In the first 12 days following Russia’s invasion, an estimated 2 million refugees fled Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands made the journey west by train, with train cars and railway stations becoming terrifying scenes. For many, boarding a train became a fight for survival between otherwise fellow compatriots.
At the train station in Kyiv, for instance, there were stampedes. Videos of chaos circulated on the Internet, including one of guards firing shots in the air to maintain order. “We tried to run as fast as possible to the second floor of the train station to get off at our platform,” said Sofia, 23, about the challenges of just boarding a train at Kyiv. The crowd “did not even let children pass. People held their children on their shoulders so that they would not be crushed,” she said.
“When people came down to the platform, they ran so fast that our babushka fell, and people started trampling her. It was difficult to lift her up at that moment, because people were on top of her,” she added, having made it to the train station in Kraków, Poland, with her grandmother and two dogs.
“Everyone was trying to get on,” said Anas, 24, of his experience at the Kyiv station. “People tried to hang on to the train, the police pushed them from the train, and their bags just fell on them. They got injured.”
He said he saw “indecent things done by the police,” which only created more panic. “My friend was with his wife, six months pregnant, and they just threw her from the train,” he told me, now standing outside the train station in Košice, Slovakia, with his wife, Anna. “How could you do something like that?”
Anas was a medical student from Morocco at the Karazin Kharkiv National University for four years before Russian air strikes demolished his dormitory. After two nights at a subway station taking shelter from bombs, he and his wife decided to escape. By train, they went from Kharkiv to Poltava, Poltava to Kyiv, then Kyiv to Lviv.
Lviv, 35 miles from the Polish border, and with a connecting train to Przemyśl, just across the border, was a popular destination. With most refugees exiting to Poland, over 1.2 million so far, the train station became a flash point for unrest. “We found another tragedy there in Lviv,” said Anas. “People were pushing people, everyone there. People were getting harmed.”
Another refugee at the Kraków train station, Alexandra, 19, who rode the train from Nikopol, said people were acting “like animals.” In Lviv, “we could have been thrown under the train. The children were crying and screaming ‘Mama, mama, please help!’” she said, standing next to her 5-month-old baby and her sister, who is eight months pregnant. “People at every stage of the road were crazy. There was a real struggle for survival.”
Under Ukraine’s martial law, military-aged Ukrainian men 18 to 60 are forbidden to leave the country. But at the train stations, in many cases no men were allowed to board trains at all. “They were going to separate us, and take only children and women,” said Anas. “We are foreigners, but still they wouldn’t take us out.”
Anas and his wife eventually gave up on Lviv and rode another train, from Lviv to Uzhhorod, where they crossed into Slovakia on foot. Alexandra and her family also gave up on a train to Poland, instead taking a taxi close to the border and walking the last kilometer to Poland.
When refugees were lucky enough to board a train, the scenes inside the train cars were not much better than the ones on the platforms. On my train from Khmelnytskyi to Lviv, there were 10 people in my sleeper cabin designed for four. The corridor was lined with 20 refugees, sleeping upright on their luggage or lying on the floor. It was a perverse game of human Tetris. Despair was on the faces of everyone fleeing their homes, perhaps never to return. In my cabin, a man escorted his pregnant wife to the border, though he was unable to leave the country himself.
“Most of them were just standing in the train because there was no place to sit,” said Sofia. “The bathroom had three people in it, blocking the toilet the whole way. No one could use it.”
From Kyiv to Lviv is usually a six-hour train ride. During these wartime conditions, some refugees said, it took 10 hours or more. Those whose journey began east of Kyiv endured a multiday transit, needing to transfer to trains heading further west.
Another refugee named Anna, 34, and her husband, Sven, a German, 36, said they had to pay a bribe to get on the train—2,000 hryvnia, the equivalent of about $66. They rode on the train for 12 hours from Kyiv.
“We sat in the corridor on the floor,” Anna, who is seven months pregnant, told me. “A lot of people. Angry people.”
With such limited space in the train cars, they took shifts sleeping. “We share a small place next to the door, so someone can put for one hour his feet in this direction, then change to the next one,” Sven said.
But he told me there were signs of humanity. Some passengers offered to share food with the couple. They already had food, so they offered to share theirs in return. “You see all the people was in the same story, the same problem, so they still try to help or minimize a little bit the pain,” he said, while waiting for aid in the train station in Prague.
The mass evacuation of refugees is a humanitarian disaster rippling across Europe. Refugees have filled train stations—and cities—in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland. In Kraków, Ukrainians are standing and sitting on benches, on floors, and under staircases in the train lobbies. Multiple storefronts in the train station have been converted into humanitarian-aid facilities with lines of refugees waiting to be given food, water, and toiletries. Most ATMs were out of money or out of order.
While the economic and demographic toll of Russia’s war on Ukraine may not be known for months or years, the psychic toll is already apparent. “We are really in a trauma still, we need psychological treatment,” said Anas. “I don’t know if we can ever get back to normal ever again.”
Alexandra told me that when she thinks about what’s happening in Ukraine, “goose bumps run through my skin,” and that now she sees “everything in a fog.”
No one interviewed for this story gave their last name, for fear of reprisal, from whichever country they were going to apply for asylum—or from Russia against their families left behind.
One morning in Kraków, the train heading west from Przemyśl pulled into the station. When the doors opened, it was nearly impossible to board. The cars were packed to the platform. Unhappy children sat on the floor outside the bathrooms, their babushkas standing above them.
But while most Ukrainians were riding the trains away from war, some rode the opposite way. On a mostly empty eastbound train to Przemyśl, Misha, a 33-year-old construction worker, was returning to fight the Russian invaders. He said he was not afraid: “You can’t escape from your fate.”
“Slava Ukrayini,” he said, repeating the popular patriotic refrain: Glory to Ukraine.