From my window seat, I can see the airport building through the haze. It is not at all what I expected. The airport is very modern. It has large panorama windows and solid beams between the floors. If I did not know any better, I would say it was one of the LAX-terminals. It is quite the opposite though. The runways are completely empty from aircrafts, and the weather is incredibly grey. Through the poor airplane-speaker system, the pilot’s whiskey voice is pouring out. He is speaking English to the best of his ability, but the only word I can make out is “overcast.” I turn to my friend Emil in the middle seat, and I ask him how much of the pilot’s announcement he understood. He shakes his head and laughs. “I guess he suggested what vodka to avoid,” he says with a grin. His light blue eyes look tired. Still they are shining with excitement and hunger for adventure. We have been looking forward to this trip for three months. The 22 hour delay and some sleep deprivation will not ruin our trip. We are finally here. We have finally landed at the Lviv Danylo Halytskyi International Airport in Ukraine.
Except for the distinguished features of all airports, like the spaciousness, the tax-free shops, and the long rows with connected and uncomfortable chairs, this one is like no other. In every corner stands female police officers in tight olive green uniforms with short skirts and clearly visible pistols. Like robots, they are looking straight ahead with empty gazes. Apart from a hint of sadness in their eyes, their faces show no expression. These women are not the only armed personnel in the airport though. By every door stand two heavily armed military men. They are watching us closely with despair in their eyes. And just as in an elevator – throughout the entire airport – music on low volume is being played. Here, it is not the traditional “elevator music” though. It is the Ukrainian national anthem that is being played on repeat. An uneasy vibe of totalitarianism surrounds us. There is so much tension. We are visiting a country in war.
The war against Russia is being fought in the Eastern parts of the country. We are in the Western parts – close to the Polish border – and the purpose of our visit is a soccer game. The team from Emil and my Swedish hometown, Malmo FF, is playing a Ukrainian team in the most prestigious club tournament in the world – The Champions League. We are in the city of Lviv, but our team is not playing a team from here. Malmo FF is playing Sjachtar from Donetsk, a city in the Far East, a city currently in the middle of a terrible war. Therefore, the game has been moved here, to Lviv, the capital of Ukrainian fascism and nationalism. Threats against the supporters from Malmo have been made by Lviv-residents on the internet. Malmo FF is traditionally a working class club, with supporters mainly from the political left-wing. Most Ukrainians in the Western parts hate everything that can be associated with Russia, and they are, consequently, not very big fans of ours. The Swedish State Department recommended us not to go. Our families urged us not to go. But we, and another couple of hundred Swedes ignored them. We could not resist the temptation of a soccer game in this war affected country on this cold November night.
In the line to the passport control, we meet a fellow supporter named Lars. He is a short and scrawny middle aged man with a round face and squeaky voice. Lars has a transmittable laugh and his stories about trips to away games in the 90s are nice distractions in the line. After being questioned and slightly harassed by the authorities, the three of us walk out into the dull reception hall. While Emil and I try to withdraw money from an ATM belonging to the Soviet era, our curious new friend walks up to a military man to ask something. The military man interrupts Lars mid-sentence by taking a step towards him. He gets so close that his automatic rifle gets squeezed between their chests. He starts staring straight into Lars’ kind eyes from only an inch. Lars, nervous and terrified, steps back and puts his hands up in an apologetic manner, before shamefully walking off. The military man shouts something in Ukrainian after Lars. Then he and one of his colleagues laugh loudly and scornfully. I cannot understand why a professional military man would treat a harmless person with such disrespect. But the incident is soon forgotten. We walk out of the airport, out to a flat landscape where everything looks dead. At least the November air is crisp and fresh. An old white Toyota drives up to us. “Taxi!” the driver shouts from the rolled down window. The chauffeur’s melancholic gaze makes me a little nervous, but this is the only available cab. We jump into the car and begin the 30-minute drive towards downtown Lviv.
The bumpy drive goes through the outskirts of the city. It is a bare climate without structure, the roads are poorly taken care of, and the old cement houses along the way are awfully worn out. It reminds me of Tijuana, Mexico, but designed for coldness. We drop off Lars in a somewhat sketchy alley, where his small hotel is located. “Great to meet you fellows. I hope I’ll see you at the square before the game!” he shouts before closing the door. After driving another five minutes, we reach the real downtown. Here, some of the architecture is amazing. A majestic golden cathedral and a few other grandiose buildings stem from the 13th century. But all buildings do not follow the same striking pattern. Next to an old baroque-rococo church stands something that looks like a large shed. This city surely lacks continuity. The driver stops by a quaint little square, and points to a tall building with a red carpet leading up to the entrance. In golden letters, above the doorway, the sign reads, “Rius Hotel.” I tip the driver a few bucks before walking out, and his melancholic green eyes light up.
