My visit to Ukraine – Mayor of Lyon tells his story

On Thursday 18 August, Grégory Doucet, Mayor of Lyon, set out on a mission to war-torn Ukraine with a delegation of seven other Eurocities mayors, including Eurocities President and Mayor of Florence Dario Nardella. Their mission was to meet with President Zelenskyy and make an agreement on how Eurocities members could team up with Ukrainian cities to help them rebuild from the rubble. This is Mayor Doucet’s account of events on the ground as the illegal Russian war rages on.

It all started in Poland, where I met up with the other mayors –  Dario from Florence, Kostas from Athens, Juhana from Helsinki, Benoît from Marseille, Raymond from Oslo, Mārtiņš from Riga, and Erion from Triana. We crossed the Ukrainian border on the night train, the first and longest leg of a journey on which we would get a taste of the devastation that the Russian troops are bringing down upon the country, culminating in a meeting with President Zelenskyy himself.

We had not yet settled into sleep when we got a sharp shock: an air-raid siren shrieking out that bombs may be approaching. The train came to a halt and the lights went out. In complete darkness, with the wail of the siren overriding our senses, we felt viscerally the reality that we were now in a country at war.

The train came to a halt and the lights went out.

Arriving in Kyiv

We arrived in Kyiv with just enough time to shower and change before heading out. Walking around Kyiv, people passed us by on electric scooters, ate on the streets in front of the restaurants and cafés. Like the train on the track, they were all going ahead determinedly with their lives. Speaking on the sidelines with those we could – we understood that six months of conflict and of air raids has brought a certain fatigue to many people, who have made the decision that they don’t just want to survive these months, but they want to live.

Eurocities Mayors gathered at the train station in Kyiv
Eurocities Mayors gathered at the train station in Kyiv

At the same time, Kyiv is still several hundred kilometres from the current front lines of the fighting, and our short snapshot of life there is no representation of how people are living across this vast country. Now we were heading to Bucha, a place that had been completely enveloped in the fog of war, making international news headlines only a few short months ago, and for all the wrong reasons.

On the way to Bucha, we stopped off at Borodyanka, a town where the bombing had been severe, with many civilians killed. Indeed, there was no military base or even equipment that could have created an excuse for such an attack – only senseless destruction and murder. The rubble there was our first vision, an especially poignant one for a mayor, of what it really means to have your city destroyed.

The rubble there was our first vision, an especially poignant one for a mayor, of what it really means to have your city destroyed.

Monument to a massacre

Bucha is the unfortunate and famous city where there was a massacre in the street – normal people were running around, trying to escape as they were murdered under Russian fire. We met the Mayor of Bucha who brought us to see the memorial under construction. Seeing it was a very emotional experience that I can hardly find the words for. It is next to a mass burial site where many of the people that were killed so senselessly are buried. A photo exhibit in a nearby church displays a horrifying collage of destruction, dead bodies and a war in motion. We hardly needed to glance at each other to confirm that we were all heavy with the same ancient and terrible emotion of mourning.

Eurocities mayors at photo memorial for the ongoing conflict
Eurocities mayors at photo memorial for the ongoing conflict

You cannot look around that site without gaining some comprehension of the suffering of the Ukrainian people, and understanding the energy with which they are motivated to fight on in this war. There is something undefinable in the emotions it creates. Part of me thought, I feel it now, I feel what these people do, and you don’t anticipate that you can be struck with a harder blow. Of course, as we discovered back in Kyiv, something that hit us even harder was soon to come.

Part of me thought, I feel it now, I feel what these people do.

What occurred to me then is that normally you would expect things like this to be built after a war, not while the war is still ongoing. Civilians are still dying from Russian attacks; a memorial is by definition something you use in order to remember the past. Here it is different – people are still living what these memorials are showing.

That’s what was so striking, and so powerful, that we were not just seeing an act of remembering, but an attempt to communicate, a way of shouting out to the world. Building such a thing also means taking some distance from the event, and through that, the people of Ukraine are showing their determination to move forward, to get through this war and to live once again.

We know the power of Russian propaganda, the dominance of the state broadcaster, so there is a huge need for the Ukrainian Government and people to tell the truth and to mobilise worldwide for Ukraine. That is also something that we hope our mission and ongoing efforts can be a part of.

Bombed buildings

We were all anxious now for our meeting with President Zelenskyy, and to agree on the principles of how we, as mayors of large European cities, can play our part to assist the people of Ukraine, but there was one city to see on the way back: Irpin, a small city beside Kyiv. That’s the city where the Russian army was stopped by Ukrainian forces and resistance towards the beginning of the war, when Putin tried unsuccessfully to take Kyiv.

