A Journey Beyond the Carpathians: Inside Ukraine’s Safest Region

Southwestern part of the country offers some sort of normalcy despite the war

Ukrainian military jet. Photo credit: Artur Voznenko

By Anna Romandash

“What are we, not Ukrainians? We’ve got the same problems as you guys!”

That’s Vita, a shopkeeper from Uzhorod. The city is the capital of Zakarpattya, Ukraine’s most Western region. Vita is a bit annoyed as she walks me through the local street life.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re far from the border,” she says, “We suffer, too!”

A moment ago, I asked her if she felt more secure in her home than, let’s say, Ukrainians living in the capital, Kyiv. For Vita, the question was silly.

“Of course, we worry! Russian missiles are Russian missiles, they target us just fine, you know!” the woman grunts.

But then, a small smile appears on her face.

“I mean, we are much better now than during the first days of the invasion. Nobody runs to the shelter anymore,” Vita talks slowly, “We figured that nobody is safe, but we can try to live through it.”

A borderland

Vita is nearing fifty. She was born and raised in Zakarpattya. This southwestern region is conveniently located right next to the NATO borders: it takes you less than an hour to get to Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, or Poland from here.

Zakarpattya has suffered from Russian attacks, but less than the rest of Ukraine. There were missile strikes that hit local infrastructure and train facilities, so some people are afraid of traveling by train. But besides that, the region has been spared so far.

When I arrive here, I am surprised how nearly normal everything looks. There are checkpoints on the main streets, and there are more military men, but the rest of the local reality is very similar to how it was before Russia’s full-scale invasion into Ukraine.

Zakarpattya is the only region in the country that does not have a curfew. You can drive here freely after 10 in the evening. There are people on the streets at night, and some social events; the nearby town of Uzhorod is hosting a charity marathon to raise funds for the army. This reminds me of pre-war days.

Vita notes that business is doing okay, too, given the situation. People don’t buy as many clothes now because of the war – many try to save some money for their unclear future. But she still manages to make ends meet.

Before the war, Vita and her husband routinely traveled to Hungary to buy clothing, which they would later sell in Ukraine. She travels less now, and only by herself because her husband cannot leave Ukraine – this rule applies to most Ukrainian men under 60 as they may potentially be needed for the army.

Vita is of Hungarian origin, but even though she grew up speaking Hungarian, she never taught her husband or her two daughters the language.

“What are we, not Ukrainians?” she repeats herself.

Zakarpattya is Ukraine’s most ethnically diverse region; while the majority are Ukrainians, there is a large percentage of people with Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Jewish, and Romani roots. People speak a mix of different languages, but Ukrainian remains the lingua franca.

As for Vita, she says that she feels Ukrainian, and so does her family. They never considered moving to the EU, even when the invasion started.

“We are from Zakarpattya, and we are not going anywhere, war or no war,” she reasons.

“You cannot forget the war even if you don’t see it right away”

I am at a gas station in Mukachevo, the second largest city in Zakarpattya. It is almost midnight, but there are lots of people here. Without a curfew, people drive freely during late hours, and the café at a gas station is full of customers.

The city center, however, reminds me that there is a war in the country. It is dark and pretty quiet for a summer night; the streetlights are turned off for security reasons. People can go out, but they are encouraged to do so in small groups and remain calm and civil. Parties are frowned upon even here.

“There is no curfew, but it’s not like people go dancing all night,” says Andriy, a Mukachevo local. He is a former journalist who now works as a translator.

“People want to go out and relax, but it’s tricky. You see, there are folks who want to pretend that there is no war, but everyone has someone who is currently fighting, so you cannot really forget about it however peaceful it may feel in here,” the man says.

Andriy points out to me that the city has changed more than I noticed: for example, there are no concerts and festivals taking place now, and even on holidays, there are no celebrations. There is a large volunteer mobilization because Zakarpattya is an important hub for humanitarian aid coming in from the West. In addition, people became more attentive and observe their neighbors and new arrivals.

“Everyone is looking out for spies and potential saboteurs from Russia,” the man says.

With Andriy, we visit AwareZone, Mukachevo’s first collaborative workspace It is the city pride as it was opened by internally displaced people. The space, launched in the end of June, aims to bring together locals and new arrivals so people can exchange and get to know each other better.

“When I came to Mukachevo, local youth told me that they had no place to meet. We knew right away that there was a space for work,” says Yuriy Davydenko. He is a project manager behind the hub who came to Mukachevo after the start of the full-scale invasion.

Yuriy is originally from Mariupol, in eastern Ukraine, which is now nearly destroyed by Russian forces. Back in Mariupol, the man has launched a successful coworking space, so he decided to do the same in his new home.

“In a month, we created a new hub for developing startups and meeting the activists. My experience from Mariupol really helped me here,” Yuriy says, “Now, we’ve got the hardest task to complete which is to fill this space with life and to create an ecosystem so people would come and be active here.”

Zakarpattya welcomed around 300,000 internally displaced people (IDP), which is a quarter of the entire population of the region. Many IDPs are here to stay as their homes were destroyed, and they have nowhere else to go – so they are looking for housing to buy in the region as well as seek long-term employment. The newcomers are slowly adapting to the life here and praise the relative security and calmness in their new region.

The location of Zakarpattya, its proximity to the NATO and EU borders, and its mountainous landscape make it a safer haven than the rest of Ukraine. Now the question arises on how to integrate the internally displaced in the country’s most ethnically diverse region.

Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian freelance journalist and 2022 Research Affiliate at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College