Refugees and freedom fighters at the crossroads of Europe in Lviv

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Outside Lviv train station, an art nouveau remnant of the golden age of train travel, thousands of people gather around makeshift tents.

Charities distribute food and supplies as the smell of firewood in gasoline drums fills the air in temperatures that barely exceed zero.

In the crowded terminal, people pass each other to unknown destinations. The smell of damp clothes fills the air and weary parents cradle crying babies who will not be comforted.

A young couple is kissing on the platform of the Lviv train station.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Unable to hold back their tears, a young couple on the dock kiss one last time before saying goodbye.

The woman leaves, but the man stays.

Countless women and children have said goodbye to their loved ones in recent days.

A young woman named Alina flees with her family from the village of Gostomel which borders Hostomel airport, about 500 kilometers from the train station and just north of Kiev, which Russian troops have been bombarding since the first day of the invasion.

Alina from Gostomel says there are checkpoints everywhere as she heads towards the Ukrainian-Polish border.

Alina from Gostomel says there are checkpoints everywhere as she heads towards the Ukrainian-Polish border. Credit:Kate Geraghty

The only one who remained was her grandmother, telling the family, “I was born here, I will die here.

“I saw the shelling through the window,” says Alina. “I saw the Russian helicopters flying overhead, and we moved towards the center of the house and it started shaking,” she said.

Alina says she traveled by car for days on roads that seemed “endless”. There are checkpoints everywhere and pitched battles in the sky.

The family moves to Poland, but they don’t know for how long.

It’s a scene that repeats itself all day, every day in the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine, just 64 kilometers from the Polish border. This is not the first time that the city has welcomed thousands of refugees fleeing war. For centuries it has been a crossing point between competing empires, religions and trade routes.

King Casimir III of Poland conquered the city in 1340. The 17th century brought invading armies of Swedes, Hungarians and Turks to its doorstep. The Russians arrived in 1914. The Nazis in 1941. Despite a history of bloodshed and upheaval, it has remained one of Ukraine’s most culturally significant centers.

Today, the city of around 700,000 inhabitants is the crossing point of another generation in search of a place of greater security.

About 100,000 people flee Ukraine every day, most of them passing through Lviv.

Many men feel compelled to stay after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered people between the ages of 18 and 60 to stay and defend the country.

At the border post with Poland west of Lviv, a 60-year-old woman named Oxana serves tea and sandwiches to refugees from the front yard of a house she has lived in all her life.

She says people are waiting in cars for days and are completely unprepared. Many need food and water.

Oxana serves hot tea and sandwiches outside her home to people heading for the Medyka crossing point on the Ukrainian-Polish border.

Oxana serves hot tea and sandwiches outside her home to people heading for the Medyka crossing point on the Ukrainian-Polish border.Credit:Kate Geraghty

“Most people just packed up and left, they weren’t prepared because we didn’t think something like this could actually happen,” she says.

“When we can see women and children from Kakhovka, Kiev, Kharkiv fleeing the country, my heart breaks.”

In recent days, Oxana says there have also been many Ukrainians in the town of Chernihiv, 750 kilometers to the northeast, who fear that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is sending his troops to join the Russian invasion. .

Oxana has a direct message: “Russia should burn in hell with Putin and Lukashenko, that’s all I really have to say.”

In the same line of slow cars, a kindergarten teacher named Katya flees with her four children to Poland.

Katya’s husband died in an accident two years ago. She thinks Russia will attack Ternopil, a bustling city of 200,000 just 130 kilometers southeast of Lviv, and she has no choice but to pack up and leave.

Kindergarten teacher Katya says she must flee the country for the sake of her sons Daniel, Svyatoslav, Ustinov and Denys.

Kindergarten teacher Katya says she must flee the country for the sake of her sons Daniel, Svyatoslav, Ustinov and Denys.Credit:Kate Geraghty

“I decided to flee when I saw Russian saboteurs operating undercover, making marks on our buildings to target us,” she says.

