Under police escort, complete with sirens waving, six trucks thunder through western Ukraine. The humanitarian convoy is on the wide two-lane M10 road from the border with Poland on its way to Lviv, a journey of eighty kilometers. Not much later, the trucks are followed by white vans with red crosses. Their oncoming vehicles are similar white vans. It contains refugees on their way to a safe place outside Ukraine. Behind the windshield is written on paper: ‘children’. This is to prevent the vans from being shot at during the journey through the war zone.
Roads like this between Lviv and EU member state Poland are the lifeblood of Ukraine in the war with Russia. Medicines, diapers, food, army equipment and weapons are imported from the European Union via such strategic routes. Western Ukraine is the country’s pantry from which the items are further transported. Trucks coming from Poland drive briskly into Ukraine.
This region was deemed relatively safe until Saturday. Russia hardly carried out attacks here. That is precisely why refugees moved here to possibly leave Ukraine via the M10, for example. But on Saturday, Russian rockets landed for the first time within the city limits of Lviv, including on a fuel storage facility. The explosion, followed by black smoke and blazing fire, took away the sense of security. Instead of strolling in the center of the city as usual, the residents phoned and texted each other anxiously on Saturday afternoon and evening to ask if everything was okay.
Lviv plays a central role in Ukraine’s supply, emphasizes Melanie Podoljak (27). She is in a shed on the edge of town. Relief supplies from the EU arrive here, are stored and sent to the war zone. The shed is full of toothpaste, sleeping bags, yoga mats, hand cream, rollators, ballet dresses and even a black riding helmet. “It is so important that you have a large city close to the border that functions as a hub.”
Together with her friend Tony Prokopenko (32) she coordinates the work in the warehouse. Prokopenko is loading a truck with goods. Podoljak cannot imagine what Ukraine would have to do without the supply routes for aid supplies and military equipment. “If they are closed, nothing will come in. Roads like the M10 are like blood vessels going to the organs.”
In Javoriv, located along the M10, the dull thumps of military training are heard on Sunday morning. It is the morning after the missile attack on Lviv. Soldiers and neatly dressed residents walk on the street. Irina Vengerak (39) comes from a church service. She has painted all her nails pink, with a yellow and blue heart on both her middle and ring fingers, the national colors of Ukraine.
Vengerak calls the attack on Lviv a message from Russian President Vladimir Putin to his American colleague Joe Biden, who was about to give a speech in Warsaw at the time. Several Ukrainians are convinced that Moscow was out to intimidate and provoke the US president.
She suspects that Moscow is not happy with the supply over the M10. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that all shipments of weapons to Ukraine would be considered “legitimate targets”. Vengerak realizes that this also applies to transports on the M10. This is where the weapons come in for military exercises, she says. Near Javoriv is a military training ground that was attacked by Russian forces this month. At least 35 people were killed.
An aggressor who is after power knows no boundaries
Irina Vengerak resident Javoriv
Vengerak does not even rule out Russia attacking Poland to stop the supply. “An aggressor after power and land knows no boundaries.”
Villages along the M10 such as Javoriv have become small fortresses. On the exits to it are barricades of piled up sandbags and concrete blocks.
There are also sandbags on both sides at the entrance of the monastery of priest Ivan Koltoen (45). The monastery is located in the village of Stradch, on a side track of the M10, between Javoriv and Lviv. It has been hosting refugees since the beginning of the war.
Koltoen’s face reddens from the exertion as he quickly takes a tour of the pantry, where useful goods are stored such as toilet paper, tissues and boxes full of shower gel. He collects these things himself in Poland. Due to the mobilization, Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country, but Koltoen has a safe-conduct. “They know that a priest does not leave his monastery.”
At the beginning of the war, he says, the refugees stayed for a few days before continuing their journey to the European Union. The monastery is an ideal resting point along the M10. Now the refugees are staying longer. They believe the war is ending. “That gives them something to hold on to not to leave the country.”
For Koltoen, the M10 was always a normal road. But now, he realizes, it is a route of strategic importance to Ukraine through the supply of relief supplies and supplies for the armed forces. “The road is the door to Ukraine. We really need a door like that. Ukraine has two arms. One that fights and one that supports.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of March 28, 2022
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