There’s No Escaping WarWherever You Are in Ukraine
Far away from the front line, Chris York reports from Western Ukraine where residents fear both the march of Vladimir Putin, nuclear war and winter
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Nestled in the rolling and forested hills that mark the beginnings of the Carpathian mountains in western Ukraine, the spa resort town of Skhidnytsa and its 38 natural springs and 17 wells are about as far from the front lines as it’s possible to be without leaving the war-torn country.
Those signing up for the full healing water experience invite a strict schedule of which springs to drink from at which time. An almost infinite combination of prescriptions are said to be able to treat a range of maladies including low mood, hepatitis, anaemia and diabetes. Springs number 3 and 15 are even said to be able to rid the body of radiation.
It’s believed the waters only retain their healing properties for two hours after making their way out of the earth so timing is important. Long queues entertained by busking violinists follow each other by foot across the hillsides and through the forest paths to each of the springs.
A red electric golf buggy ferries those who have paid enough to stay at one of the area’s most exclusive resorts, in stark contrast to the horse and buggies still used by the area’s less well-off residents.
The mineral water-based health trade has been the main draw to Skhidnytsa for decades. Yuri Andropov, leader of the Soviet Union from 1982-84, was such a fan he would have the water flown in by helicopter to Moscow on a daily basis.
Yet despite the front lines of Russia’s invasion being hundreds of miles away, the war’s effects still ravage the people who live here. Factories owned by European companies dot the region and were a major source of employment for the area but since the outbreak of war, many remain closed.
“We have to sell things from our own homes,” says 67-year-old Alya. She stands next to a wooden table alongside the path to one of the springs from which she sells the handful of apples and berries taken from her garden, and a selection of cutlery she’s deemed she can do without.
“The factories and plants aren’t working anymore, everything is closed and there’s no industry at the moment.”
Her thoughts are echoed by 33-year-old Andrei who mans a more permanent store on the same path selling pickled fruits and vegetables and a range of traditional medical interventions including one that involves a suppository made with beaver urine.
“Of course, we’re worried about finances,” he says. “People won’t have as much work as before so they won’t have as much income.
He pauses and reaches for a positive in the situation: “But now people think more about life, health and people nearby and their families.”
While the financial toll is of great concern, there are effects of the war that weigh far heavier even out here, not least the vast numbers of mostly women and children who left Ukraine to flee Russia’s invasion.
“My daughter had to leave for Canada,” says Alia. “She’s a doctor by education so she’s trying to get established over there.”
She pauses and looks down at the ground. A sad smile forms on her face, followed by a stream of tears: “It’s war. Of course it’s difficult but we have to cope with that.”
A half-hour drive from Skhidnytsa is the larger town of Truskavets, one that also boasts a number of mineral springs and, when Byline Times visited in late September, a relatively bustling tourist trade.
Current mobilisation laws mean men aged 18-60 are not allowed to leave the country meaning Ukrainian families looking for a holiday destination face limited choices.
But distance and geography do little to calm the minds of Ukrainians and it’s clear when speaking to tourists in Truskavets that even if they were on a beach on the other side of the world, the strain of being part of a population under invasion would be just as strong.
“It’s difficult to properly relax, we’re following the news all the time,” says Vasyl, on holiday with his wife Tatiana, eight-year-old son Sasha and his mother.
“We live very close to the Belarusian border so of course we’re constantly thinking about the situation there because our family is there.”
Just up from where the family sits near the entrance to the town’s main park is a memorial to those from the town who have died fighting against Russia.
Over the course of September and October, the sources of concern for Ukrainians have evolved both with the seasons and the actions of Vladimir Putin.
The first of these was inevitable as the war drags on into its first full winter. “We got prepared and we have different options,” says Vasyl.
“We have a cottage outside of the city and we’ve stocked up on wood for heating. We do not know if it will be easier in the city or in the countryside, it depends if there will be gas and electricity and whether the situation will be stable, whether we’ll have stable electricity, whether the metro will run or if other infrastructure will be bombed.”
The second has been far less predictable and the Kremlin’s threats of nuclear weapons, while terrifying, are dragging up survival instincts and knowledge gleaned from Ukraine’s not-to-distant past.
“My parents and older people in general still remember how to survive in the event of a radiation leak,” says 25-year-old Iryna in Lviv, the main city in the region. “The disaster at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant taught them this. Since people in Ukraine have survived this tragedy, this means that we will cope with other threats as well.”
How seriously the nuclear threat is being taken depends on who you speak to. Iryna says she plans to buy “fabrics and a lot of tape to cover all the gaps in the windows and doors. Raincoats, a long-term supply of food and water, iodine and other necessary medicines”, but others are less concerned.
Leonid Golberg, a 66-year-old member of the Jewish Board in the town of Drohobych just south of Lviv, says he feels “no particular fear” as he doesn’t fully believe Russia’s military would follow the Kremlin’s orders.
“There is no doubt about Putin’s inadequacy and mental illness,” he says. “But it is difficult to say whether it will actually happen.
“First of all, controlling the so-called ‘red button’ is a difficult thing, even a scumbag can’t do it alone.”
This week’s bombings of cities across Ukraine have reminded people that conventional missiles are still the more immediate threat and that preparing for blackouts caused by Russia’s deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure needs to be a priority.
“We relaxed a little in Lviv, and those events forced us to wake up and prepare better,” says Iryna.