Far from the front lines, Ukrainians guard checkpoints and wait for the war to come

Bohdan Kulik, 62, built the outpost's stove. He is "the village Elon Musk," according to his friends. (Ryan Kellman/NPR)

Ryan Kellman / Ryan Kellman

On a road outside Lviv in western Ukraine, a half-dozen men, bundled up against the cold and wind, huddle around a rusted oil drum fashioned into a wood-burning stove. Smoke billows from a crooked pipe jutting from the top.

This, for now, is their war — guarding a checkpoint hundreds of miles from the battles raging to the east.

They’ve piled sandbags on top of concrete blocks. A blue and yellow Ukrainian flag tied to a stick flutters in the wind.

“This was our immediate response on the night of the bombing — to defend our village,” says one of the men, Oleh Pokrovetsky. “It came from an emotional need to feel defended.”

Checkpoints like this have sprung up on roads across Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion three weeks ago. The villagers guard this one in six-hour shifts, 24 hours a day. They aren’t armed, but they do have a wooden crate of pre-made Molotov cocktails.

Some of the men are in their 20s; others are in their 60s. The younger ones have registered with the Ukrainian military or the territorial defense forces. If called upon to head east to fight, they say they will.

Volodymyr Kovalyshyn, 37, used to manage a cigarette factory in Lviv, but fled with his wife and their 5-month-old son to a nearby village after the war began.

Like everyone here, he’s watched videos of the destruction Russia has wrought on cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol, where a maternity hospital was recently bombed.

“It’s very hard when I see on TV a little child died in Melitopol, Mariupol, in Kharkiv,” he says. “It’s very hard to see the death of a child.”

For now, his wife and son are safe in the village with his sister, who just arrived from the town of Bila Tserkva, which was recently hit by Russian forces. If the war escalates and the situation in Lviv deteriorates, Kovalyshyn says he’ll take his family to Poland — though he’ll return to Ukraine and be free to travel east to fight.

“But of course, after everybody leaves, one feels pretty lonely in the country,” he says.

The men have made a home of sorts at this checkpoint. There’s a big blue tent with a table inside strewn with loaves of brown bread, a tub of lard, dirty plates and packages of cookies.

Bohdan Kulik, 62, puts a kettle on to heat water for coffee and tea.

He’s a pensioner who fancies himself a bit of a handyman. He likes to invent things, and the checkpoint stove with its crooked smokestack is his creation. He’s tinkered with it over time, he says, to make the smoke pull better.

“He’s the village Elon Musk!” one of the other men jokes.

Kulik served in the Soviet military in the early 1980s in Moscow. He’s done a bunch of odd jobs over the years since, he says, but in essence, he’s a carpenter. He loves to make staircases.

When asked whether he’s worried about the war, Kulik opens his gnarled hands and says that of course he’s worried, but “you don’t understand what goes into making a staircase.”

The men gathered around him laugh.

Kulik is not using this as some grand metaphor. He is angry about being torn away from his everyday life. He pulls up photos on his cellphone of staircases he’s made — grand, sweeping classical ones as well as more intricate, modern designs.

In many respects, the atmosphere at this checkpoint for now seems closer to ice fishing than wartime. These villagers get together out in the cold and talk to pass the time. They munch on thick slices of brown bread.

The gallows humor and the laughter help pass the time. But the war does hang over everything. Cellphones constantly buzz with calls from friends and family — who’s safe, who’s not — and discussions about whether to stay in Ukraine or head to Poland.

No one knows how long the war with Russia will last. But these men view it through the longer lens of Ukrainian history, one they’ve read about in books and heard from stories told by grandparents who survived the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s and decades of Soviet repression.

One man, Nazar, speaks up. He doesn’t give his last name, but he’s 28, one of the younger guys on this shift.

“One does not forget an experience of ethnic cleansing,” he says. “And when grandparents have to leave their homes in a matter of minutes before they’re set on fire by Soviet officials, when their cows and horses are taken away, when they’re left to starve — these are traumas that are remembered across generations.”

Russia, these men say, wants to pretend that none of that ever happened. Russia, they say, wanted to wipe out Ukraine before. And it wants to do so again now.

They view this war as their generation’s chapter in Ukraine’s struggle.

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