Olga has slept on her side in the bunk of a train that is 60 centimeters wide. She corresponded 30 centimeters, she has not been able to move all night. The other 30 centimeters was occupied by a man she met that same afternoon. “I have been lucky,” she says in a WhatsApp message, “the man has been kind in wanting to share with me and we have been able to sleep a little. But in the corridor people can’t even sit down. They are standing, one on top of the other, there is no room”. Olga, who is not her real name, is 21 years old and studies Business Administration and Management in Slovakia. She decided a week ago to travel to Mariupol, in the region of donbasin the southeast of Ukraineto visit his parents. He did not imagine that he was going to catch the war.
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On Friday, a day after Putin began his invasion of Ukraine, her parents faced a painful dilemma: the three of them stay in Mariupol, hiding in some shelter every time shots rang out in the streets, or try to get their daughter to a train to flee across Poland to Slovakia. Faced with the resurgence of the explosions, and the information that the Russian tanks were beginning to approach the city, the three of them decided to get into the car and travel to the neighboring city of Zaporizhya. Rumors said that it was the only town with an open train station, the only one in the east of the country from which trains left for Lviv, in the west of the country, the border of Ukraine with Poland, with the European Union. .
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During the almost 250 kilometers that separate Mariupol from Zaporizhya, Olga and her parents did not stop seeing tanks and armored cars going in all directions: some to Zaporizhya like them, and others to Mariupol. They were all Russian tanks.
Arriving at the station, they found that the rumors were true: it was open, but also crowded. Trains passed by, but no one knew when the next one would come or where it would go. Olga and her parents settled down to wait on the platform. A single movement of the place could mean that another person occupies it and, in the event that a train arrives, lose the possible seat to be able to flee from the war. After several hours of waiting, the lights of the train broke the cold darkness. Olga says that the platform was silent waiting for the convoy to stop completely. Then the chaos began. Only a lucky few had tickets to get on the convoy. The rest, like Olga, who hadn’t been able to buy them because they had been out of stock for days, only hoped to sneak into one of the wagons, no matter what.
Olga’s parents managed to push her through one of the doors with her suitcase and several dollars in her pocket, in case she had to pay a bribe to some stewardess not to kick her off the train midway. A journey of more than 20 hours awaited Olga to cover the distance of 1,000 kilometers that separates Zaporizhya from Lviv. She didn’t know if she was going to find a place to sit, much less if she was going to get to sleep. But at least she had managed to get on the train.
After saying goodbye to her parents, Olga learned from a message that anti-aircraft sirens had begun to sound in Zaporizhya. Her parents, who planned to return to Mariupol after leaving her on the train, had to stay for more than two hours in an underground shelter to wait out the danger. Then it was night. They slept in the car. On Saturday morning they managed to get going and get out of town.
The connection with Olga is unstable. Sometimes he manages to get a data signal and answer the questions. Others, separate hours of silence in which only a tick is seen on the screen indicating that she has not received messages from her. When asked if she can be called, she answers that it is better not. “There are a lot of people on the train, they all talk very loudly, I can’t move from the site in case they take it away from me,” she writes. The image that she manages to capture in her messages is reminiscent of the one seen dozens of times in movies about World War II: children sitting on the floor of the train, many people standing as best they can all the hours of travel. On her train, most of the passengers are women, children and the elderly. The men have stayed on the platforms because they know they will not be allowed to cross the border. The martial law approved by the Ukrainian president Volodímir Zelenski prohibits them from leaving the country and forces them to take up arms.
Inside the train, Olga ensures that everyone collaborates with what they can. People take out the food that she has managed to bring with her and share it with the rest of the travellers. In some Ukrainian cities, supermarkets have been closed since the day of the invasion. In others, the shelves are already empty and even Kiev is beginning to have shortage problems. Lviv, the city Olga wants to reach, begins to be overwhelmed by displaced people. Barely 70 kilometers separate that city from Poland and the EU country has already announced that it expects to receive between one and four million Ukrainian refugees in the coming days. Olga’s plan is to go from Lviv to Poland and from there to Slovakia. She assures that a classmate of hers is waiting for her in the city, but she told her that if she couldn’t get on the train this Friday, she would leave without her because she can’t lose any more time.
When asked how they are going to get to the border, she says that they will try to find someone to take them by car and, if they can’t, they will walk. According to the calculation of Google Maps, walking those 70 kilometers can take up to 15 hours of walking.
At the time this report is being written, Olga has already arrived in Lviv, she has met her partner and they have tried to get on another train, this time to cross the border with Poland. They have not succeeded. She does not lose hope and says that she will try again as soon as she wakes up. On Saturday night she won’t have to sleep in a train bunk, but she knows her escape journey isn’t over yet. In one of her last messages, she assured that she is not afraid to be making her own way. “On Sunday I will be at my residence in Slovakia,” she promises. “And all my problems will be behind me. My only concern is for my family. I have gone to a safe place but they have not”. Her parents have decided not to leave. After putting her on the train, someone had to stay and take care of her grandparents.
©Margaryta Yakovenko / EL PAÍS EDITIONS, SL 2022
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