One day on the evacuation train that takes scores westward from war-torn Donbas

29 May, 01:40 PM
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23-year-old Yulia (center) gave birth to a son two weeks ago in Toretsk. She goes with her husband Kostyantyn (left, holding her son in her arms) and neighbors to Dnipro (Photo:Oleksandr Medvedev /NV)

23-year-old Yulia (center) gave birth to a son two weeks ago in Toretsk. She goes with her husband Kostyantyn (left, holding her son in her arms) and neighbors to Dnipro (Photo:Oleksandr Medvedev /NV)

Despite the great risks, the Pokrovsk-Dnipro-Lviv evacuation train takes hundreds of people from Donbas to safer places every day. NV spent a day on the train, chronicling its story and the tireless work of those helping to save hundreds of their fellow citizens.

An empty train from Dnipro to the city of Pokrovsk in Donetsk Oblast will reach its destination in 10 minutes. It’s 3:10 pm.

 A 19-year-old girl with big glasses is diligently collecting various papers spread out on the table in one of the train’s compartments. This is Natalia Kulychkovska, the conductor on Pokrovsk-Dnipro-Lviv evacuation train, which takes people out of warzones to relative peace, for free, on a daily basis. For her, though, it’s her route home — she was born in Pokrovsk.

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Kulychkovska went to work for Ukrzaliznytsia, Ukraine’s rail operator, immediately after graduating from a technical school in the town of Lyman, Kramatorsk district, Donetsk Oblast, which is currently being assaulted by the Russian military.

The family of 19-year-old guide Natalia remains living in Pokrovsk. She is very worried about her family (Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV)
The family of 19-year-old guide Natalia remains living in Pokrovsk. She is very worried about her family / Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV

"Just managed to complete my studies,” the young attendant quietly admits.

“Because now my technical school and dormitory are no more. Everything has been destroyed.”

She was hired nine months ago. Three of those months of her first year of work happened to be in wartime. This is the woman’s second trip on the evacuation train.

"When I see people leaving and my family is still here, it hurts,” she says.

“I suggested that they leave, but they didn't want to," she adds, the sadness audible in her tone.

In 10 minutes, when the train stops at the Pokrovsk railway station, Kulychkovska's mother approaches the car with her two younger brothers to talk briefly to her daughter, while people looking to leave gather around the station.

According to the Donetsk Oblast Military Administration, 1.67 million people lived in this Ukrainian-controlled region until February 24. Now there are only about 360,000 to 370,000 remaining. At first, many people were leaving, but then the outflow slowed down significantly.

People board an evacuation train in Pokrovsk (Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev)
People board an evacuation train in Pokrovsk / Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev

But recently, after the deterioration of the situation at the front and the intensification of the enemy's offensive, the number of voluntary evacuees picked up again. On May 24, when NV visited Pokrovsk, 300 people boarded a train consisting of seven cars. They arrived at the station from various Donbas hot spots on buses organized by volunteers.

Roman Zhylenkov, a former sports coach and private entrepreneur turned volunteer for the Vostok SOS team, stands on the platform and speaks a bit with NV, talking about who has been evacuating since early March. As a resident of Kreminna in Luhansk Oblast, he first took people from there. But then Kreminna was occupied by the Russians. Zhylenkov managed to evacuate his family to Dnipro, and now evacuates Bakhmut residents daily.

The situation in Donbas is gradually deteriorating, he said. Most of those who wanted to leave had done so long ago. But the most vulnerable categories remain: people with limited mobility, the disabled, single retirees who do not even have relatives, though volunteers are still evacuating families with young children, who hoped to the last that the fighting would subside.

Persuading the elderly to leave, however, is a daunting task, reveals Zhylenkov.

Vostok SOS volunteers help locals to evacuate from Bakhmut by taking them to evacuation trains in Pokrovsk (Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV)
Vostok SOS volunteers help locals to evacuate from Bakhmut by taking them to evacuation trains in Pokrovsk / Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV

"In the evening you make a list: 20 people sign up,” he explained.

“In the morning you start calling them up, and there are now 10 of them – those who are still in. You reach the meeting point and in fact collect only seven.”

The volunteer points to two elderly women standing near the station, but not getting into the train car. They were brought from Avdiivka by evacuation bus to Pokrovsk. But the women, as it turned out, came here only to receive their pension.

