Report from Ukraine: Life goes on and spirits remain high — Putin wasn't counting on that

Lviv is flooded with refugees and Russian attacks continue — but Ukrainians understand their place in history

By Brian Karem


Published March 22, 2022 2:08PM (EDT)

Ukrainian displaced civilians wait in the train station as they flee from the war in Lviv, Ukraine on March 15, 2022. Since the start of Russian military operations in Ukraine on February 24th, more than 2.6 million civilians have been displaced into neighboring countries. (Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Ukrainian displaced civilians wait in the train station as they flee from the war in Lviv, Ukraine on March 15, 2022. Since the start of Russian military operations in Ukraine on February 24th, more than 2.6 million civilians have been displaced into neighboring countries. (Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

LVIV, Ukraine — Yesterday I met a three-year-old boy named Benjamin. He smiled a lot and liked to play peekaboo. His grin was infectious. He also worried about airplanes dropping bombs on him while he played.

His family hails from Barkhumut, a region of Ukraine that has effectively been at war with Russia for eight years. He's never lived in a world without war.

Benjamin sat on a chair at the New Hope Mission, in Lviv with his mother and grandmother, just happy to be away from the war. His mother, grandmother and father sighed a lot. The worried looks on their faces only changed when they watched Benjamin play and smile.

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After nearly a month on the run, with nowhere to stay and little hope for food, his parents found the mission near Lviv's city center. Their home, they say, no longer exists. Some of their friends and family are missing and presumed dead, or worse. "The Russians take them, maybe," Benjamin's mother said. "We don't know. We don't know."

As we spoke, his mother took a breath and rifled through their belongings. Everything they owned was in a suitcase and several heavy-duty plastic garbage bags, the kind  usually used for lawn refuse.

"We thank God for life," she said, with no hint of irony.

Benjamin's family joins millions fleeing the ravages of a war that has shattered lives in Ukraine. "It's not supposed to be like this," said one woman, getting off a train in Lviv from the besieged port city of Mariupol. "These were supposed to be our neighbors. Our friends." The woman, who said she was in her mid-50s, still had the stains of smoke on her clothes. She fled, she said, in the middle of the night after watching Russian artillery destroy her home. She has no idea where her family is. She had no idea where she would go, and little money with which to do it. "I go away. I go away," she explained, still seemingly in shock days after leaving the carnage.

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Mariupol appears to be key to Putin's war designs, much as Bastogne was to the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Its capture would enable Putin to link up separate plots of conquered land and cobble together a contiguous state. Residents fleeing the area describe a hellish existence over the last two weeks in which the Russian army, unable to conquer the city and unable to convince its leaders and defenders to surrender, seemed determined to reduce the entire city to rubble. Residents there say on that point, the Russians have been most successful.

Romaz, his wife Maria, their 8-year-old daughter Valera and their 12-year-old son Rostik say they spent five days in a communal bomb shelter in Mariupol. Their apartment was across the street from a theater in the city that was clearly marked in extremely large letters: "Children," in Russian. The sign was visible in satellite photos. Romaz watched Russians destroy his home, floor by floor, reducing the building to "outside walls, nothing more," he said. He and his family watched Russians indiscriminately bomb the theater, killing an unknown number of children. Later, when an elderly man died in the bomb shelter, he helped others go outside and bury the man in his own front yard. "To be outside at any time was to be ready to die," Romaz said.

After five days, Romaz, with his wife, children, a nervous puppy and a handful of belongings, made their way to a Jewish relief mission in Lviv. They have no friends and no family in the region. Romaz had a co-worker who now lives in Germany. "We go there to figure out our lives," he said. He was last seen leaving with his family on a bus for Germany, with thoughts of relocating to Israel. He was dazed and silent.

In a news conference early on Tuesday morning, Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko, the former professional boxer who held multiple heavyweight championships, spelled out the potential consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. "They exterminate women, children and life," he said. "Who's next? We must unite. We need your help. We are defending each and every European citizen."

The news conference, held by the Ministry for Communities and Territories Development and entitled "Local Governments Unite for Welfare and Peace," featured dozens of local Ukrainian leaders, many of whom boiled their comments down to asking for humanitarian aide while denouncing the Russian invasion as "a plague which will spread across the world" if nothing is done. "Please help," Klitschko said. "We are dying because we hold European democratic values to heart. They want to destroy us for that." Mayors across Europe responded by video conference, offering empathy and assurances that they would help "our European brothers and sisters in Ukraine."

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Russia continues to try and destroy the Ukrainian morale and will to fight. The tales of Russian atrocities are ubiquitous among those displaced by Putin's chosen war.

Those reported atrocities are not limited to civilians fleeing the war zone. Intelligence cables obtained by reporters told of hit squads targeting Westerners and people who look like Westerners. Hospital workers in Mariupol reportedly snuck reporters out the back of a hospital dressed as doctors after Russian soldiers stormed the facility looking for the "fucking journalists."

The Russians are also targeting Western aid workers and private NGO contractors helping to extract residents from the war-torn country. That is becoming a seemingly never-ending task as Putin's army has turned his private war into a personal vendetta — trying to burn the country to the ground because he knows he can never control it.

That fact has so far escaped Putin's understanding. He is used to bullying people into submission, and a country led by a former comedian, whose largest city is led by a former prizefighter, was apparently seen as nothing more than a bump in the road as Putin tries to re-establish the former Soviet empire. Ukraine, which is often fractured and argumentative among its own populace, was supposed to be a three-day excursion at most. Russian officers who knew the details of the mission into the country — and many did not — thought they would be hailed as conquering heroes, and told their soldiers as much.

