I enjoyed hustle and bustle of Lviv, now it’s torn apart by war

Trevor Laffan wonders how a friend of his in Ukraine is holding up as war continues
I enjoyed hustle and bustle of Lviv, now it’s torn apart by war

UNDER ATTACK: A cloud of smoke rises after an explosion in Lviv, western Ukraine, as Russians attempt to advance on the city.

WHEN I first spoke to John Dolan, the Features Editor with The Echo, about writing this column, his only instruction to me was to keep the content light.

He said people starting back to work after their weekend didn’t want to be digging into anything too heavy on a Monday. That suited me just fine.

That was six years ago, and I have tried to adhere to that brief as much as possible, but sometimes it can be difficult.

I’m struggling to be light-hearted at the moment while a friend of mine is in Ukraine, fighting for his country’s survival. 

I had been wondering about him since the war started, but I didn’t know where he was exactly, until he sent me an email and told me he was in Kyiv.

Since then, the deliberate destruction of Ukraine, and the growing number of dead and injured, has become more personal to me.

I haven’t been able to communicate with my friend for over a week now, and I have no way of knowing how he is, so all I can do for the moment is hope for the best.

Sergii Mishchyk was a Captain in the Ukrainian Army when I first met him in 2014. He was based in Camp General Stefanik (CGS), a military HQ in Famagusta on the northern part of Cyprus.

Sergii was working as a Duty Officer with the United Nations, with responsibility for maintaining the integrity of the Buffer Zone, the strip of no-man’s-land that divides the island and separates the Turkish Cypriots in the north from the Greek Cypriots in the south. Keeping the peace essentially.

I was based in Dherynia, on the other side of the Buffer Zone, but after a couple of months, I took a position in that same base, CGS.

I had no idea what to expect. My job was to liaise with the military and foster good relations with Turkish Cypriot Police and Greek Cypriot Police. All I had to do was attend meetings, talk to everyone and be friendly. Nothing too complicated.

I shared a small office with three duty officers. While I worked from 7am to 3pm, they worked in shifts to cover the 24-hour period so there was always one of them present.

The three were Lieutenant Colonel Juri Stipic, from Croatia, Captain Edina Bagi, from Hungary, who now lives with her family in Cork and has recently become an Irish citizen, and Captain Sergii Mishchyk from Ukraine. He has since been promoted and is now a colonel.

One of my memories of Sergii is how he was always trying to improve his English, constantly asking about the correct use of words and phrases. 

He regularly apologised for not speaking properly and often got frustrated with his pronunciation. He sounded funny at times, and he would get annoyed if I laughed, but his English was better than he thought.

He was good at his job too. They all were. Whether they were on or off duty, they were always close by and ready to lend a hand or offer advice if needed. We worked well together and became friends.

Sergii wasn’t the only Ukrainian working with the UN at that time in Cyprus. There were several police officers too. In fact, the head of the police component on the island, my boss, was also from Ukraine.

It’s difficult not to be concerned for all these people now. Ukraine is a beautiful country. I’ve been there and have seen for it for myself. I’ve experienced the hospitality of the people, the same people who are suffering.

I’ve been to Belarus and western Russia many times too and there is a difference. The atmosphere in those regions feels more intimidating, more oppressive, but while officialdom is far from welcoming, I have never received anything but hospitality from the ordinary residents of Belarus and Russia, even those who didn’t have much.

This war will not be supported by those citizens, who are decent, hospitable and generous people.

What is happening in Ukraine is nothing short of criminal, but the responsibility for that lies squarely at the feet of Putin, Lukashenko and their respective henchmen, not the ordinary people. It’s important to make that distinction.

The Ukrainian people are suffering loss of life, destruction of their property, and mental torture. They will have to recover from that when this nightmare is over, but they have shown how tough they are. They are decent and honest too, so they will prevail.

Back in the noughties, I travelled to Lviv with Simon Walsh on behalf of The Chernobyl Children’s Trust. We went there at the request of Olga Shevchenko, a Ukrainian now living in Cork.

Olga’s mother is a doctor in Lviv and the hospital she was attached to needed medical support, so we went to see if we could help.

We met our contacts in the city centre, in the outdoor area of a local café beside a busy street. A couple of hours later, while we were strolling around, admiring the sights, we realised we had left a knapsack on a seat outside the café. There was a considerable amount of cash in the bag, so we took off in a panic.

We needn’t have bothered, because when we got there, the bag was exactly where we left it.

Lviv is a university city, full of young people, and it feels modern and civilised. We stayed in a hotel in the city centre overlooking a huge square surrounded by late night bars, cafes, restaurants and ice cream parlours, so we were expecting a noisy night.

The only sound we heard though was the occasional tooting of car horns as taxi drivers greeted each other.

Unfortunately, the air is filled with a different noise now, but hopefully peace will be restored again soon.

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