How a British-Ukrainian family reached Warsaw from Ukraine’s capital

11 March, 07:15 PM
A man holds his son during evacuation from Ukraine (illustrative photo) (Photo:Ukrzaliznytsia)

A man holds his son during evacuation from Ukraine (illustrative photo) (Photo:Ukrzaliznytsia)

It’s three o’clock in the morning, and my fellow passengers’ heads bob as they sleep, fitfully, in this cold, rattling evacuation train rushing us from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv to the western city of Lviv.

Hooded and masked – not against COVID but against the cold – the evacuees will not reach their destination for another three hours.

We’ve already been on the train for about 10 hours. My family’s journey began hours before that, as we locked up our small flat in a western district of Kyiv and made our way to the bus stop with all the baggage we could carry. There are four of us: me, my partner, her mother (Babushka), and my daughter, aged six. None of us know whether we will ever see our homes again.

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We wait for a bus that never comes. Of course it was absurd to wait for a bus to take us to Kyiv’s central station in the middle of a war, so we, equally absurdly, call a taxi. And again absurdly, one actually shows up. We throw our luggage into the car and pile in ourselves.

The car races along the road to the center of the city. We frequently slow down to weave through checkpoints manned (and womened) by armed Kyiv citizens who have joined the Territorial Defense Forces. We make it to the central station, gather together our luggage and join a crush to enter the station.

I’m carrying a large rucksack and two computer bags, which are stuffed with devices, chargers, and power banks. We have a wheeled suitcase, our robust little shopping trolley, packed with food, medicines, and some extra clothes, my daughter’s bright pink school rucksack, another small rucksack, three lady’s shoulder bags, and another small computer bag with all our essential documents.

Train to Lviv

By the time we get to the station platform, the next train to Lviv is packed to the very doors – people are standing on the steps leading into each wagon, and there is no way that we will get on to the train with all our luggage. We walk up to the head of the train, to see if there is more space there – there is none.

The train draws slowly away from the platform. Men walk, then jog, then run beside it, pressing their hands to the dirty glass of the train windows, against the hands of their loved ones on the other side. Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are to stay behind to defend their city and country, so there are many painful goodbyes being made today.

We wait for another train, which, we are told by a fellow evacuee who says she “has connections,” will come in 30 minutes to an hour. Her connections prove good, and a little over an hour another suburban train, dirty and ancient, pulls up at the platform. Already at the head of the queue to embark, we pile ourselves and our luggage into the first carriage of the train and even manage to get seats. They are hard with barely any padding, but it’s better than standing or sitting on the floor. Late-comers to the carriage are doing just that in every available space at the ends of the carriage.

The train starts to pull away, and the driver informs us over a crackling public address system that the route that the train is taking is uncertain – it may have to change depending on Russian military activity. The final destination is indeed Lviv, but for some of our fellow passengers, who got on the train in the hope of it passing through the city of Vinnytsia, there is disappointment: In the end, we make a detour of the city and they have to disembark miles from their intended destination.

Cold arrival

We pull in to Lviv’s train station shortly before 0600 and hurriedly get off the train, joining a crowd on the platform that is quickly forming at the stairs down to an underpass below the platforms. This is the exit to the city, and people are packed in it shoulder to shoulder and chest to back – some station marshals attempt to keep the flow of people moving. Most are leaving the station, but many are trying to get onto platforms to take other trains – some of them going to Ukraine’s border with Poland.

Leaving the station building, we’re hit by cold air and light snow begins to dust our coats. Thousands are milling about, and we join them. There are tents for children and mothers to warm up in, but we don’t want to split up. We search for trains and buses to take us to Poland, but the queues are huge.

Anyway, I have been told to wait for 24 to 48 hours for a call from the UK Home Office, to receive instructions about how to apply in Lviv in a visa center to take my family to the UK. That call only comes the next day, and by that time the visa center is closed for the weekend. Later we hear that it never reopened, though I haven’t been able to confirm that.

I’m starting to feel light-headed and slightly confused. It’s the cold, but it’s also because in the rush of evacuation I’ve hardly eaten anything for 24 hours. We find a brazier burning chunks of wood where I manage to warm up a bit, and then we get some hot tea from a volunteers’ tent. I feel better, but it’s clear we won’t be able to stay here in the open for the 24 to 48 hours that we’re supposed to be waiting for the Home Office call.

I decide that I have to get help, and call a colleague whom I hope is still in Lviv. Thankfully, he answers, and together with one of his relatives we are taken by car to the place where he is staying, about 20-30 minutes away by car from the station. There, we get a proper breakfast, and a place to sleep for a while.

By the late afternoon we are ready to brave the station again. We load up our luggage and are dropped off close to Lviv train station – we have to walk the last half-a-kilometer or so to the station itself because the roads around the station are jammed with cars and buses.

When we get to the station, we find that the situation has deteriorated since the morning. The line of people waiting for evacuation trains to the border has quadrupled in length. We find a Polish bus service that charges UAH 2,500 per person, about $90, to take people to the border. We join a queue to board, and wait, shuffling forward with our pile of baggage every so often.

