A western Ukrainian city becomes a waypoint for thousands on the move

People surged onto every section of Svitlana Maksymenko's railway carriage when it arrived in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, roughly halfway through her 800-mile journey from home to safety, she said, scrambling for their own escape path west. Some people left their belongings behind. Some pleaded to be allowed to board.

"On the platform, they were on their knees," Maksymenko recalled. "There wasn't any more room." Every gangway had five people standing in it, and every bed had five people on it."

Maksymenko's journey began in Kharkiv, an eastern city frequently pounded by Russian forces, and ended for the time being in Lviv, a lovely western city about 50 miles from the Polish border with a stately central station that has become a transit point for hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Over the weekend, there were people taking refuge, sleeping, impatiently waiting, and hurrying for trains in practically every corner of the station concourse, including the waiting rooms, underpasses, and all along the stretches of platform. There were some tense moments as volunteer stewards attempted to control the throng that had gathered at the entry gates, frightened of missing their chance to flee. Women holding their passports and family birth certificates in one hand and their children in the other sobbed with anxiety. Outside the station, there were heartbreaking goodbyes as fighting-age men, who were barred from leaving Ukraine, came to a halt and released their families, unsure if they would see them again.

Maksymenko had been on the train for 26 hours with her in-laws and three-year-old daughter when she arrived in Lviv. Longer travels were reported by others. Maksymenko was a drop in the ocean of people who began pouring into Lviv after Russia invaded and increased in recent days as Russian forces intensified their bombing campaign on Ukrainian civilians.

"We estimate 30,000 people arrived on Thursday, 100,000 on Friday, and at least a 100,000 more on Saturday," said Viktoria Khrystenko, a member of the Lviv city council who is assisting with the refugee surge.

"We're doing our best to deal," she remarked, "but we've never seen anything like this." "More people are expected." It might be in the millions. It's a complete disaster. Because they barely had three minutes to flee and save their lives, these people have nothing but a single suitcase."

On Friday night, Lviv station was packed, emptying only slightly as trains left for Poland before filling up again with new arrivals from Ukraine's bombed-out cities in the north, east, and south. Outside, Kolya, 46, stood with tears flowing down his face as he saw his wife and two teenage kids leave him.

"I hope they make it to Europe safely; I desperately want to be with them," he said. "I've gone as far as I can."

Ukraine has made it illegal for men between the ages of 16 and 60 to leave the country unless they have a disability or three children under the age of 18. They are halted at the station for document checks or at border crossing locations further west. Kolya said he had stood for 10 hours on the train from Kyiv to secure his family's safe arrival in Lviv, and that he would now make the same journey back to fight alongside his 19-year-old son and siblings against Russia.

"I'll return to Kyiv and protect my home." "It's my home," he declared. "I'm not sure how - I've asked for a gun, but how will a gun protect my city from missiles?"

Kolya's wife and children would continue on to Poland, whose government has dispatched trains and buses to transfer refugees from Ukraine into the country, saving tens of thousands of people from traumatic border crossings and huge lines to pass on foot.

According to the United Nations, more than 1.5 million Ukrainians had crossed into Poland by Sunday. Inside Ukraine, hundreds of thousands more were on the run.

Volunteers and fellow passengers helped the very young and the very old in Lviv's train station, lugging pushchairs and baggage up and down the stairs to the platforms, marshalling toddlers to rooms above where they could get a hot supper, and assisting the elderly wherever they could.

"Physically, it was very difficult for me, of course, because people were pushing really hard," said Dusia Kostiuk, 91, who boarded a train in Kharkiv at 9 p.m. on Friday, arrived in Lviv at midnight on Saturday, and spent the next 15 hours in a line at the station waiting to travel to Poland.

"Our house was still there when we left," Kostiuk recalled, "but shelling was going on all around us, and we've been told that horrible shelling is going on right now."

"We didn't bring anything with us; I only brought two clothes."

"Kharkiv is where I was born and raised. I haven't traveled much in the past since I dislike it. I never imagined I'd leave my house in such a state."

Many people who arrive in Lviv, like Kostiuk, stay in the station until they can board a train to Poland, sleeping in any available nook for a night or longer. The heat and odor of a large group of people who had been on the move for several days filled the air within the big waiting rooms and gangways.

Those who are unable to proceed to Poland immediately seek temporary shelter in the city. Twenty beds had been set up in a small theater in Lviv's ancient old town for people who needed to stay in the city for up to three nights before leaving.

Olha Adamenko, 32, arrived with her husband and sick two-year-old daughter on Sunday evening. They had driven from Kyiv for four days, stopping at rest stops along the route. However, the theatre's shelter was already full, and it was unclear whether there would be a room available for her that night, according to the personnel.

According to Khyrstenko, the local official, many people would confront a difficulty that night because all of the city's about 20,000 temporary beds were already taken.

A volunteer at the theatre, Adam Yemchenko, was preparing to send people away. "Most people arrive later than this," he explained, "but anybody arriving tonight won't receive a room; we'll have to send them somewhere else."

"Some will go straight to the border, but they will have to wait for eight hours in the cold."

This was the decision Adamenko had to make as she sat down in the little theatre lobby, exhausted and stressed. She came to a halt to breastfeed her restless and wailing daughter. Her husband was about to abandon them in Lviv and return to Kyiv to join the territorial defense forces.

She inquired of the volunteers at the shelter about how to get to the Polish border via bus and which border crossings were the finest.

"Perhaps we'll go tonight," she speculated. She was concerned, though, because there were long lines at the crossing locations, and it was the dead of winter.

"I heard people queue outside there throughout the day, but residents take them into their houses at night," she continued, "but I'm not sure whether that's true." "I'm concerned about the infant; she appears to be unwell and exhausted."

Adamenko was also becoming increasingly concerned about her husband. She assumed their neighborhood defense battalion on the outskirts of Kyiv would be safe, but fierce combat encircled it during the weekend in the Bucha and Irpin districts.

"Perhaps that implies the Russians will pass through our area next," she speculated.

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