But the plucky Ukrainians surprised Putin, and perhaps themselves, by collectively flipping the middle finger to the autocrat. In many ways Putin has accomplished something Ukrainian residents and politicians thought was nearly impossible prior to the invasion — a united, single-minded Ukraine.

To Western eyes, used to Putin's terse words of war and his bullying threats, the Ukrainians are the plucky underdogs we all love to support. The New Hope Mission in Lviv, which houses refugees, is more than just a happenstance reference to Star Wars. It is also indicative of how we see the struggle — the rebel alliance versus the evil galactic empire and Darth Vader.

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the world, "I need ammunition, I don't need a ride," in response to a U.S. offer of evacuation at the beginning of the war, he not only expressed the Ukrainian spirit,but rallied support from around the world. "Oh, this guy we have to save," one relief worker told me. Zelenskyy and the civic leaders in the country have lived under death threats since then.

U.S intelligence reports shared with humanitarian relief workers have included this warning, "Russian elements in and around Lviv will attempt to target western speakers/personnel in Lviv to disrupt aid and discredit Ukraine ability to provide security." That report came out Sunday. Relief workers began taking it seriously, but also said it showed that Putin's desperation had increased exponentially. "If he were winning this easily, then he wouldn't bother to do this," I was told. Still, Russia has a history of targeting civilian targets and spreading terror in conflict zones to destroy public morale.

Across Ukraine, the level of tension has increased due to reports of "Russian hit squads" targeting Western relief workers, reporters and local civic leaders. That tension has lead to paranoia in some cases: tighter control at government checkpoints and increased scrutiny of Russian-speakers. It has also served to increase the resolve of Ukrainian resistance.

The pluck demonstrated by Zelenskyy is seen everywhere. When Ukrainian farmers towed away abandoned Russian tanks, it became a meme. "Question: What's the best way to stop a Russian tank? Answer: Put it on a Ukrainian country road."

Ukrainian propaganda posters at bus stops, train stations, malls and in most public places depict a Ukrainian David telling a Russian Goliath: "Go fuck yourself."

A bus stop sign declares, in Ukrainian: "We are on your land. You will be in it." And most of us have already heard about the Ukrainian grandmother who told Russian soldiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets, so when they were buried in Ukraine new life would come.

A farmer outside Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv, told me, "I hear Americans have many guns. Please send them and we will kill many Russian bears."

*  *  *

The citizens of Ukraine live under the daily threat of violence. The threat of chemical warfare has increased. Fleeing residents in the east and south tell horrible tales of war crimes and atrocities unseen since World War II. Each day, air raid sirens warn residents across the country to evacuate to bomb shelters. After a month of sirens, the beleaguered people of Ukraine do so calmly and quietly — and some don't even bother. 

A street vendor in Lviv Monday shrugged off the latest air raid. "If bombs fall, I will go inside," he said. "Otherwise, would you like a coffee? I think some of this is to make us scared. I don't want to be scared."

Ukrainians are acting less afraid, and going about their daily lives in defiance of Putin's threats, though certainly not unmindful of war. The population of Lviv, for example, is estimated to have nearly doubled in the last month due to displaced residents from elsewhere making the city their temporary home. Sidewalks, restaurants, hotels and streets are packed, resembling a typical Manhattan afternoon. But the residents are leisurely, even friendly. Traffic conditions that would create road rage in the United States are dealt with through a wave and a smile in Lviv, even during wartime.

Ukrainians understand the stakes. "This is the biggest war since World War II and if you think this doesn't involve you, then you are wrong," Kyiv mayor Klitschko said Tuesday. They get it. But it is increasingly apparent that others outside Ukraine, including some in the U.S. and many more in Russia, do not.

In the end, Putin can't win. He's made a huge miscalculation which confounds some and angers others.

Is he that stupid? Did he have a mental breakdown? Is he just a Trump-style bully who was finally found out?

A nation that continues to fend Russia off while facing such atrocities, and keeps on making jokes about Putin's attempt to subjugate them, is not a nation to take lightly. Behind such stubborn pride is confidence and hope. And the more Putin pushes, the more sarcastic and demonstrative the Ukrainian resistance gets. For whatever reason, Putin almost literally walked into a trap. 

Sitting at lunch on the seventh floor of a hotel in Lviv this week, I saw the vast panorama of the city spread out before me. Putin might have the military might to level this country, but he cannot conquer it and could never occupy all of it.

The best he can hope for is a stalemate. If Walter Cronkite were reporting on this war, it would be easy to imagine him saying that some sort of negotiated peace will have to occur. Putin cannot pacify the population, and he cannot win.

But Putin is stubborn. So far that has only led to more dead bodies — and more tanks lost to Ukrainian farmers. The West's economic sanctions will destroy the Russian economy, throwing that nation back into the same desperate state it was in at the end of World War I.

The Ukrainian military remains formidable, and with assistance from the rest of the world may yet prevail — or, at worst, grind Putin to a stalemate, while sarcastic old Ukrainian women offer Russians sunflower seeds and shout daily insults at Moscow's strongman.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has given that nation a cause for unity, thus raising its profile among European nations while showing the world how to stand up to a bully. That's ultimately a sign of hope: Children like Benjamin, who've been born of war, may eventually know peace.

Read more on the Ukraine war and its consequences:

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Reporting Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelenskyy War