On a sunny day in Lviv, western Ukraine, a Ukrainian flag floats over the entrance to a German-Ukrainian school. Ivan Lozenko, the principal, welcomes us with a beaming smile.
We had expected to film the life of pupils at school in times of war, but, instead, the school is — at first sight at least — empty and quiet. Lozenko explains: "When the war started, the children were on their winter break. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we were already using digital learning platforms so now that 43% of our pupils live abroad, we switched to distance learning altogether”.
Since the beginning of the war, almost 5.5 million people have fled Ukraine and a staggering 7.7 million are now internally displaced. Among those, are many men who are not allowed to leave the country in case they should be called upon to fight.
Lozenko was determined that his school, deprived of pupils for the time being, would serve another purpose: sheltering some of the hundreds of thousands of people coming from the worst affected areas of Ukraine to relatively peaceful Lviv.
A place to rest
"Our government asked all of us to help in any way we can," he said. "Here, we might not have much to offer but it's at least something. We can provide a place to sleep, some food, basic sanitary needs for people most in need.”
Working with parents, teachers and volunteers, Lozenko has managed to host about 200 people since the end of February.
Through a maze of school corridors, Lozenko guides us towards the two main halls of the building. In what used to be the school's sports hall, dozens of mattresses are stacked next to one another. A soft light shines through lines of clothes drying on a volleyball net, watched over by a portrait of revered nationalist poet Taras Shevchenko. Plastic bags with a few personal effects in them indicate which space is currently occupied.
A few men quietly eat their breakfast. Among them, Oleksandr, a middle-aged man who fled from , Ukraine's second largest city now being continuously shelled by the Russian army.
"I came alone, but my family stayed near Kharkiv," he told DW. "We live in the northern part, closer to Russia, and it has been bombed every day since the beginning of the war. Nearly everyone in the neighborhood left town. I would like to join the Ukrainian armed forces but I need to pass a medical check first. After that, I don't know, I don't have a military specialization so I will probably have to train for a few months."
Like Oleksandr, Volodymyr, in his 80s, had to flee his home of Demydiv, on Kyiv's outskirts. When the Russian troops approached, Demydiv's citizens and armed forces blew up bridges and opened the floodgates of the city's dam, deliberately flooding the entire area to delay the Russian army.
Volodymyr, who has suffered a stroke that left him partially incapacitated, took few belongings with him. He also carried a note he would show to anyone he met on his escape route, asking for help for his evacuation and explaining that, due to his stroke, he couldn't talk properly anymore.
He made it out of Demydiv alone, but not unscathed. As the Russians were already circling his village, he recalls: "I just walked by the dam, on a road that had been blown up by our forces. We all had a 50-50 chance to make it out, dead or alive."
"At the first Russian checkpoint, I was let through without any problem," he said. "But, at the second one, I was stopped by Russian soldiers and they asked me what I was bringing with me. I only had my mobile phone, which they took away. There were other elderly people there, and some younger ones, too. We came to a blown-up bridge, which we managed to cross, and a bus was waiting for us there, with our soldiers who drove us to a station. From there, I was lucky enough to catch a train for Lviv."
Holding on to his plastic bag, Volodymyr, who was visibly weakened by the ordeal, still carries around the note that he showed to the soldiers. In Lviv, he has no prospects other than remaining on the school's premises and sleeping in makeshift dormitory.
Escape from Bucha
Lozenko apologized about the living conditions he offers to people such as Volodymyr. "I know this is not much but we hope to get some curtains between each bed soon, so our guests can have at least some privacy," he told DW.
Leading us to another floor, Lozenko was adamant we meet the school's special guest: Micki, the dog, accompanied by Mikhail and his son-in-law, Denys, who escaped from the now infamous village of Bucha, where Russian troops are reported to have carried out a series of war crimes. They fled together with their wives and a daughter, who are now living in safety in southern Germany.
Before anyone speaks, the dog's uncontrollable shaking gives away the ordeal she and her family have been through.
Denys recalls the fateful night that turned their lives upside down. "On the evening of February 28, the Russian soldiers knocked on my door, forcibly removed me from my flat. They came with rifles so there was nothing we could do," he said. "They searched me, destroyed my mobile phones and took away my laptops. Then they brought me to the nearby church and told me not to come out until sunrise. They set up their military positions and their artillery through the night. I was alone with two Ukrainian service men, also arrested."
"In the morning, we left the church," Denys said. "With some friends, we were delivering food and water to the armed forces under shelling. What you saw on TV about Bucha is only a small part of what happened," he added. "Everything was destroyed, all of our infrastructure. There were dead bodies of civilians were everywhere, but also lots of bodies of Russian soldiers."
Upon arriving in Lviv, Denys and Mikhail began helping other displaced people however they could. Like every other person who managed to escape, they count themselves lucky to be alive, even if they have lost everything. But, also like every other displaced Ukrainian, the men remain in limbo, living in this disused school and not knowing when, or even if, they will be able to return home.
Edited by: Cathrin Schaer