, like so many aspects of the nation’s defense, started with volunteers.

Hundreds of them assemble daily at the Lviv Palace of Arts, fighting the war by packing jars of pickled preserves, mountains of donated clothes, gallons of water and trash bags stuffed with toiletries.

“We began immediately after the bombardment started,” said Yuri Viznyak, the artistic director of the center, who now finds himself leading a critical hub in the war effort. And with Russians increasingly targeting civilians, much of his work is now devoted to getting relief to people in dire need.

But as soldiers, weapons and humanitarian aid move from Lviv to the eastern front, a tide of humanity continues to move in the other direction. With each day, the stories they carry to Lviv grow more dire.

Matukhno Vitaliy, 23, is from the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine and the city of Lysychansk, near the Russian border. It took him two days and nights to reach Lviv in a crowded evacuation train.

He said his parents were still in the city, with no running water because all the pipes had been destroyed. It had 100,000 inhabitants before the war, but there is no telling how many have fled and how many have died.

“Everything is destroyed,” he said.

Mariupol. Kharkiv. Chernihiv. Sumy. Okhtyrka. Hostomel. Irpin. The list of Ukrainian cities turned to ruins keeps growing. While the Russian advance may have slowed, the destruction has not.

Any illusions people in Lviv might have had that their city might be spared have long faded. So grandmothers join grandchildren stringing fabric together to make camouflage nets. Villagers on the outskirts of the city dig trenches and erect barricades. Movie streaming sites feature videos on how to make firebombs.

Yet, in contrast to the first days of the war, the city is humming with life. Stores have reopened and street musicians are performing. Alcohol is banned, but bars are full. A 7 p.m. curfew means finding a table for the compressed dinner hours is a challenge.

But the posters around town that once advertised local businesses have been replaced by war propaganda. Many take aim at Putin, focusing on a crude remark he made about Zelenskyy.

“Like it or not, beauty, you have to put up with it,” Putin said, using an expression that rhymes in Russian. Ukrainians believe he was making a reference to rape — a prelude to what they say is the rape of a nation.

One of the most popular posters features a woman looming over Putin. Jabbing a gun into his mouth, she says, “I am not your beauty.”