"Avdiivka is under heavy fire now, why aren't you going?” NV asks.

"I'm scared. We live in basements, but we've had these shelling attacks for eight years," she explains, and asks how she can now return from Pokrovsk to Avdiivka. Neither NV nor volunteers know what to tell her.

 Operation Evacuation

 The trainmaster, Tetyana Vislohuzova, says that the evacuation service is unusual.

"By and large passengers go by train somewhere to rest, or to visit, or on some business trips,” she says.

“They know where they are going and they are mostly happy people. And here people are in despair, they have lost everything and do not know where to go next.”

Ukrzaliznytsia workers travel from Dnipro to Pokrovsk in an empty train and pick up hundreds of people willing to leave Donbas (Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/ NV)
Ukrzaliznytsia workers travel from Dnipro to Pokrovsk in an empty train and pick up hundreds of people willing to leave Donbas / Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/ NV

On such a trip, the most difficult thing for UZ employees is not even the organizational work — that was quickly sorted out – but the terrifying stories told by passengers. Inside the train, on the way to Dnipro, railway employees help draw up documents for passengers to receive financial assistance from the state. That's why they listen to these stories.

"For example, in the evening, a woman tells me that she left the village where shelling is continuing, and there is a lot of destruction,” Vislohuzova recalls.

“But her house and several other houses survived. And in the morning she comes to charge her phone and says: my village is gone, all the houses have been destroyed.”

Oleksandr Babich, manager of the social policy department of UZ’s Passenger Company branch, has been accompanying evacuation trains from Donbas since early April. In reality, he is a doctor, who has been working with the railway for 28 years, and conducts first aid training for staff along the way.

Babich recalls leaving Kyiv on April 7 for Kramatorsk, where he and others were meant to pick people up by evacuation train. The service ran late. Arriving in Slovyansk on the morning of April 8, he learned that the Russians had fired a Tochka-U missile at the Kramatorsk railway station, killing 60 people, including children, and wounding another 100. All of them were just waiting to be evacuated.

"Passengers [from Kramatorsk] were brought by bus to Slovyansk. Everyone was in a state of shock," Babich says.

Oleksandr Babich (center) shows UZ staff how to provide first aid (Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV)
Oleksandr Babich (center) shows UZ staff how to provide first aid / Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV

He himself is a local, from Bakhmut. Babich received his medical education in Luhansk, and worked for many years in both Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. His parents are still in Bakhmut, where the situation is getting worse with every passing day. But even he, a man who helps others evacuate, has so far failed to persuade his relatives to leave.

After the shelling of the Kramatorsk railway station, the service from Pokrovsk remained the only passenger railway our from Donetsk Oblast.

"Of course, we're scared — only an idiot is not afraid. But we are all afraid here. That's why there is less fear for everyone,” says Babich.

 Tragic old age

At the station in Pokrovsk, the train waits a little over an hour. According to the schedule, it departs at 4:30 pm; in reality — it depends. Passengers do not arrive at the same time, but in groups. Bed-ridden people are brought by ambulances or volunteer minibuses: the train has a special car with a lift to transport those with restricted mobility.

It was there, during the return trip to Dnipro, that NV met two sisters: 75-year-old Kateryna and 67-year-old Raisa. Both left the same village near Bakhmut. They decided to evacuate after their close relatives — their entire family — died in Lyman.

"It happened last week. That’s when we decided it was time to go," says Kateryna through tears.

Sisters Raisa and Kateryna leave with their brother (on the shelf), who has been bedridden for 27 years (Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV)
Sisters Raisa and Kateryna leave with their brother (on the shelf), who has been bedridden for 27 years / Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV

On the shelf of the compartment in which the sisters sit, in a diaper lies their 73-year-old brother Oleksandr. Disabled since childhood, he has been bedridden for the last 27 years. He suffered a stroke and has lived with a catheter for three years.

"We need to be by his side every minute, he needs constant care," explains the eldest sister.

Volunteers promised that their brother would be taken to hospital in Dnipro, but they still do not know where the sisters will live.

"I'm all crooked myself, I can barely walk. Who thought that in old age we would have to flee like that?” wonders Kateryna.

But she believes she will return home with her family.

"We trust in our defenders, we send them a guardian angel every day," Raisa says, joining the conversation.

In the same compartment is a stranger to them — 72-year-old Ivan from Bakhmut. He was brought into the train on a stretcher.

