Refugees from Luhansk have a harrowing train journey from danger

2 March 2022, 01:15 PM

New Voice of Ukraine Correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports on his escape from fighting in the east of Ukraine.

LYSYCHANSK, Luhansky Oblast, LVIV, Lviv Oblast - Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war that has engulfed their country are facing increasingly horrific and dangerous conditions as the number of escape routes dwindle.

Most people are heading westward, with the city of Lviv still viewed as a safe haven on the way to European Union (EU) countries.

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But that may soon change as 300 Belarusian tanks, according to Ukrainian military intelligence, wait at their side of Ukraine’s border, 110 kilometres (70 miles) north of Lviv, to join Russia’s onslaught.

The UN says more than 600,000 civilians have fled Ukraine and the EU estimates that up to four million may try to escape the Russian invasion.

Today (March 2) a convoy of UN vehicles set off for Uzhorod in western Ukraine on the border with Slovakia. Anyone who wanted to leave the capital was allowed to follow the convoy in their own vehicles and at their own risk.

I accompanied a trainload of evacuees from embattled areas of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk province on what turned out to be an exhausting three-day rail journey along a 1,120 kilometre route that, in normal times, takes around 24 hours.

Luhansk and neighbouring Donetsk Oblast have been partly-occupied by Moscow’s puppet “separatist” forces since the Kremlin first invaded Ukraine in 2014.

Children waiting for evacuation on Lysychansk Train Station (Фото: Askold Krushelnycky)
Children waiting for evacuation on Lysychansk Train Station / Photo: Askold Krushelnycky

Last week Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin declared the pro-Moscow entities independent republics and used the pretext of “liberating” them from fictional Ukrainian Government genocide against Russian speakers to launch his invasion.

Hundreds of evacuees, mostly women and children, were marooned at Lysychansk railway station, near the main Ukrainian-held city of Severodonetsk, because Russian shelling had destroyed some of the track between them and the train which had been scheduled to pick them up at 1600 on Feb. 25.

Tension mounted as the station staff put out announcements repeatedly delaying the train’s estimated time of arrival.

Artillery attack

At around 2230 Russian forces started pounding Lysychansk town and the sound of the blasts, amplified within the cavernous station triggered screams from terrified children.

Some people threw themselves and their children to the hard faux-marble floor. Others rush out to shelter in a 1960s dilapidated and pathetically small bomb shelter that can only accommodate a fraction of those trying to enter by perilously steep and rickety wooden stairs.

A young adult handicapped man who, had been stretched out on a wooden bench in the waiting room, is hastily placed in his wheelchair and pushed toward the shelter where people carry him inside.

I stay in the waiting room and, like some of the other passengers, try to snatch some sleep in the increasingly chilly hall. Outdoors the temperatures are below freezing and preserve patches of dirty, packed ice from the remains of the last snowfall.

Just after 0100 on Feb. 26 an explosion, which sounds as if it’s from a large calibre mortar, wakes us again prompts commotion and a rush to leave the waiting room and its tall, windows on two sides that tremble as if about to shatter each time there is an explosion. The windows miraculously hold and only the heartbreaking screams of the children echo through the hall.

I checked the cramped bomb shelter, a damp space about 25 feet by 12, with threesides lined with timber- framed bunk beds. People are sitting on the lower bunks, while others sit on the floor or stand. A Dachsund and a pug in a fancy, black puffer coat, quietly growl at one another. The humans are silent, almost motionless.

A 17-year-old student, Nazari, accompanying his 12-year-old sister, explained they were from Stanytsia Luhanska, a town close to the frontlines that were established when the war began in 2014 and has experienced intermittent shelling and shooting ever since.

He said that since Feb. 16 there had been increasing shelling from the pro-Russian side. He said that was to fit in with the Kremlin's fake-reality narrative that the Ukrainians were stepping up shelling

Originally Nazari gave me his full name. A while later, after phoning his relatives, he asked that I did not use his name as his family in Russian-held territory might suffer. Most of those I interviewed in or from the occupied territory were anxious about being identified.