After a well needed shower, I am standing in front of the giant mirror in the beige tiled hotel bathroom. It is an odd feeling to look straight into your own eyes; it is like you can see your true colors. I notice how the usual grey tone in my eyes is gone. Right in this moment, my eyes are crystal blue. My body is exhausted, but my mind is hungry. Emil’s banging on the door pulls me out of the trance. He is yelling that we have to leave and that he has been ready for ten minutes. I put on my blue jeans, my brown boots, my black polo shirt, my black down jacket and my sky blue Malmo FF-scarf. Emil is wearing the exact same scarf, of which there are only 50. We walk out of the hotel, ready to take on Lviv. The march towards the square where we are supposed to meet the other Malmo-fans has begun.
Only a couple of hundred yards from the hotel, we notice half a dozen young teenagers watching us from the other side of the street. Scared of what the authorities told us, and frightened from a rumor saying that a fellow supporter was badly beaten last night, we start walking faster. But it is pointless. These boys know the city like they know their own backyards. They disappear, only to turn up from an alleyway a couple of yards ahead. One of the guys walks up to me and grabs my scarf. I pull back. Then the biggest lad runs up to me, and raises his hand, to show that he will punch me if I do not let go. So I let go. The big boy laughs, while the smaller one spits in my face. Simultaneously, two of the teenagers have started to chase Emil, who tried to escape. As they close in, he throws his scarf over his shoulder, and the two Ukrainians grab the scarf and give up the hunt. They turn around, and leave us ashamed and without scarves. When I catch up to Emil, I note that his eyes are no longer shining of excitement. He looks like a helpless boy, and I am sure I do too. “Maybe we shouldn’t have gone here”, he says with a shaky voice. I try to hide my fear while wiping saliva off my face, and with an as calm voice as possible I say, “It was just a boyish prank. Let’s not make it ruin this fabulous day.”
We walk fast the rest of the way, in silence. The square will be safe; a few hundred people from our hometown will be there. No one can humiliate us there. We reach the square, but it is less crowded than expected. It is a very odd square; it is narrow, almost claustrophobic, probably eighty yards long and twenty yards wide, with only two openings, one on the short side which we walked in through, and the other one on the opposite side. Right to our left is a hackneyed pub with a small patio, where around ten people in sky blue shirts are sitting. Close to the opposite entrance, on the right hand side, is a bigger pub without a patio, from which we can hear a lot of singing and cheering. We decide to sit down at the one with the patio, to eat and have a beer, before joining the large crowd at the other pub.
There are two rows with tables at the patio, one along the fence to the square, and one along the shabby wall. The five tables along the fence are occupied by men in their late twenties or early thirties, all from Malmo. They look very friendly and many eyes light up when we greet them. We sit down at a table along the wall, before we start singing a classic Malmo-hymn. The rest of the patio sings along and the ambiance is delightful. A large nonchalant man comes to take our orders. He stares at us impatiently, as we are ordering by pointing at the menu. Our food and drinks arrive in less than ten minutes. We eat, drink, laugh, sing and joke, with our fellow supporters. An overweight young man named David joins us at our table. He is sociable and humble. In his eyes, I can see some insecurity, maybe from being bullied as a child. I pity him, while also feeling tied to him. He takes a sip from his beer, and with a concerned voice, he points out that there are barely any police present in the square. Just as I calmed Emil down earlier, I calm David down now. “It would be suicide to attack us at this square. The other pub is filled with our guys” I say, but I do not know if I believe the words coming out of my mouth.
I am sitting with my back towards the entrance we walked in through. Across from me sits Emil, and next to him is David. In an instant, I see how their faces change. The joy has turned to pure fear. “No, no, no” Emil says with a voice close to breaking. I turn around, and I see it too. A large group of hooded men, dressed in black, are marching through the entrance. Egoistically, I pray that they will leave us alone, and aim for the more crowded pub further up. I am wrong though. Like starved hyenas, they start running straight toward us. It is unbelievably primitive; their only objective is to hurt us. I turn to Emil again, but he is gone, and so is David. Like an antelope trying to escape from a predator, Emil is running zigzag between chairs and tables, before jumping the fence. I see him sprinting between two of the attackers and then further towards the other pub. David is running inside the restaurant to take cover. While they run, I freeze, paralyzed by shock. I see how my fellow supporters, sitting by the fence, are being punched and kicked from over the fence. A guy with long hair is bleeding heavily from his head. Then, the first attacker jumps the fence. Then a few more. One is running directly towards me. His pupils are small, maybe from adrenaline and cocaine. He has the eyes of a hyena, and I am his prey. I throw myself under the table and cover my head with my arms. A second later, I receive a hard kick to my ribs. It is a striking pain and I lose my breathe. I open my eyes, just to see him initiating another kick motion. I close them again and wait, but another kick never comes. Chairs and tables are being thrown around the patio. A glass shatters a few inches from my head. A piece of it penetrates the skin of my left hand. Suddenly, the yelling, the running, the fighting, and the chaos stop. It felt like forever, but it probably only went on for 30 seconds. Now, they have started the hunt for our friends at the other pub.
