12 Hours on Board a Packed Train Out of Ukraine
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its third week with Russian attacks increasingly targeting civilians, over 2.5 million people have fled the country. Most of them, an estimated 1.5 million people, have crossed into Poland since the war began on Feb. 24.
Every day, some 10,000 people pass through the train station in Lviv, in the far west of Ukraine, to board trains toward exile in Europe.
In normal times, the route from Lviv to Przemysl – 60 miles away, and just across the Polish border – might take 2 hours and 22 minutes. These days, travelers packed into crowded trains can expect it to take 12 hours.
Lviv’s grand train station has become a well-organized, if crowded, hub for people displaced by attacks in cities like Kyiv, Dnipro, and Kharkiv, and for moving people out of the country. Metal barricades have been placed to regulate the different flows of foot traffic. Volunteers provide food, hot tea, and information. On the train platforms, areas have been set up for the elderly and disabled. Border guard agents stamp passports – or birth certificates, if that’s all the traveler has – in front of each train car headed abroad.
This Thursday, March 10, a train bound for Przemysl was loaded at twice its normal capacity, with over a hundred passengers in each wagon. Travelers stood or sat on every inch of floor space. The passengers were mostly women, children, and seniors, because of Ukraine’s wartime policy prohibiting men considered of military age (18 – 60) from leaving the country.
The train, scheduled for 12:12 in the afternoon, left only half an hour late.
Some 15 minutes into the trip, the train lurched to a halt, spreading unease through the travelers, many of whom didn’t know if they’d have a home, or even a country, to return home to. As the long minutes passed, the murmur of conversation was joined by the cries of babies. Some passengers took turns to stand and sit.
Without any room to move around easily, most simply stayed stoically where they were.
But when the train finally started moving again over an hour later, the car broke out into applause.
This pattern repeated itself several times through the afternoon. Short periods of movement were punctuated by much longer stops. Oleksandr Pertsovskyi, in charge of Ukrainian Railways’ passenger operations, told me in an interview that it’s “trains in a queue on the Polish side” that causes the delays.
“We’re speeding them up as much as we can,” he said.
A young mother with a 7-year-old daughter on her lap, said that they had just spent 15 hours on a bus to get to Lviv from Kharkiv, which has been the scene of continuous street fighting and artillery and aerial bombardment since the first day of the war.
“It’s very bad in Kharkiv,” said the woman, who requested that her name not be printed. “My husband is still there.” She carried with her a single bag and spent much of her time trying to soothe her daughter.
“I want to cry,” she said. When the late afternoon sun broke through the clouds for a moment during one of the train’s brief runs, she said, “Look at that sunset. It’s beautiful.”
She planned to stay in Poland because she’s holding out hope that she’ll be able to return home soon.
Some texted or spoke quietly into their phones. Others passed the time looking out the window in silence. There was a toilet in each car, but to use it people had to carefully maneuver through the packed space.
As dusk approached, the train was finally very close to the border, but stopped again, not at a station but next to stopped freight trains on either side.
This time, the doors were opened, and exhausted passengers climbed down. Some lit cigarettes, and volunteers that had come to the spot provided water, hot soup, and sandwiches. They also had diapers for the many infants and toddlers. Portable toilets had been set up nearby. When it was announced over loudspeakers that the train would be moving again shortly, people rushed to reboard the train. A few dozen people had been waiting in line for their turn to get some food or water, but they too headed back onto the train.
The train crossed slowly into Poland, and across a bridge over a tributary of the San River..
The bright lights of McDonald’s and Castorama, a European big-box home improvement store, could be seen out the window.
One elderly man reassured his neighbors that it would only be 10 more minutes. Although mobile phones automatically set clocks back one hour to Central European Time, that disguised only for a moment that the trip had already taken 12 hours.
Pulling slowly into Przemysl, once an Austro-Hungarian fortress and the site of several bloody battles during the First World War, the train reached its destination at last. The doors didn’t open immediately, and a Polish soldier announced that each passenger car would be unloaded in turn.
The pent-up emotions from a long and stressful day began to come out. The clamor seemed to have an effect, and Polish soldiers returned and opened the doors. Women with young children could disembark first, and this freed up space so that the remaining passengers could spread out and stretch out.
Outside, Polish passport control officers worked quickly, and people were directed to trains and buses.
On the newly built, multi-lane highway to Poland’s capital, Warsaw, many of the cars were streaked with mud and carried Ukrainian license plates. Inside, the occupants leaned into blankets and pillows as the cars carried them further west.