On the wall, there were images projected of the children who had had their futures torn away.

In Irpin, we saw the remnants of the fighting, of the bombing. Many buildings were completely destroyed. Some remained standing after bombardment: Tower blocks blown open, like bisected models of an architectural plan, with only the wind to pull back the covers of the beds in which families used to find comfort in sleep.

Blasted building in Ukraine
Blasted building in Ukraine

Before meeting with the President, we were brought to see a mausoleum erected to the memory of children whose lives were lost in World War II, a place whose job should have been finished long ago, but now stirs with the sorrows of around 400 children that have been killed in the current conflict.

On the wall, there were images projected of the children who had had their futures torn away. I and the other mayors were each given a children’s toy, which we took and placed in one of the shrines with the name of a child above it. Words prove their frailty at moments like that.

We were physically and emotionally tested by our experience, and I could only wonder upon meeting President Zelenskyy and others, how they had endured six months already.

Meeting Zelenskyy

President Zelenskyy in real life is actually the man who you see on TV and hear on the radio.

President Zelenskyy in real life is actually the man who you see on TV and hear on the radio, the man with a strong voice, someone friendly but who moves briskly to the point. Of course, his dress code is world famous now – everything about him reminds you that you are in a war situation. Everybody knows his personal story because he’s not a politician originally but someone from the world of acting, and yet he has turned out to be a very strong president during a time of war, and is undoubtedly one of the most powerful people on the planet right now.

He shook our hands and thanked us for the solidarity and support of our cities, both individually and united through Eurocities, the cities network which links us all together – including four member cities in Ukraine, such as Kyiv. He updated us on how the conflict stands at the moment, and then shared details of the plans Ukraine has to rebuild. The illegal war still rages on, and yet, Ukrainians are thinking to their future. It shows the great will of the Ukrainian people because they are doing things as if they had won the war already. I think this is a very strong tool to mobilise the population.

The illegal war still rages on, and yet, Ukrainians are thinking to their future.

The Ukrainian people are fighting for their sovereignty, fighting for their land, fighting their families, fighting for their country. But although they have many things to fight for, and although I haven’t gone through a comparable situation myself, when you’re standing up to one of the most powerful armies in the world, I would assume it can be easy to fall victim to pessimism. So, finding that energy cannot be easy. The Ukrainian people are able to do it, thanks to their own strong will, but thanks to the strong messaging of their government as well. The message is: We will succeed, and we will rebuild – we are doing it already. And that really boosts the morale of people.

Strength to rebuild

It’s that rebuilding that we, the cities of Eurocities, have pledged to be a part of through the Memorandum of Understanding that we signed with representatives of Ukrainian cities that evening. The memorandum is far from being just a piece of paper. We already began the conversation with President Zelenskyy about the status of devastation in different cities, and the needs for rebuilding civic infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, workplaces and homes. Now, the cities that make up Eurocities will pair up with Ukrainian cities and help them in whatever way we can to carry out this work.

The cities that make up Eurocities will pair up with Ukrainian cities and help them in whatever way we can to carry out this work.

We also had the great pleasure of sitting down with Vitali Klitschko, Mayor of Kyiv, to hear mayor-to-mayor how he manages to govern his city during this extraordinary time. He and I signed a cooperation agreement between Lyon and Kyiv, ensuring that our two cities will remain strong allies during this conflict.

We don’t only want to give money and financial support.

Through the Memorandum of Understanding, each city in Eurocities will find their own way of offering support. In Lyon, two of our great strengths locally are schools and transport. As Mayor, I don’t decide alone – I’ll work together with the parliament to identify the best ways to help, but I think these are areas where we have a lot to share.

We don’t only want to give money and financial support, we also want to support Ukrainian cities as much as we can with the expertise that we have locally in Lyon. As French mayors oversee our kindergartens and primary schools, we have strong expertise in setting up, designing, and constructing them. At the level of the metropolitan area, we have a very strong public transportation network, with modern connectivity, and that’s something that will be key, especially to the early phases of reconstruction in Ukraine.

One of our ideas is that we may even create a pooled fund with other cities that can be used to support all the work that needs to be done. Because whatever we do, and this is one thing that I had plenty of time to think about as I lay in my bunk on the overnight train for another journey of more than 10 hours back across the border into the European Union: We won’t act alone, but united as the cities of Europe, at a time when unity has never been more important.

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