In Western Ukraine, Far From the Battlefield but Not the War

My colleagues and I braced ourselves as our truck rumbled over the rocks, mud and holes of the steep, unpaved dirt road that would bring us to the Dragobrat ski resort in Ukraine’s western Carpathian Mountains.

Despite the seatbelts securing us, our bodies bounced sharply and our heads whipped back and forth. I clenched my jaw — and my eyes — tightly when, halfway up the mountain, the truck skidded in snow several inches deep. We continued the precarious climb.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine just over a year ago, I have been among a number of New York Times correspondents who have rotated in and out of the country to cover the conflict. While some of my colleagues have been on the front lines, telling the crucial stories of the battle for territorial control, I normally stay in Kyiv, the country’s capital, and from there travel to places farther from combat to report on the effect of the conflict on people’s lives.

But the war has reached the corners of even the most peaceful communities. Ongoing Russian strikes still batter civilian infrastructure in Ukraine’s cities. In the fall and winter, millions of people were affected by rolling blackouts across much of the country. Millions more have been forced from the country as refugees, fleeing to safety elsewhere in Europe and other places farther afield.

Still, for those who have stayed, life continues on. Babies are born. Children go to school. People commute to work. And families go skiing.

The State of the War

That’s how I found myself in January heading to the Carpathian Mountains, an area just about as far away as a person can get from the front line of the east while still remaining in the country. The mountains have long been an oasis of relative calm. Since the start of the war, people displaced from elsewhere in Ukraine have fled here; some have come to work, while others are seeking respite from the anxiety of being under siege.

I was interested in reporting from the area’s ski resorts, which have continued to cater to visitors. Even as rolling blackouts have plagued the country, these resorts have kept the lights on and made snow by using powerful generators. I was traveling with Brendan Hoffman, a photographer, and Oleksandra Mykolyshyn, a local colleague; we had already spent time at the more developed Bukovel resort, but to get any real snow during this remarkably warm season, we had to go to Dragobrat, which is at a higher elevation.

Luckily, we were in good hands. Our team’s driver, Borys Viktjuk, had spent the years before the war building a successful tourism business, bringing Ukrainians and visitors from Eastern Europe to this beautiful corner of his country. He was experienced at off-roading and had fitted the truck’s tires with thick metal chains.

Once we reached the top of the mountain, we found hundreds of adventurous Ukrainians taking advantage of the fresh snow. What struck me was not just the beauty of the mountains, but the unrelenting presence of the war, even in this quiet corner of the country. Soldiers seeking recovery and respite were here with their children, but despite the calm, the battlefield was never far from their minds.

One couple, both soldiers, were on the last day of a five-day trip with their twin sons. They told me that they worried this could be their last vacation together. A hotel owner in a nearby town told us that her son was stationed in the city of Bakhmut, the scene of the war’s fiercest fighting. A young soldier spoke of returning to his job as a snowboard instructor as a way to heal his mind and body.

Still, the crisp mountain air and the tall pines of the Carpathians offered some relief to many, if not a complete escape. Of course, the idea of life continuing on in an embattled country like this is nothing new and is certainly not a unique feature of the conflict in Ukraine, but I also think it is a vital part of the story of this war and one I feel committed to sharing.

Life unfolds across the country. My visit coincided with the Orthodox Christmas season, and families were figuring out what celebrations looked like in a country at war. Before heading to the Carpathians, I had traveled with a photographer and two local colleagues to a village near Kyiv that had been occupied for a time during the early days of the war and met a family whose home had been shelled.

Over the festive period, there was a lull in the near-constant air raid alerts in the capital that sent residents running to shelters, which gave us a chance to explore other aspects of life in Kyiv. We followed commuters who were committed to reaching their workplaces, even if the lights were off for much of the day, and others who hunkered down in co-working spaces powered by generators.

The Carpathian region was just one stop on my reporting trip, and by the time I left Ukraine at the end of January, I had traveled hundreds of miles and spoken with dozens of people for whom the war had become the startling atmosphere of their new normal. I crossed the border into Poland with their stories packed into my notebooks and their faces imprinted on my mind.

On my way to the airport in Warsaw, a siren suddenly blared from my phone. A mobile app linked to the air raid alerts warned me of a potential threat to Kyiv, where I had stayed for much of my trip. Even though I had left the city a day earlier, it startled me.

Moments later, my driver’s phone also began blaring. His phone was set for his home city of Lviv. It was likely the whole country was under an alert, a reality we had both come to know too well over the last year. He said he was thinking of his three children at home.

We both let out a tired sigh. Even as life continues on, it can’t escape this backdrop of war.

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