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Ukrainian men, manning a checkpoint for six hours, talk about the war and their lives


Russia's full-scale invasion on Ukraine continues to upend lives. Ukrainians across the country are contributing to the war effort in different ways, including manning checkpoints far from the front lines. NPR's Ryan Lucas reports from one in western Ukraine.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Bundled up against the cold and wind, the men huddle around a rusted oil drum fashioned into a wood-burning stove. There's smoke billowing from a crooked pipe jutting from the top.


LUCAS: This, for now, is their war, manning a checkpoint on a road outside the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, hundreds of miles from the battles raging to the east. One of the men is Oleh Pokrovsky (ph).

OLEH POKROVSKY: (Through interpreter) This was the immediate response on the part of the villagers the night of the bombing, to defend their village. They said it was entirely self-organized. And it came from an emotional need to feel defended.

LUCAS: That's my colleague and interpreter Julian Hayda. Pokrovsky is one of a half-dozen men here who have agreed to let us join them for their six-hour shift. There are sandbags piled on top of concrete blocks. A blue and yellow Ukrainian flag tied to a stick flutters in the wind. The men don't have guns. But there is a wooden crate of pre-made Molotov cocktails.

POKROVSKY: (Through interpreter) The privilege that we have of sitting here at this checkpoint is thanks directly to those who are enlisted in the military and are defending Ukraine's borders. If it weren't for them, then this would be under Russian occupation right now.

LUCAS: There are thousands of checkpoints like this dotted across Ukraine. When the war started, rumors were rife of Russian saboteurs running amok. Those concerns have eased a bit as the country has settled into the new rhythms of life. And this checkpoint isn't exactly on high alert anymore.


LUCAS: Some of the men here are in their 20s, some in their 60s. The younger ones have registered with the Ukrainian military or the territorial defense forces. And if called upon to head east to fight, they say they will. One of them is Volodymyr Kovalyshen (ph). He's 37. And he has a 5-month-old son. And he moved with his family to this village when the war began. Like everyone here, he's watched the videos of the destruction Russia has wrought on cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol, where a maternity hospital was recently bombed.

It's got to be hard having a little kid right now. And just being...

VOLODYMYR KOVALYSHEN: Yes, very hard. When I see in TV a little child died in the capital, in Mariupol, in Kharkiv. It's very hard seeing this child.

LUCAS: For now, he says, his wife and son have moved with him to a nearby village. His sister just arrived, too, from a town that was recently hit by Russian forces.


KOVALYSHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

LUCAS: His cellphone rings. And he wanders off for a bit. And conversations are like that here, all a jumble - snippets of lives turned upside down. When Kovalyshen returns, he tells me that if the war escalates and the situation in Lviv gets bad, he'll take his family to Poland. But he'll come back to Ukraine.

KOVALYSHEN: (Non-English language spoken)

JULIAN HAYDA: And once that's taken care of, he would then be free to travel east to fight. But of course, after everybody leaves, one feels pretty lonely in the country.


LUCAS: One man chops logs down to kindling to feed the oil drum stove. Another, Bohdan Kulik (ph), puts a tea kettle on the lid of the oil drum.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

LUCAS: "Tea, coffee", they ask. Definitely.

LUCAS: Kulik is 62. His mustache is gray. He's a pensioner, fancies himself a bit of a handyman. He says he likes to invent things. And the stove, with its crooked smokestack, is his creation. He starts to explain how he's tinkered with it over time. But one of the other men cuts in.



HAYDA: He's the village Elon Musk.


LUCAS: Kulik served in the Soviet military in the early 1980s in Moscow. He's done a bunch of odd jobs over the years since. But in essence, he's a carpenter. He loves to make staircases. I ask whether he's worried about the war.

BOHDAN KULIK: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: He says, you don't understand what goes into building a staircase in a house. You have to first stain the stairs.

LUCAS: This is the response to my question about the war?

HAYDA: Yes (laughter).


HAYDA: Well, he says, of course he's worried. But then he said, you have to understand what goes into making a staircase.

LUCAS: This was not some grand metaphor. He was legitimately angry about being torn away from his everyday life. He pulls out his phone and shows us pictures of the staircases he's made. And they're beautiful. In many respects, the atmosphere at this checkpoint seems closer to ice fishing than a white-knuckle wartime experience. These villagers get together out in the cold and talk to pass the time. They munch on thick slices of brown bread. Sure, they're checking cars. They even have a handwritten list of license plates of vehicles they say belong to known saboteurs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken)


LUCAS: They haven't had any problems because most of the cars passing through belong to the local villagers, including a white sedan that slows to a crawl. The driver rolls down his window and yells something.

HAYDA: He says, I don't have to. And then they said not to sweat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: And he has a Javelin as well.


LUCAS: Javelins are the American anti-tank missiles that the U.S. has been supplying Ukraine for years. And for what it's worth, this villager doesn't have any in his trunk. But the country's military has put them to good use in this war. The gallows humor, the laughter, they 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? - discussions about whether to stay in Ukraine or head to Poland. None of these men know how long this war with Russia will last. But they 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 (ph), speaks up. He doesn't give his last name. But he's 28, one of the younger guys on this shift.

NAZAR: (Through interpreter) But one does not forget an experience of ethnic cleansing. 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.

LUCAS: Russia, they 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.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, outside Lviv, Ukraine.


Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.