Nazari said: “The Russians fired 10 shells for every one the Ukrainian side used. There was a lot of destruction in our town and many dead and wounded."

Previously, he said, the Russian army had always tried to conceal its presence in Luhansk, but after the invasion began it poured artillery into the town, including devastating "Grad" missiles.

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Nevertheless, Moscow still insists, ludicrously, that only “separatist” forces are fighting in Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.

Shelling resumes

Around 1230 on Feb. 25 the train finally arrived. Shelling resumed as we scrambled aboard and continued as we picked up speed.

It took some five-and-a-half hours because of multiple stops in the middle of nowhere for reasons the railway staff only explained as “because of fighting,” to reach the town of Popasna, a mere 60 kilometres away.

There we stayed for nearly three hours. Shelling began and seemed to creep closer toward the train. Whether it really was or was a horrible trick of the imagination, the tension certainly increased. Some people prayed, somewhere a woman laughed uncontrollably, in our compartment a woman told her seven-year-old daughter to lie on the floor and enfolded her telling the little girl to put her fingers in her ears to block out the sounds of explosions.

When the train finally moved off relief swept through the carriages and there were even some cheers. The mere motion of the train felt as if we were leaving danger behind although, of-course, that was just wishful thinking.

Jana, 43, was traveling alone, having left behind her husband, a soldier in the border guards near the city of Cherkassy. “He just came home on (Feb. 25) and insisted I packed a bag,” she said, “He was worried that the Russian forces were going to overwhelm our side. We had very little time to say goodbye. I hope I will see him and our home again. But I don’t know what the next few days will bring.”

Maya, 38, whose husband is also in the military, was traveling with her sons Danylo, seven, and Ivan, eight. The two boys knew there was fighting going but remained unanxious thanks to their mother’s superhuman effort to show calm. They played games on a mobile phone until their mother laid them to sleep. Only when their eyes were closed did she clasp her head in her hands and whisper: “God, how is this going to end?”

One of the passengers in my carriage, Vitaly, tall and fit, had the bearing of a soldier had, indeed, been one until 2020 for three years after signing up to the Ukrainian Army and fighting the pro-Russian forces in his native Luhansk.

During that time, he received a six-week course in specialist fighting skills by British Army trainers.

He explained that he was not heading for Lviv but wanted to reach Kyiv, and join in its defence.

At a junction at the town of Lyman, the train halted, those including me who were going to Lviv boarded another train across the platform, which we later found out had been waiting there 24 hours for us.

Vitaly bid goodbye to me and said: "I know how to fight and I couldn't bear to stick around in Stanytsia Luhansk being shelled by the stupid bastards there. So I'm going to Kyiv. Whatever happens we have to kill as many of them as we can and show that we did our best."

We did not know it then but Popasna was the last place we were shelled on our journey.

Many halts

As dawn broke on the morning of Feb. 27 the train slowly passed through the city of Dnipro which straddles Ukraine’s largest river of the same name. Then the line curved northwest through magnificent landscapes of river, lakes, forest and low hills on the side paralleling the Dnipro River. On the other side the tilled, black earth of the steppe stretched away to the horizon; the same rich soil that made Ukraine known as “the breadbasket of Europe” and has attracted invaders for centuries.

There were many more halts as railway staff worked out safe routes that often meant meandering along local lines. In normal circumstances the train would have taken one of two main lines passing through the large towns of Vinnytsia or Zhytomyr but both being hit by Russian missiles.

At one halt one of the train conductors distributed fruit juices, bananas and mandarins donated by the town’s mayor for the child evacuees. Danylo eagerly opened his juice and said: “Oh… it’s like it’s my birthday!”

Another anxious night passed before the train pulled into Lviv’s main railway station at 0530.

The disembarking passengers had to push their way through crowds of people desperately trying to board trains that were heading westward out of Ukraine to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. Some fights broke out as people mobbed already-packed trains.

The exhausted passengers from Luhansk had arrived at the end of a grueling trip, but saw their journey to safety was far from over.

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