A Ukrainian woman recounts her chaotic train ride out of Kyiv

A Ukrainian woman recounts her chaotic train ride out of Kyiv

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“Russian tanks are approaching the village where I am staying now. Fifty-six tanks… We expect them to reach our place in several hours…” Yelena Kuznetsova, who lives in a town near Kyiv, posted on a social networking site on February 24. “There are hundreds of explosions that we have been hearing in our town today. They are so close. The situation in Kharkiv and Kyiv is worse...

“Russian tanks are approaching the village where I am staying now. Fifty-six tanks… We expect them to reach our place in several hours…” Yelena Kuznetsova, who lives in a town near Kyiv, posted on a social networking site on February 24. “There are hundreds of explosions that we have been hearing in our town today. They are so close. The situation in Kharkiv and Kyiv is worse as residential buildings are being bombarded and hundreds of civilians killed,” she said.

Yelena is Russian by birth and by the language that she speaks but she is a Ukrainian citizen. She doesn’t permanently live in Ukraine. It was only three months ago that she landed up in the country. “I planned to visit Ukraine just for a couple of months–and now it looks like I may stay here forever. I see this horror that is unfolding in front of my eyes as a Russian, as a Ukrainian and as a foreigner – all at the same time. And from that triple perspective, I see that this war is waged by Russia not just against Ukraine. It is waged against the whole world,” she said. “I am just a person who happens to be helplessly drawn into the war. And it turns out that it can happen to anyone irrespective of one’s geographical identity,” she said.

On March 2, Yelena heard multiple explosions near her apartment and she posted a message, seeking out for help to catch an evacuation train. “I am looking for a car that goes from Kyiv to any Ukrainian border,” she posted. Even though many responded to her post, no one could come to her rescue, mainly due to the tense situation in Ukraine since the launch of invasion by Russia on February 24. Yelena finally managed to reach the Central Railway Station in Kyiv, hoping to catch the evacuation train to a safer place.

At the station, she was asked several times why she didn’t leave Ukraine when the war was about to begin. Questions such as “How were you able to buy a train ticket to leave Kyiv last Friday?” and “What country did you choose to go to when you decided to leave Kyiv?” followed. “The graphic answers are in this photo,” she said, after posting a photograph of a railway station with a caption, which read, “This is not a photo from 1941. This is a photo from March 2022 with all the colour taken out. A chilling reminder that history repeats (sic).”

A photo from March 2022 posted by Yelena Kuznetsova to remind the world that history repeats itself.

It was a photograph of a crowded railway station, with tens of thousands of people trying to get inside the trains. “I don’t know when it was taken and where, can’t identify that but it captures the spirit of evacuation quite neatly. I also want to say that though ‘boarding’ my train was very close to the situation captured in this photo, it was somewhat better,” she said.

The journey from Kyiv to Ivano-Frankivsk on the evacuation train was difficult. An ocean of people flooded the Central Railway Station in Kyiv. Most people carried with them just backpacks or tiny bags. Occasionally, Yelena saw larger suitcases but they were a few because the bigger the luggage, the lesser the chances of getting into the evacuation train. Yelena also left her town with a backpack containing a laptop, a tablet, underwear, earplugs and a bottle of water.

The scenes on the way from her home to the railway station were devastating. “People closed behind them the doors of their houses and apartments — they left behind all their possessions, put keys into their small backpacks with the hope to return when things become normal,” said Yelena. “People on the train carried with them only basic things. The most basic of these was water. I spent about 20 hours on the train from Kyiv to Ivano-Frankivsk and did not see anyone eating anything. I think people had no room in their backpacks for food,” said the 62-year-old.

Even though toilets were available on the train, getting there was difficult. The dense wall of people blocked the passages to the toilets. So, Yelena took only tiny sips of water to avoid nature’s calls. An evening and a night passed. Yelena and her fellow travellers, numbering around 3,000, were asked to switch off their mobile phones. It was pitch dark inside the train. No lights inside or outside. “Even though the fear of war was there, people appeared calm and quiet. No one was found panicking, including the pets,” says Yelena, narrating the experience onboard the train.

“People onboard were hopeful, looking for their destination. A woman in our compartment had two cats – a Persian cat and a Siberian cat. Both are long haired – and both suffered from the extreme heat inside the carriage and from the lack of fresh air – but even cats were calm. During the whole trip they stayed on the lower berth without a cage – in a narrow space behind the people’s backs,” said Yelena.

It took more than 20 hours and she finally reached Ivano-Frankivsk in northern Ukraine, from where she moved to Romania, the neighbouring country. Ukraine is the second largest country in Eastern Europe after Russia, which shares borders with Belarus to its north, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to its west and Romania and Moldova to its south.

Russia has been bombing Ukraine forcing people to flee the country.

At 6 am, the train reached Ivano-Frankivsk, a town located in the western part of Ukraine.

“No bomb or rocket or whatever it’s called was dropped on us. And I proceeded towards the Romanian border,” she added.

Even though the journey was uncomfortable, the retired business lecturer believes that she could get into the evacuation train mainly due to the ‘anugraha’ from her ‘ishta devata’ (favourite deity). As a business lecturer, she used to frequent India, particularly Tamil Nadu, and Yelena studied at the ashram of the Dayananda Saraswati near Coimbatore.

“The people inside the train considered it as a blessing because they are in a comparatively better place than under bombs. It was an uncomfortable trip but people were happy because it was impossible for them to live in Ukraine after Russia cut the supply of food, water and gas to the households,” she said.

Yelena said she had never seen so many kids and babies together as she had seen in the evacuation train and later at the Kairos Centre in Suceava in Romania. “The two-storied building was turned into a refugee centre but most of all it resembles now a huge kindergarten. Kids are playing in rooms that are designed especially for them. I saw Ukrainian kids playing their kids’ games in the corridors of the Romanian refugee centre,” she said.

After staying at the refugee centre for a couple of days, Yelena boarded a train to Bucharest, the capital of Romania. “I am not the one who follows the intricacies of international politics. I present just facts without blaming anyone. I just show what the lay people like me undergo in this war. And hope my message is powerful enough for people all over the world to realise that this war, this tragedy has to be stopped, because it is now affecting the lives of people across the globe,” said Yelena.

Many Ukrainian regions have been turned into rubble by the Russians.

Yelena said the Russian mass media and the representative of the Russian ministry of foreign affairs propagate that the Russian army doesn’t bombard Ukraine. “They say all the videos and photographs that the whole world has been witnessing since February 24 are (NATO)-fabricated fakes. But if you ask any eyewitness in Ukraine, you will get the real picture which is different from the version offered by them,” she said.

A week ago, a friend asked Yelena after seeing some paintings in the backdrop of her close-up photograph that she had posted on a social networking site. “Are those some of your paintings behind you in this photo? I’ll bet that there are many who would love to buy one of those (or all of them) to help you get where you want to go.” Yelena’s reply was quick: “I am not a professional artist. I paint them just for myself and they bring joy and colours into my life. I don’t sell them.”

Yelena, like millions of others caught in the crossfire, yearns for the war to end and packed trains carrying war refugees to make room for leisure travel.

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