"Do you have anyone to go to?" NV asks the pensioner, who is hard of hearing, very loudly.

"No. I have no one in Kharkiv at all,” he replies.

Natalia from Avdiivka delayed leaving Avdiivka for a long time because of 9-year-old Labrador Rafael (Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV)
Natalia from Avdiivka delayed leaving Avdiivka for a long time because of 9-year-old Labrador Rafael / Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV

"Old man, we're going to Dnipro!" Raisa clarifies.

"To Dnipro? Doesn’t make a difference, I have no one anywhere," Ivan responds. A month before the all-out war, he buried his wife and is now alone. He did not want to leave — he was evacuated by volunteers, because there was nobody in the city to take care of him.

Born in the war

From the specialized car, where in addition to the old people confined to bed, a mentally ill woman was also transported in a separate compartment that day, NV visited an economy class car. There, doctors measure people's blood pressure, and Ukrzaliznytsia employees fill out documents for passengers so that they can receive financial aid upon arrival at the station.

There is enough space for everyone: people, dogs, cats, sick people and healthy ones. No one complained.

There’s one family with a toddler. Two weeks ago, 23-year-old Yulia gave birth to a boy, Artem in Toretsk. This is her second child, but she has not been able to register the baby yet: it is currently impossible to obtain a birth certificate in Toretsk. The city, located just 25 km from Horlivka, which was occupied in 2014, suffers daily from horrific shelling.

Now Yulia, her husband Kostiantyn, and their neighbors — the elderly Lyudmyla and her 18-year-old granddaughter – are leaving together for a safe place.

"There has been no water supply in Toretsk for three months. That's how I gave birth,” says Yulia. Neither she nor her husband have relatives in other regions. They hope to find housing in Dnipro.

"You sit in the house in silence, and then everything starts to shake,” the young mother describes her last days in Toretsk.

“I ran the baby to the basement, and I covered him with a blanket.”

The family decided to leave after a shell fragment fell right by the entrance to their house.

“I have 10 chickens — I go out into the yard to pick grass for them, and then "peeooh, peeooh" and I run back to the house,” says their elderly neighbor Lyudmyla, describing the sounds of enemy shelling. She turned 73 the day before the evacuation.

"We barely left the town and 20 minutes later a woman was killed at the market."

Everyone has their own war story on the train. For example, Natalia and her son David: they didn’t evacuate from Avdiivka for a long time because of their pet — a 9-year-old black Labrador named Raphael. The sad-looking dog, lying next to them on the shelf, catches the eye with his large size and quietness.

"There are a lot of abandoned animals in the city. It hurts to see this," Natalia admits.

Family from Bakhmut. Dasha, her husband Sasha, and two-year-old Myron are in a hurry for an evacuation train (Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV)
Family from Bakhmut. Dasha, her husband Sasha, and two-year-old Myron are in a hurry for an evacuation train / Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV

It also hurts her to watch the destruction of Avdiivka, which has suffered so much during the war. In 2014, the woman had already left the city for her mother’s place in the surrounding oblast. Now it is impossible — the enemy is there.

"It's hard to even visit your relatives,” Natalia explains.

“Their lives and yours are changing. And to leave everything behind, realizing that you are going nowhere — it's painful and hard.”

The depressing atmosphere on the train is lightened by children's laughter. Small kids who have just met each other are playing together. They travel in the same compartment: a family from Bakhmut — Dasha, her husband Sasha and two-year-old Myron, as well as Kateryna with two children from the village of Ocheretyno.

On June 10, Kateryna's youngest son Valentyn will be two months old. She gave birth to him in Pokrovsk, and was the only woman in labor at the hospital that day.

"On February 24, a full-scale war began, and you are due soon. How did you feel at that moment?” NV asks.

"I'm fine, but my husband has been very vocal about rushing to get a [second] child," she recalls.

At about 8 pm, the evacuation train arrives in Dnipro, where most of the passengers get off. Only some of them go further — to Lviv.

According to the Donetsk regional administration, during the three months of the war, more than 258,000 people have left Donbas on the evacuation services, including 62,000 from Pokrovsk.

On the morning of May 25, the day after NV took the evacuation train, the Russians shelled Pokrovsk, which had previously been considered a relatively quiet city. So far, this has not disrupted the evacuation: on the same day, the Pokrovsk-Dnipro-Lviv train again took several hundred people to safer corners.

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