Rail workers recall the tough days of the first evacuations during war time

23 April, 07:51 PM
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Ukrzaliznytsia's trains evacuated more than 3,8 million Ukrainians to safety during two months of war (Photo:REUTERS/Igor Tkachenko)

Ukrzaliznytsia's trains evacuated more than 3,8 million Ukrainians to safety during two months of war (Photo:REUTERS/Igor Tkachenko)

Over the two months of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Ukraine’s railway operator, Ukrzaliznytsia, has evacuated 3.8 million Ukrainians – 10% of the country’s population – away from active war zones.

The workers of Ukraine’s railways struggle to precisely count the number of round trips they made during the initial Russian onslaught. Every day, around 10 trains would course along any given route, depending on the intensity of incoming Russian artillery fire and airstrikes.

Despite that, demand far outstripped what Ukrainian Railways could accommodate: people were sleeping at rail stations and in corridors, sometimes even brawling to try and secure their spot on a train to safety. Just 1,600 employees were tasked with taming this chaotic surge of chaotic masses of desperate people, working around the clock with no breaks whatsoever.

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NV interviewed several Ukrzaliznytsia workers about their experiences in those first fraught and chaotic days.

During two months of work on evacuation trains, the conductor Alla Hadirova learned to make poufs from buckets and heaters from empty bottles (Фото: DR)
During two months of work on evacuation trains, the conductor Alla Hadirova learned to make poufs from buckets and heaters from empty bottles / Фото: DR

Alla Hadirova, a 37-year-old train conductor from Dnipro:

The war caught me working on a train from Dnipro to Rakhiv. We were just passing Ivano-Frankivsk when I heard warplanes flying overhead. After some initial confusion, passengers started getting calls from their loved ones – that’s how we heard about explosions over Kyiv. We came back, and after two days at home, our regular schedule was replaced by the evacuation timetable. Not a single person in my crew hesitated about working under fire, everyone showed up.

Our first train was to Chop (Ukraine’s westernmost city on the Polish border), and we were met with overwhelming demand – people were literally breaking down the carriage doors. There were so many people that even the station couldn’t handle them all, let alone the train itself. Some were fleeing their destroyed homes, wearing their house clothes, spending two-three nights in open-air queues – all in order to get on a train.

As the passengers were squeezing into the train, they were losing their bags, prams, food, even children. Sleeves were torn off. Some even managed to get onboard without their coats – they were simply torn apart and away by the crowd. Everyone was doing all they could to get in.

I had to hold back tears, distributing people across carriages. Some cars that normally carry 18-20 passengers had to manage 200. Eight to twelve adults were standing in each cabin. There was an infant right in the middle of my car’s corridor, since all other passengers were also with children and handicapped companions, there were no seats left at all.

Our management was taking care of us, providing with catered hot meals. But we simply didn’t have time to eat or sleep. People were terrified, fleeing from incoming shelling. Sometimes I had to place children on one of my coats on the floor or try and keep teenagers warm in cold corridors. We would gather up empty bottles from people riding in the carriage, fill them up with hot water and pass them around.

The entire trip we would have no lights on and keep the windows draped – to avoid drawing attention. People were confused, asking questions, suffering mental breakdowns. I did my best to assuage them; at times, we would cry together.

After arriving at our destinations, we would spend a couple hours there and then start making our way back to pick up more passengers. I would barely come home. Preparing non-stop trips meant I would go for 12 days without seeing my family. That’s how we worked for over a month.

Our most arduous and lengthy trip lasted for 46 hours, as opposed to regular 16. We were taking people from Dnipro to Chełm in Poland, and had to make a lot of stops in the middle of nowhere due to air raid alerts.

Naturally, I gave up my cabin and was sleeping the corridor, sitting on a bucket. I would drape come blankets over buckets, making them into makeshift ottomans for passengers to sit on. Children, exhausted by the 40-hour-long trip, were crying relentlessly. As it happens, we also had quite a few animals in our carriage: five dogs, four cats, a turtle, a chinchilla, and two gerbils. We gathered them all up in one cabin, in a sort of a petting zoo for the children to have a little distraction. They were feeding the critters cookies and apples, filling the car with laughter.

Such long trips make people bond with one another. For instance, two mothers in my carriage got in an argument, fighting over a seat. Several hours later, after getting to know each other, one of them helped feed the other’s baby – the mother’s breast milk dried up due to stress. Upon arrival, they were taken care by volunteers, and we still keep in touch.

In general, I still talk to many of my passengers from that train. Having to share a bucket to sit on for 48 hours is no joke.

I had a strong sense that I couldn’t stand aside and shirk my responsibilities. Of course, I was afraid and a feeling that perhaps I could be doing better. Fortunately, fear pushed me to be courageous.

Intercity + driver with 20 years of experience on the railway Vitaliy Holovach has been taking people to safe regions since the first day of the war. (Фото: DR)
Intercity + driver with 20 years of experience on the railway Vitaliy Holovach has been taking people to safe regions since the first day of the war. / Фото: DR

Vitaliy Holovach, 40-year-old driver on high-speed Intercity+ trains.

I’ve been doing rail work my whole adult life: working in Ukrzaliznytsia for 20 years, driving trains for 16 years. Before the war, I worked regular routes: Kostyantynivka, Dnipro, Kharkiv, Lviv, Odesa. I heard the grim news over the radio. My shift was scheduled to begin at 0500. I remember thinking: “I have my schedule, I know my duties, and I will carry them out.”

Many of our crew members live in the suburbs and were simply unable to get to work on time that morning. According to regulations, we are supposed to have at least 16 hours of rest between trips, but in those circumstances, we had to work for as long as we had to. Our schedule was very fluid: the moment we had to ferry people away – we would.

Due to security concerns, we had more trains running at lower speeds. For example, getting to Lviv would take us 12 hours, instead of regular six.

I was rather surprised at how much people were panicking in the first couple of days. Some people were extremely emotional. It was a pity to see distraught women with children, they were clearly overwhelmed by the chaos. At one point, I had to take in a mother with her toddler into the cockpit, so that the child could calm down. Perhaps he will grow up to be a railway man – he had a lot of fun on our trip to Lviv.

Once, we came under an air raid in Myrhorod. We were told to immediately clear the station. That was difficult, since many passengers were stretching their legs outside. No nearby shelter was large enough to accommodate 579 of our people.

We sounded the alarm and asked everyone to board the train. A few seconds later the missiles struck. To my surprise, everyone got inside, quietly and without panic.

Sometimes we’d be facing damaged tracks. But the network was designed with this in mind, and we were well-prepared for this eventuality, even if I never thought I would ever need this training.

I’m not a fatalist, but I have a certain presence of mind. I understand that I’m driving a train full of people, for whom I am responsible. I can’t give in to fear and panic, since their eyes are on me. My work extends beyond my direct responsibilities.

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