An uncertain journey: life inside Lviv railway station
Western Ukraine’s largest city has become a hub for humanitarian aid and offers respite for those fleeing Russian violence
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Lviv’s railway station has become a haven for people fleeing the fighting and airstrikes.
For most who have fled their homes, this is the first place where they can eat and sleep safely in weeks, the first place where they can cry uncontrollably, at last. This is where women see off men who are going to war, and where men see off their mothers, wives and children who are forced to flee the country. Tens of thousands of kilograms of humanitarian aid pass through the station to be sent all around the country.
Many people have been seeking refuge in Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine and approximately 70 kilometres east of the Polish border. Aside from a strike to an aircraft repair plant on 18 March, it has been largely untouched by Russian bombing.
Trains arrive at all hours. People come from Sumy, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Odesa and Chernihiv. Sometimes they arrive in their cars when railway connections have been interrupted. The station’s forecourt is very crowded. The queue at the entrance stretches across the big square outside. Women, men, children, people in wheelchairs, soldiers, dogs and cats in carriers, birds in cages, hamsters in pockets. Along the wall of the station and in every available corner of the hall, people are sitting on their bags, lying on mats, trying to doze off while standing up. Ten people are waiting by each socket to charge their phone. “Mum, I’m on two percent battery. I’m already in Lviv, I’m OK. Can you hear me?”
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A room for women and children has been set up on the first floor of the station. A woman in a beige tracksuit sits on a mattress on the floor, eyes closed but unable to sleep. There are several bags full of children’s things and a couple of toys next to her. This is Irina, from Kharkiv. She arrived in Lviv yesterday with her four children. Her eldest is 11, her youngest five. She raises them on her own. “We’re already doing better… Leaving was very difficult. Getting to the station was near impossible. We had to walk. Taxis wouldn’t stop. I walked, with the bags, the children, under airstrikes. It was very hard.”
At this point, a young woman carrying a baby in a warm pram footmuff comes up to us. “Guys, can I please leave this one to sleep here with you while you’re up? She didn’t sleep at all yesterday, we were driving… Let me lie her down for just ten minutes, OK?”
“Go ahead, of course,” Irina says, clearing her things from a corner of the mattress. The woman puts her daughter down and rushes away. “At least for ten minutes. Thank you, thank you!”
The baby sleeps, despite the noise and the loud conversations around us: “We have diapers and baby food here”, “Take some apples”, “Volunteers, feel free to eat. Ukraine needs volunteers that are strong and well-fed”, “We need some medication for temperature”, “There’s a bus for Warsaw in an hour”, “Can we get a sleeping-sack somewhere?”, “I brought some diapers and some packs of cereal, where should I leave them?”, “Look, it’s all free”, “We have pancakes, we have dumplings, buckwheat with sausage. What would you like?”, “Whatever you don’t mind giving us”, “Masha, go have a pee quickly and we’ll be off.”
Irina continues to tell me how difficult it was to travel by train. Like thousands of those who have fled, the family had to start their journey on foot, walking to Kharkiv train station under incessant shelling. They miraculously managed to get on the train. Once aboard, people were sleeping on the floor, some had to stand all the way. “Standing all day long. I couldn’t sleep and my children lay on the floor. The whole carriage was full of women and children. There were a couple of teenage boys and a couple of men”, Irina says, and then, bluntly: “It’s good here, there’s no constant shelling.”
Suddenly, Irina begins to sob silently. “I’m sorry,” she says. I can’t hold back my tears either. Her children are running around us. They’ve taken off their coats and shoes, and are running around in socks. One volunteer mops the floor between mattresses, bags, mats, boxes, camp beds, sleeping bags, wooden pallets and clothes. But the floor keeps getting dirty. The young woman carries on mopping, again and again.
Another volunteer is playing ‘hot potato’ with children, in a corner free from mattresses. Irina’s children throw a toy hare to one another and laugh. Sometimes they run to their mum to show her a toy or tell her something. The youngest comes to sit on the mattress. He notices the sleeping baby. “Let her sleep next to us, Maxim. We will leave soon and let her sleep here, OK?” The boy nods and runs away to play.
