22 hours of safety: escape by train from the besieged east of Ukraine

As the departure time approached, the last arriving passengers accelerated to catch the 2.30pm train departing from Dnipro. Their goal was to reach Lviv in the west and, they hoped, safety. The journey would take 22 hours.

A man dressed in military overalls and with a backpack and sleeping bag struggled to find the e-ticket on his phone. Three train attendants dressed in freshly ironed uniforms patiently tried to help.

Two men in uniforms and hats line a set of steps on a blue wagon

Drahan Eugene Leonidovych, in the center, is a train attendant of the Ukrainian railways.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Francis Dion, a 32-year-old soldier from Montreal who volunteered to fight for Ukraine, was headed to Lviv for lighter duty.

Across the platform, a dog ran free on the train tracks, its leash trailing behind him. Elmira Andriiko from Dnipro was leaving the house with two dogs, Archie and Lika. Once Archie was retrieved, they boarded the train and settled in the economy class.

Andriiko had plans to stay in Germany until the end of the war and was hoping to find work there as a dog groomer, her profession. Archie, a 7-year-old mini-Yorkshire terrier, has just been cut down for the long journey ahead.

As the train pulled out of the station, the screeching wheels drowned out the sound of an unhappy meowing cat. Tatiana Zaparoshytz, who worked as a train attendant for two years, was taking care of the cat on its way to join its owner in Lviv. She calmed down once the locomotive was in motion.

Many passengers seemed to have calmed down as well once the train finally left, anxious but relieved as they recounted what they had seen since the Russians invaded and what they had left behind.

A woman in a green top and a girl in a pink shirt in front of her are looking out a window

A woman and her granddaughter look out the window of the train from Dnipro to Lviv, Ukraine.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Two cars ahead, Marina Bogdanova and her children, Fedor, 7, and Margo, 11, were preparing for the long journey. Bogdanova left the house without her husband because the men have to stay to fight. Margo and Fedor were in a bunk playing with the dolls the former had brought with him.

“We have a family of sponsors in the UK, so we’re going to Lviv,” said Bogdanova. From there, they hope to reach England.

“My children weren’t safe in Dnipro,” he said. “It’s stressful. Schools are not in session; some are used as shelters. I hope my children will be able to study in England ”.

Within an hour, Fedor and Margo had made friends with other children on board – also headed to the UK with their mother – and were playing in the narrow aisle.

Outside the window were scenes contrasting with a nation at war. The tractors plowed the fields. Horses grazed on the grass and a deer trotted off to the sound of the approaching train. White-flowered trees streaked alongside, brightening the otherwise gloomy day. The men stood by the windows, talking on their cell phones and smoking.

Archie, the 8-pound terrier, was off leash, visiting other passengers in his train car, cheering them up, including the Salsalova family from the defeated port city of Mariupol.

A girl and a boy stand in the aisle of the train while, in the foreground, a boy clings to a door handle

Margo Bogdanova, 11, and her brother Fedor, 7, on the right, are leaving Ukraine with their mother, Marina Bogdanova, to live with a sponsor family in the UK. They play in the train corridor with other children who are leaving Ukraine.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Katia Salosalova, 38, a teacher, and her husband Sergie, 35, a steel worker, fled Mariupol on April 21 with their child. They were on their way to the west of Ukraine. in Mariupol, “there is no water, no gas, no food, no nothing,” she said. “You can’t live there. We left very quickly, along a green corridor. We hope to return “.

Even from a city on the front line there were two 27-year-olds, Yaroslav Boriskin and his girlfriend, Diana (who didn’t want her surname used). They passed the time on my computer. live Kharkiva city in northeastern Ukraine had become unbearable, so they fled with their black cat, Asya.

“We had to leave our apartment because it was damaged by bombing at the beginning of the war,” said Boriskin, an information technology specialist by profession. “The windows were blown out and there was no heating, so the water pipes burst.” Firefighters had to raid the apartment, which was only accessible from the roof.

“We lived at a friend’s house, but we found an apartment in Lviv,” said Boriskin. “Kharkiv is not in the best of conditions, thanks to our neighbors,” he said, in a sarcastic reference to the Russian invaders.

Diana is originally from Mariupol. she she said the apartment she grew up in was badly damaged in a fire and a nearby building was destroyed. You saw it on the news.

A woman and a boy, in the center, sitting by the window of a train look at a dog on the left

Katia Salosalova and her son, who fled Mariupol with her husband, meet a canine friend on the train from Dnipro to Lviv, Ukraine.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

His parents, rather than heading west, went east and now live with his uncle in Russia, but they may be able to go to the European Union at some point. Boriskin’s parents are located in the Russian-controlled territory near Kherson in southern Ukraine. Asked how long he and Diana were planning to stay in Lviv, he said: “Maybe a couple of months, maybe a year, maybe forever. Who knows?”

Dion, the foreign fighter, was resting on a narrow cot in the carriage. He had left the Canadian military just before Christmas, after serving 12 years.

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “asked foreign fighters to join on February 28 at 8am, I was on a plane that night at 6pm,” he said. “For me it was crazy that the whole world turned its back on Ukraine. They said: ‘Sorry, it’s a shame you are not part of NATO. You are alone. Russia is the second largest world power. ‘ I couldn’t just watch what was going on, “he said.

“I didn’t tell my parents,” he added. “Not until I arrived in Ukraine. They were devastated. They begged me to go home. I’ve seen more action in six weeks at the front than I have in 12 years in the Canadian military. “

Nicknamed Shadow by his comrades, he took part in the Battle of Irpin, northwest of Kiev, the capital, which he described as urban warfare. When the Russians withdrew, he was sent to the Eastern Front, where the fighting was very different. He could see the Russians through the binoculars.

“It’s not the same war,” he said. “It’s impossible. It’s a battle on the field, trenches and artillery, constant artillery. It never stops.”

A man in a suit is sitting in front of a woman

Francis Dion, 32, traveled from Canada to fight for Ukraine in the war. After taking part in fights in Irpin and eastern Ukraine, he headed to Lviv for a lighter serve.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

There was another Canadian fighting in the same unit, a sniper, named Waly. Just a couple of days ago, the two were on a mission with two Ukrainian soldiers when the Russians fired on their position. Waly and Francis survived, but the two Ukrainians, who were outside the trench, were killed instantly.

“Ukrainians are very brave,” Dion said. “Very professional. But now it’s more difficult. It’s very dangerous. It’s crazy.”

He had planned to stay in Ukraine for a while longer, but he wants to go home before September, when his girlfriend is expecting a baby. He has no regrets. “I’ve done my part,” he said she. “I wouldn’t change anything. I couldn’t stay at home. “

As evening approached, the sun broke through the clouds and illuminated the gold leaf orthodox churches that dot the landscape. Women were pruning in their gardens, people were cycling home from the city with groceries. People waved as the train passed. The roar of the locomotive was a welcome change from the sound of the sirens in Dnipro.

There is no meal service on the 20-hour night train to Lviv. But an orderly brought me a packaged sandwich, the kind you see at 7-Eleven, triangular in shape. Next to the attendant’s compartment there is a kettle for hot water available to those who have brought their own coffee or tea. The train is old, but well maintained, with crisp sheets and a cotton towel provided first class. It’s not a bullet train, but it moves constantly, swaying from side to side. (The newer trains were taken out of service due to the war.)

Four views from windows, clockwise from top left, of a field, a building, houses among trees and buildings near a road

The Ukrainian landscape during the train journey from Dnipro to Lviv.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The curfew in Dnipro is at 10pm, but there is not much to do on the train once the sun goes down. Black plastic hangs from the windows to prevent light from escaping at night and reveal the train’s location to the enemy. After the bombing of the Kramatorsk railway station, everyone lowered the curtains of the cabins for the same reason. There was a restlessness in the darkness outside the window.

The train slowed to a stop for no apparent reason, then a few minutes later another train passed onto the next platform, heading east, perhaps carrying tanks and ammunition to the front. Once it passed, the train started moving slowly again.

The morning dragged on as the train made long stops, again for no apparent reason. Some people tried to sleep the extra hours, while others wandered the corridors. It was only explained later that the trains must stop when the aerial bombing warnings are in effect.

When the train finally stopped in Lviv, the passengers disembarked with their pets and suitcases in tow, some anxious again, some relieved, some a little both. A man stepped off the platform crossing his heart, thanking him for the safe passage. For many of the other passengers, the 22-hour train ride was just the beginning of the journey.