The Carpathian Mountains provide refuge for Ukrainians fleeing war

“As soon as we entered the mountains, we felt safe,” said Miroslava Patsyadi, a young mother and school librarian from the heavily bombed town of Bila Tserkva, south of Kyiv. “It’s something unconscious. My daughter can sleep again. Here, we saw that life would go on.

Unlike the millions who have fled to cities in western Ukraine, where the nights are still interrupted by hours of air raid sirens, and the crushing of new people is a constant reminder of the destruction ruthlessness they left behind, those who fled to the Carpathians described a more genuine sense of being protected.

“Since the start of the war, I slept with my shoes and jacket on because we might need to run at any moment,” said Hanna Melnyk, 69, who fled from town to town before arriving here. “Last night I was wearing pajamas. I never thought that putting on pajamas would make me cry with happiness.

Six hundred new arrivals are now sleeping soundly in the village of Kryvorivnya, which normally has a population of around 1,300.

At daybreak, the locals fished for trout in the Cheremosh River. Shaggy horses pulled wooden carts. Ice cubes were dripping in the sun. Bells announcing Mass rang out in a 360-year-old church.

The Carpathians have hidden and sheltered people for centuries. Jews fleeing pogroms. Ukrainians fleeing Stalin’s Red Army. The locals here are descended from those previous waves.

“Every morning, our neighbor brings us boiled milk. These are the kind of people who live here,” said Volodymyr Hramov, 60, Melnyk’s brother-in-law.

The placid environment is almost irreconcilable with the hell Hramov went through to get here.

Last week, at a Russian military post west of kyiv, he said he saw soldiers spray bullets at a car carrying a family from his building. He said two children had been shot and their mother had been killed. Further afield, in Ukrainian-held territory, he said corpses of soldiers lay unburied along the road.

Fighter planes passed low above our heads. Projectiles hissed. Buildings burned down.

“We drove up to the mountains with our eyes closed halfway,” he said.

Most people who arrive in the hills have left everything behind. Those who cannot pay stay and eat for free. They participate by contributing to the local war effort – sewing 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 house in Bila Tserkva. Now they use a motion sensor camera app on their phones to monitor whenever a shell hits nearby and the house shakes. One day it will be destroyed, she thinks. It gives him the motivation to make that extra molotov cocktail.

Even if the hills are a refuge, no one claims that there is no war. The whole region is on high alert. The civil administration has been transformed into a military administration, and Vasyl Brovchuk, once the highest official here, now wears fatigues.

“People who come here have seen horrible things,” he said in his office, now reinforced with piles of sandbags. “We have people staying in schools, lodges, private homes, government buildings. We hope they can get some respite.

Respite last Saturday was teapot and chocolate cake for 80-year-old Viktoria Hlazova, well known on the Kyiv film 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 movie. Instead, she said she had found God. Ivan Rybaruk, the village priest, baptized her. She chose her driver as godfather, even though he is much younger.

However, life in kyiv had become more difficult before the war. Old age and sickness demanded friends. She suffered a stroke, which made it difficult to walk and speak. Then Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, and Russian speakers like her were put to shame.

She was about to complete her 29th film – a documentary about a psychologist working in eastern Ukraine – last month. But together with the inhabitants of 56 of the 60 apartments in her building in kyiv, she fled to the station.

It took several days – she couldn’t remember how long – but she arrived in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, where her godfather was waiting for her.

“He hasn’t forgotten me,” she said, choking. “That’s where I found faith and that’s where I come to seek God’s protection.”

She may never go home – she knows that. But at least she’s still in Ukraine.

This also consoled Hramov, for although he had fled, he had not deserted his country.

At 60, he barely exceeds the threshold of conscription. But he was once an army man, and he comes from a long line of rebels against Russian imperialism.

Both his father and grandfather spent decades in Soviet gulags and prisons as so-called enemies of the state. He is proud of Ukraine’s independence, which is why he knows how to wield a Kalashnikov to defend it.

If necessary, 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 won’t leave – I can’t leave,” he said. “They can say that I am no longer capable. I’m capable. I have lived in wealth and I will live in poverty. I have experienced peace and I will experience war. Life will not stop.

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