Those left behind
The children’s grandparents stayed in Kharkiv. Irina’s father would not have been able to cross the border because he is of military age, that is, under 60. He did not want to leave: “We are on our own land,” he said. Irina’s mother refused to leave without her husband. They stayed in the basement of a house, where Irina and the children also spent two weeks underground, hardly leaving. Occasionally, when the shelling subsided, they tried running to the grocery store opposite, but there was no food left. Irina has almost no contact with them now. “I am very worried about them, very worried. Planes fly over them every day. No one knows where the next bomb will fall…” she says.
Volunteers at the mother and child room in the station suggested Irina go to Germany. Irina doesn’t know which city the bus will go to. She doesn’t know where she and her children will live next. She doesn’t understand what her future life will look like. She only heard: “The bus to Germany is leaving today at 5pm,” and signed up to be on the list. “This, of course, is better than in Kharkiv. What else should I do?” Irina cries again. “I would have stayed, but I couldn’t because of the kids. They were very scared. Very, very scared.”
Irina has many friends in Kharkiv. A lot of them stayed. Some stayed to fight, some couldn’t leave because of the shelling, others wanted to protect their house from the constant looting. And others simply didn’t want to leave.
Crossing into Poland
Sitting on the floor next to Irina, Svetlana feeds her two-year-old daughter yoghurt. Her mother and eight-year-old son sit next to her. They come from Kryvyi Rih, the largest city in central Ukraine. As soon as they had made it to Lviv, a free bus took them to the Krakovets checkpoint. The family wanted to cross the Polish border, but there was a long queue – they would have had to wait around 15 hours. The women asked the driver to take them back to the station. It’s their third day in the waiting room.
“My aunt decided to cross with her children, but we stayed. We couldn’t wait for so long. We thought about going back home. But we can’t, trains are cancelled. Now we don’t even know whether we did the right thing by coming here,” she says.
“Things were still relatively quiet at home. If there’s no train home, we will have to head to Poland again, and wait there until things calm down. My husband stayed at home, he’s working. We still have everything at home. Of course, people who no longer have homes have nothing to return to. But we do. We still have our whole life there: our house, our things, our work.”
Despite the fact that Ukraine’s State Border Guard service constantly publishes information on the number of vehicles and people at all border crossings, so that people can avoid long queues, there are no fewer people wishing to cross and there are still queues. According to the UNHRC, as of 22 March 2022, 3.6 million refugees have reportedly left Ukraine, mostly women and children, and ten million people – more than a quarter of the population – have left their home.
Lviv’s resettlement efforts
There are now several centres in Lviv where those who have fled their homes are received and dispatched to be housed. Buses run from the station to the centres. Six of the city’s local government departments are involved in the resettlement.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, during the first 20 days of the war, Poland saw the arrival of the greatest number of Ukrainians – 1.8 million people. Women, children and men over 60 now only need a Ukrainian passport or its electronic version on Diia, the state web application that gives access to public services, in order to leave. People can leave regardless of whether they are vaccinated. They can leave with their animals – veterinary passports are not required either.
In the centres, people are registered and separated into two groups: those in transit in the city, who are looking for housing for a few days, because they plan to go abroad or to another region; and those who are looking for a place to stay long-term. In fact, all facilities suitable for housing people in the city and surrounding region have been turned into reception points for internally displaced people. More than 200,000 of them are living in Lviv itself, and more than 500 educational, cultural and sports facilities are housing people. It’s almost impossible to find a place to rent on your own.
According to Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi, the city is now functioning normally, but it needs the support of international organisations. The city needs prefabricated housing units which can be quickly installed in locations that have already been identified. Lviv also needs financial support. “The cost of assisting displaced people comes to around one million dollars [US] per day,” the mayor said at a press conference on 14 March. This amount includes food and other essential items, which the city provides to displaced people from its own budget.
The central headquarters for aid on Kopernika Street is open at all hours. Volunteers sort and distribute donations. Displaced people come here in need of housing, clothing, food. Aid shipments sent from other countries come here. Clothes, food, hygiene products, things for children, tactical first aid kits, medicine, fuel and clothes for soldiers are the items most commonly sent to Ukraine. The shipments are then dispatched to other cities around the country to those most in need.
That evening, just a short distance from the aid centre, a bus arrived at Lviv railway station for Irina and her children. They were taken to Germany. She does not know anybody there. “Now I am a refugee,” she says, as we go our separate ways.
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