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15th Apr 2024

Aboard the refugee train: 'Our lives are worth nothing'

  • View from the train window shortly after leaving Lviv on Friday (Photo: Andrew Rettman)
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"What are we, for people like them?" asked Antoniusz Zawadzki, a Ukrainian refugee, speaking of political leaders in both Russia and the West. "We're nothing to them. Our governments don't take care of us. Our lives are worth nothing."

Zawadzki spoke while smoking in the darkness in a gangway connection between two rattling Elektrichka railway carriages, a Soviet-era train type still in use in Ukraine.

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  • Antoniusz Zawadzki (Photo: Andrew Rettman)

It was freezing cold and hours before dawn on Saturday (12 March) morning approaching the Polish border.

He was fleeing the war with thousands of mostly women and children on a densely packed train from the city of Lviv in western Ukraine to the Polish town of Przemyśl.

Their journey was a tiny part of an exodus of historic proportion in which more than two million people have already fled to the EU.

Last chance?

But a window of opportunity for refugees to get out appears to be closing — Russia bombed airfields near Lviv the same day that Zawadzki's train left for Przemyśl. It then fired cruise missiles near the railway line a day after Zawadzki's train passed through.

Zawadzki, a 58-year old who walks with a stick and who is almost blind, had been living on a disability pension in "the countryside" near Lviv. He did not want to give a precise location.

Early last week he fled after warplanes roaring over his house woke him up one night. He grabbed some cash and food in a small rucksack but left his savings in the bank. He didn't have a phone number to call in Poland or an address to go to, but he was hoping Polish authorities would help him to find his brother-in-law who lived there.

When asked if the war could spread into Poland, Zawadzki thought long and hard before answering: "Polish people have wept in the past and they will weep again."

His bleak views aside, he maintained good humour during most of the 10-hour long journey, which covers just 90km, and which would take about two hours in normal conditions.

He threw mock punches to show off his boxing skills and told anecdotes. He recalled once being arrested by German police on a previous trip to the EU because he didn't have a visa. Then he added, with a grin: "I've never slept on such white pillows or in such white sheets before in all my life" as in the German detention cell.

But the disabled man broke down crying when he spoke of how tiring it was to reach Lviv railway station. "I haven't slept the past two nights," he said. He also cried when asked if he was sad to be leaving his home behind. "You ask me if I'm sad? You really asked me that?" replied Zawadzki, covering his face with his hand.

Many of the other passengers had also started out in fairly good morale on the 5pm train that departed Lviv on Friday. Women in one carriage let out a collective sigh of relief and there were even ripples of laughter when the train lurched into motion.

But people's faces, both older and younger, soon settled into silent, care-worn stares. Some had been on the road for days from Kyiv, where they left behind family members and where Russian forces were firing on civilians.

They were now travelling crammed together on hard wooden benches in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Hundreds were forced to stand until they disembarked in Przemyśl at 4am due to lack of seating space. Mothers with infants and babies queued in long lines for filthy toilets.

Like Zawadzki, they were carrying everything they had in their bags. And they were hoping to somehow get by when they arrived.

From hairdresser to refugee

Margarit, an Armenian woman living in Ukraine who did not give her surname, had fled Irpin, near Kyiv, where she had worked as a hairdresser. She showed a video and photos of her home suburb — a row of white, one-story houses with smouldering black holes, the result of being pounded by Russian shells.

She left behind her Ukrainian husband because able-bodied men of fighting age are not allowed to leave the country. She had only her handbag and a rucksack with her hair-clippers and scissors in it to start a new life in the EU, where she hoped to go to Germany or Belgium.

Olha, a young Ukrainian woman who also didn't want to give her surname, had brought badminton rackets because she wanted to play professionally and coach in Germany. "Actually, it was always kind of my dream to go to Germany anyway," she said, her ironic smile briefly illuminated by her phone screen in the train corridor.

Shortly before midnight, the train stopped at a station in the Ukrainian countryside where people could use the toilets and where local volunteers served them sugary tea, stew, and sandwiches.

People later waited on board for hours after the train arrived in Przemyśl as Polish border guards disembarked passengers, carriage-by-carriage, while registering the arrival of the EU's newest refugees.

Some babies were crying and most people were too tired for smoking or banter by the time the last carriage doors were opened. But despite people's fatigue and any psychological trauma that they bore, the passengers had remained calm, considerate, and polite until their final moments together.

And while the humanitarian relief effort at Przemyśl train station has appeared chaotic in previous media reports it is a haven of comfort and security if you arrive there on the Lviv train with the war behind you.

Zawadzki was whisked off down the railway platform in a wheelchair by a burly and moustachioed Polish fireman in neon-orange gear.

Margarit was in the Przemyśl station ticket office speaking with a German volunteer about getting on a bus to Dresden.

Olha melted into the crowd.

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