The temperature is falling again and it has started to snow. I take my daughter to a nearby café to get some hot tea. We sit at a table but are immediately told the café is closing – it’s curfew time.

As we exit, I see to my right the body of a man lying on the pavement in front of the café. His face and upper body are covered with a jacket, and his absolute stillness betrays death. I put myself between my daughter and the body and steer her to the left, and she does not see the dead man. Later, my partner says she saw blood around the body – he had died a violent death, it appears.

We keep queueing for the bus to Poland. The temperature is dropping again. The snow starts again. My daughter complains of the cold. My partner and her mother leave the queue in search of other buses. Periodically there are commotions in the queue, as people hear rumors of other buses becoming available. Some grab their belongings and rush away, only to return to the queue disappointed, and seeking to resume the place they had before.

Then, at about 2100, we hear that there will be no more buses tonight, with the next one only expected at 0600 the next morning. It is impossible for us to spend the night in the open, and we once more call for help to my friend, who, thankfully, agrees to pick us up again.

Break for the border

We spend another night at his place and abandon our attempt to leave Lviv by bus or train. Instead, we arrange for a car to take us to the border with my colleague’s relative. We eat a late meal and are able to get a full night’s sleep.

The next day, at about mid-day, I finally get my call from the Home Office. I can’t remember the details of the conversation but the person at the other end of the line seems very pleased and relieved to hear that we’re heading for Warsaw to do the bureaucracy required to get the Ukrainian members of our party into the UK.

At about 1500 we’re in the car, a black VW Golf, with all our luggage, to make our dash for the border. Our driver, Oleh, is quiet and courteous. We begin the 80-kilometer journey in silence.

At the edge of Lviv we encounter a column of cars, waiting to pass by a checkpoint. It takes about half an hour to get through it. We pass through several other checkpoints on our way to the border, but are not delayed very long. Sitting in the front passenger seat, I push up my daughter’s pink rucksack on my knees as we pass through checkpoints to show that we have a child on board. We are not stopped.

Still, what should be a one-hour trip stretches on to two hours. I follow our progress on my phone, watching the blue dot on Google maps that marks our position creep westwards as we race along the road. From time to time we pass entry roads leading off to villages – at each one there are checkpoints made of white sandbags, decked with Ukrainian flags, and which have armed people nearby. It seems each village is prepared to defend itself from the Russians, should they invade this part of the country.

We reach a town about 10 kilometers from the border and have to stop. This is where the queue of cars stretching to the border begins, and it would take our driver hours to negotiate it. He promises that other transport will be able to take us to the border. We unpack our luggage and take cover from the cold in an ATB supermarket.

If the promised transport does not appear, we face a long walk to the border. I buy some calorie-packed snacks at the supermarket, and contemplate the practicalities and ethics of stealing a couple of shopping trolleys, loading them with our luggage, and rattling them along the road to the border. Maybe we need a third for my daughter, or perhaps Babushka, to ride in, I think to myself.

But our ride to the border turns up. It’s an SUV with a border guard commander and a couple of soldiers. The commander looks at me grimly. “I thought it was two women and a child,” he says. It is explained that I am a foreigner. “Citizenship?” he says gruffly.

“British,” I say, and he immediately waves us into the SUV. The UK’s deliveries of NLAW anti-tank weapons have endeared Britons to Ukrainians, and the Ukrainian military in particular. We pile into the SUV and are soon rushing towards the border, lights flashing and sirens blaring, on the wrong side of the road.

On the right side of the road we see long queues of cars, and on occasion groups of people making the long walk to the border. I feel extremely uncomfortable: not only at leaving Ukraine when my colleagues are remaining behind, but at skipping the queue to the border in this brazen fashion. True, I have to do everything in my power to get an elderly person and a young child out of Ukraine safely and to safety, but we’re no better than the people in the queue and it feels terribly wrong. Not for the first time I feel ashamed to be leaving Ukraine in this, its time of greatest danger.

We are dropped right next to the border post, meters away from passport control. After our documents are checked, we walk down a short road to the Polish passport control. There, a short line of Ukrainians is waiting to have their passports checked. Polish border guards offer us hot tea and a bag of sweets for our child as we wait.

The Polish border guards note the growing line and open up another passport control kiosk. It takes five minutes for the four of us to be checked and admitted to Polish territory. In another ten minutes we and our luggage are loaded onto a large, comfortable bus, which whisks us the 10 kilometers to the nearby town of Przemysl. There, at a staging area, we are sorted into smaller groups and sent by minibus to our desired destination – Warsaw. The trip takes about five hours.

We are dropped at the bus station in the center of the Polish capital, and take a taxi to a hotel near the airport that I booked over the Internet as we traveled to Warsaw. We check in at about 0100 on Sunday.

And here we remain, five days later – blocked from further travel to the UK by British bureaucracy. But that is another story – a long, tedious, and frustrating one.

This is a personal story, written by the New Voice of Ukraine's own Editor-at-Large Euan MacDonald.

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