The patio is empty. I am alone among overturned chairs and tables, and shattered glass. I get up and see that the people from the patio have escaped up to the roof of the restaurant. They are getting down now. The long-haired guy who was bleeding walks up to me, and asks me if I am alright. I tell him that I am; then I ask him how his head is. “It’s just a scratch” he says with a laugh. I laugh too, and I admire his ability to laugh in a situation like this. David comes out of the restaurant and all of us who were sitting on the patio gather outside. No one is badly hurt. Then it hits me. Emil is not here. I get worried, so it is a great relief when I see him running towards us from the other pub. We hug, and he tells us that one guy was badly beaten over there. The sound of sirens is getting louder, and through both entrances, heavily armed police offers are pouring in. As we are walking to the other pub, the nonchalant waiter is chasing us while screaming in Ukrainian. My long-haired friend turns around and says “We are okay.” The waiter does however not stop yelling. It seems like he is mad at us. But why? We paid our bills, and it was certainly not our fault that we were attacked.
We walk into the larger pub, still with the waiter at our heels. In here, some are crying, some are angry, and some are terrified. Outside the pub, more than 50 cops have gathered. We spend a good 20 minutes in the pub, talking to people about what just happened. Then I follow my newfound long-haired friend outside; he is going to smoke a cigarette. When we get outside, the waiter from the other pub is still there. He starts yelling, and before we know it, two cops, equipped with riot gear, have grabbed us by our necks. The two cops remind me of the military men at the airport. They have evil in their eyes. I try to explain to them that we were the victims, but soon I understand that they do not understand much English. They take us to the mad waiter and a female lieutenant, who speaks some English. My friend explains that we were attacked. The lieutenant listens closely, and I think her eyes look like the eyes of an honest person. She asks, “By whom?” I tell her that the attackers were dressed in black and spoke Ukrainian. “Where are they now?” she responds quickly. “They ran away. How would we know?” my friend responds in an aggravated way. She does not appreciate his attitude, and tells the men holding us by our necks something in Ukrainian.
They take us away, to the upper right corner of the square. Two of the guys from the patio are already standing here. The cop who is holding me puts my hands, one by one, on the cold brick wall. Then, he kicks my legs outwards, so I have to stand with them very far apart. It is freezing, frightening, and exhausting. The four of us are standing in a row, facing the wall, in complete silence, alone with our thoughts. I am preparing for the worst. Maybe, I will have to spend a few days in a Ukrainian prison. My mind goes into survival mode. It is what it is; now I have to be smart. 20 yards behind us, people are leaving the pub. I think I can hear someone saying that they are getting kicked out. I turn my head, and see more than a hundred people standing outside the pub. I can see Emil in the crowd. They are all surrounded by riot police. After standing in the same position for more than an hour, the guy to my left asks one of the five cops guarding us if he can sit down. The cop nods; the rest of us sit down too. It is a relief. A buddy of my long-haired friend walks up to us. He offers my friend a cigarette. My friend asks the cops if he is allowed to smoke. The cops look at each other, before nodding again. Then one of the cops asks, “Who was that?”, with a heavy Ukrainian accent. Rapidly, I respond, “That was his boyfriend.” The cops laugh hysterically, and so do my fellow prisoners. I’m a chameleon. I despise myself for the improper joke, but it does lighten the mood among us. Another hour passes. People are leaving the square, getting on busses that will take them to the stadium. We are sitting on the cobblestones, hoping that we soon will be released.
As more and more people are clearing out, a tall man in his thirties, and a blonde woman in her fifties, are approaching us, together with the female lieutenant. I recognize the man. He is the support liaison officer, employed by Malmo FF. The woman introduces herself as a representative from the Swedish consulate in Lviv. She tells us to hang in there for another half hour, and promises us that we will not miss the game. And sure enough, half an hour later, they tell us that we are free to go. The relief is overwhelming. However, the woman from the consulate points at a bus, and tells us to get on it quickly, before they change their minds. I find Emil outside the pub, and together we run to the bus. On the bus, the support liaison officer tells us that the mad waiter was actually the pub owner, and that he had to be bribed in order for the police to let us go.
Malmo loses the game, three to nothing. The atmosphere in the arena is intimidating, and on our way back, our bus has police protection. Two cop cars are driving ahead of it, and two behind it. The bus drops us off at a different square in the downtown area. It is probably close to our hotel, but we are done taking chances. We find a cab, and it takes us back to the hotel. When getting to our room, we pass out immediately. It has been a long day.
The next day, we wake up at noon, after sleeping for more than twelve hours. We have a few hours to kill before having to leave for the airport, and we have a lot of Ukrainian money left. Therefore, we ask the receptionist at the hotel for the best restaurant in the city. The restaurant is close, so we decide to walk there. It is a sunny day and the birds are singing. Emil and I each eat a great three course meal and share a bottle of wine. We have a splendid time, laughing and joking about yesterday’s events. And we walk out of the restaurant smiling. The fear is gone. Now we are going home. We turn around the corner; we are happy and content. Then I see them. Two men are jogging toward us from behind. They are wearing black, their fists are clenched and their heads are down. Damn. I cannot see their eyes.