‘It was terrible’: the plight of Ukrainians hoping to get to safety | Ukraine

AAt the counters of Lviv station in western Ukraine, 60 kilometers from the Polish border, two types of tickets are offered to refugees who want to flee the violence of the Russian invasion.

First, the free tickets for the evacuation trains. The catch is that they are almost impossible to obtain.

The alternative is a ticket for the regular service. The catch this time is that tickets aren’t available until March. And even then, men of military age are not allowed to travel.

People standing outside a train but unable to board. Photography: Peter Beaumont/The Guardian

Standing alone, Alexei Lutaev, 43, site manager at Dnipro. He is waiting for train tickets to Poland for his 16-year-old son, who is waiting in a nearby car with his wife.

“I can’t go there myself because I’m an able-bodied man and I don’t have the right to leave,” Lutaev said. “Anyway, my son goes to school in Poland, but we want to put him on the train. And my wife won’t leave if I can’t go. So we stay. But I have confidence that the Ukrainian army can defend us.

Otherwise, he said, he would do anything to cross the border. “I was in Berdyansk [a town next to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov] when it started. I heard the Russian airstrikes and decided to go straight home to Dnipro to pick up my family.

People in the crowded ticket hall are seated where there was space. Some sleep on the floor. Most, however, crowd the ticket booths where there are few tickets to buy.

In the queue is Tony Frazier from Tampa, Florida, who flew to Kiev a week before the invasion to pick up his Ukrainian wife. He says he saw a ticket available for March 4.

“We knew something could happen,” he says. “It was horrible. When the explosions started in Kyiv, we rushed to the station. Everyone was fighting to get on a train, pushing women to escape. We changed trains at Zhitomir [to the west of Kyiv], where we had the same fight to get another train. It was terrible, but there is no other choice.

He says the US Embassy told him they could help them, but they had to cross the border first.

Crowd at Lviv train station
Crowds at Lviv train station. Photography: Peter Beaumont/The Guardian

Crowds block stairs leading to platforms, where people stand five feet tall.

As the last three passengers crowd the train to Uzhgorod, south of Lviv, near the Hungarian border; the conductor tells everyone else on the platform that the train is full. He receives desperate calls. The train pulls away to reveal bags and a broken pram lying near the tracks.

Outside the train station on Sunday, Yulia Anosova, 30, works for a women’s rights organization and escaped from Kyiv on an evacuation train with only her laptop, documents and clothes spare.

“I’m trying to get to Poland,” she says. “I know people there who can accommodate me. I left on the 25th on an evacuation train from Kyiv but it was really overcrowded. I had to stand for eight hours.

Anosova lives on the outskirts of Kyiv, near the Hostomel air base, where there was heavy fighting late last week. “I stayed 27 hours,” she says. “There were no sirens to warn of what was going to happen, only the explosions were happening. I went down to the shelter several times during the night and then decided to leave.

As she speaks, a man walks through the crowd touting a car to cross the border. Almost instantly, a family with young children disappears with him.

The UN estimates that 368,000 people have already fled Ukraine to neighboring countries in recent days, and for many the train remains the most reliable escape route, including to Przemyśl, the first Polish station in the other side of the border. The scale of the movement of people, both within Ukraine and across its borders, is already enormous.

“A big thank you to the governments and people of countries that keep their borders open and welcome refugees,” said Filippo Grandi, the head of the UN refugee agency, warning that “many more” Ukrainians headed for the borders.

What is less clear is how many more are internally displaced. “Displacement in Ukraine is also increasing, but the military situation makes it difficult to estimate numbers and deliver aid,” he said.

While some passed through Hungary, the majority of those escaping left for Poland, which allows anyone from Ukraine to enter, even those without a valid passport. He estimates that it could accommodate 1.5 million Ukrainians in the worst case.

The alternative to the train, for those with access to a car, is a two-day or longer queue to depart via the Medyka border post. Failing that, people are required to walk five kilometers from a taxi drop-off point near the border, carrying luggage, children and even pets. It’s a prospect that’s too much for many.

The situation is particularly difficult for the many foreigners who have come to Ukraine to work and study. Desmond Alfred, a 23-year-old Nigerian student, was studying medicine in Odessa. “Initially, we were supposed to be taken by bus to Moldova,” he says. “But that was canceled, so we went here. The Nigerian embassy will help us when we cross, but until then I have no money.

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