‘It’s Like Parallel Realities’: Rituals of Life and Death Blur in a Vibrant Ukrainian City

LVIV, Ukraine — The tiny wail of newborn babies echoes out from the incubators and cribs lining a small room with mint green walls in a maternity hospital in Lviv.

Twenty-seven years ago, Liliya Myronovych, the chief pediatrician in the neonatal department, delivered a baby boy, Artemiy Dymyd, here. Last week, she watched out the front window as his funeral was held in the cemetery across the road, the dirge of the military band mingling with the cries of the newborns.

“It was my boy,” said Dr. Myronovych, 64, said of Mr. Dymyd, who was killed in the fighting in eastern Ukraine in mid-June. “It was my baby.”

Dissonant images of life and death play out side by side in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. They can be stark, as when babies are born steps away from the now overflowing military cemetery where Ukraine’s young soldiers are laid to rest.

But they can also be subtle.

At the front of the maternity hospital, windows decorated with paper storks are also covered in masking tape to prevent them from shattering in an explosion.

The air raid sirens that once sent Lviv’s residents scrambling into basements no longer cause the same level of alarm as they did in February and March — though anxiety was heightened last week when a barrage of missiles was unleashed from Belarusian airspace within striking distance of the city.

Lviv has remained relatively peaceful, becoming a hub for humanitarian aid and a place of refuge for those fleeing the fighting in the east. Yet death still comes, evident in the steady stream of fallen soldiers whose funerals are held here, sometimes several times in one day.

The funerals overtake the daily rhythms of city life. Trams stop. Bus passengers wipe tears from their eyes.

“Every time we say goodbye to them as if it is the first time,” said Khrystyna Kutzir, 35, who stood on a Lviv street one afternoon in late June, waiting for the passage of the latest funeral along the route to the military cemetery.

Across the street, 10 medical students wearing black-and-red robes had gathered in the plaza in front of their university to celebrate graduation.

As the funeral cortege went by, the students knelt along the sidewalk to honor the fallen soldier. They then picked themselves up, brushed off their legs and headed back to the university to pose for photos.

One graduate, Ihor Puriy, 23, said he had mixed feelings about the long-anticipated day.

“In one moment, you are happy to graduate from university, and new horizons are opening in front of you,” he said. “And at the same time, situations happen that bring you back to the reality and times we are living in.”

All the usual graduation celebrations were canceled amid the war, but the friends had tried to find some way to mark the occasion. However, Mr. Puriy said, it was deeply uncomfortable to know that soldiers his age were dying on the front lines, never to see their own futures realized. He and his fellow graduates are exempt from being drafted because of their studies and their future occupation as doctors.

“We are trying to keep up our hope for the best, to avoid the negative thoughts each of us is having,” he said. Still, it is impossible to get used to the daily reminders of death, he said.

Honoring fallen soldiers has become a grim ritual for the staff of the medical school, as well as a few other colleges and office buildings that line the road between the center of town and the cemetery. Sometimes, there are five funerals in one day, said Anna Yatsynyk, 58, who works as a toxicologist in the city morgue and rises each day from her desk to go outside with her colleagues to watch the somber processions.

Ms. Yatsynyk said she and her colleagues have begun to organize their work days to be able to see the processions.

“It has become a sad routine,” Ms. Yatsynyk said. “But we always come. We feel it’s our responsibility to show our gratitude and pay tribute.”

On the June afternoon, they knelt to honor the dead as a minivan carrying the coffin rolled by. In the summer heat, many of the women wore sundresses, and the rough cement dug into their bare knees.

As a black car passed by, an elderly relative of the soldier who died looked out from behind the window’s glass and clasped his hands together, shaking them and nodding in appreciation to those who had gathered.

Everyone knows someone fighting in this war. And increasingly, everyone knows someone who has died as the war reaches into even the most peaceful communities.

But as the conflict has turned from weeks to months, and as the bone-chilling cold days of the winter invasion have given way to the heat of the summer, so too has the initial sense of terror in this city made way for a milder disquiet.

Lviv’s parks and green spaces, cafes and terraces, look like any other European city in the summer. Outside the opera house, children run giggling through a fountain to escape the heat, their wet clothes and hair clinging to them as they dodge the streams of water.

And then you look a little closer. At the statues wrapped in protective materials. At the buskers performing patriotic songs that speak of war and death.

At the naked halls of the national gallery, the faded squares on the ornate wallpaper signaling works of art spirited away for safekeeping. At men in military fatigues tightly holding their partners’ hands.

People in their 20s remark that they reunite with large groups of friends only when they attend the funerals of one of their peers.

That was the case for many of the friends of Mr. Dymyd, the young man born in the Lviv hospital and buried across the street. But still, life continues on.

It has to, said Roman Lozynskyi, 28, who was Mr. Dymyd’s friend of two decades.

“It’s the reason why we are there,” he said. “It’s what we are protecting.”

Mr. Lozynskyi, a marine and member of the Ukrainian Parliament, volunteered for the military three months ago and served in the same unit as Mr. Dymyd. It is important to him that Ukrainians live their lives, even though it can feel jarring to return home from the front lines.

“It’s difficult mentally, because it’s like parallel realities,” he said of time spent in Lviv with friends and family on his short reprieve from the war to attend the funeral.

Back in the maternity hospital, new mothers give birth daily, and amid all of the chaos find hope.

“When you speak to the mothers, there is no war,” said Dr. Myronovych, the pediatrician.

Khrystyna Mnykh, 28, gave birth to her first child on June 28, Ukraine’s Constitution Day. While she was in labor, the air raid alarm went off. She had just been given an epidural so was unable to make it downstairs to the shelter.

Weeks earlier, a missile strike just one kilometer from her home had shattered her neighbor’s windows. But when she held her daughter, Roksolana, those memories seemed to fade.

“You look at your tiny baby in your arms,” Ms. Mnykh said, “and understand sooner or later life will go on.”

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