“I’m scared and anxious. I have to leave because I don’t want my children to see the war. I think it’s going to be a long time before we can go home. I don’t want to run away from the war. Ukraine, but I have to do it for my children.

James Elder, an Australian UNICEF employee, worked in and around the Lviv train station.

“It’s just this relentless horrible forced goodbye. Fathers explaining to their 10-year-old sons why dad is leaving, and husbands and wives having a final embrace — it’s been relentless,” he says.

“Every conversation I have with people – that kind of stoicism breaks for a second, and there are tears.”

Many people at the station have fled Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, which has been hit by shelling and rocket attacks all week.

Indian doctors Agnivesh Sl (left) and Javeen Kolar arrive at Lviv train station after their friend was killed by bombing in Kharkiv.

Indian doctors Agnivesh Sl (left) and Javeen Kolar arrive at Lviv train station after their friend was killed by bombing in Kharkiv.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Indian doctor Javeen Kolar, who has lived in Kharkiv for two years, said he decided to immediately take the 8 p.m. train to Lviv after his friend Naveen Kumar was killed in a shelling.

“We lost a lot of things,” he said. “My friend died in the bombardment…after that happened, we just left.”

Indian medical student Kajal Rauniyar, also a friend of Kolar, says she spent six days in an underground shelter before deciding to flee by train.

Indian medical students Sagar Arora (left) and Kajal Rauniyar at Lviv train station.

Indian medical students Sagar Arora (left) and Kajal Rauniyar at Lviv train station.Credit:Kate Geraghty

“We were in a very dangerous situation, there are a lot of Indians there. We didn’t know how to get to the station, it was a really difficult situation,” she says.

“They have to evacuate my friends from there because it’s very dangerous. Every minute there are shelling and shooting.


Along the highway, closer to the border, cars are stuck for miles.

Maria sits in her van 10 kilometers from the Polish border with her two children, having driven from the town of Zadariv about 150 kilometers to the southeast. She says they’ve been on the road for four days.

Maria and her family near the border with Poland.  They have been on the road for four days.

Maria and her family near the border with Poland. They have been on the road for four days. Credit:Kate Geraghty

“Our children are suffering, so we have to leave our homes and go far away. It’s hard to watch these kids, you have to turn away,” she says.

“I hope our fighters, our warriors will win. We are sure of this because our army is strong and courageous.

More than a million Ukrainians fled the country in the first week of the war, according to the United Nations.

However, other Ukrainians have answered the call to defend their nation in these difficult times and are crossing the country.

When we enter Ukraine from Poland, a group of Ukrainians tell us that they are frustrated at being held up for so long by the border authorities.

“We want to get in, not out – and yet the process is so slow,” a woman tells us as she waits to be accepted into her country.

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Although there is no shortage of Ukrainians to take up arms, resources are limited. Aid agencies have gone from an eight-year war in the east of the country to what could escalate into the worst refugee crisis Europe has seen in decades.

Children who fled to Lviv need emergency education, temporary classrooms and health care. Elsewhere, people who have been hiding in shelters for days need basic supplies and a meal. Pregnant women forced to give birth in these conditions need obstetrical kits.

With the country’s airspace closed, Elder says it’s critical that supply routes remain open for the delivery of humanitarian aid.

He also says it is essential that countries continue their tolerant approach to accepting Ukrainian refugees as their numbers continue to rise.

“These numbers will continue to rise and then we will rely on politicians, the press and ordinary people to maintain this tolerance for people who flee,” Elder said.

“I haven’t spoken to a single person here who wants to leave, it’s out of their control, they’re fleeing conflict, they’ve seen people killed, they’ve spent nights in bunkers and they don’t have the choice.”

People outside Lviv train station where trains and buses depart for Poland.

People outside Lviv train station where trains and buses depart for Poland.Credit:Kate Geraghty

For now, Lviv is still a place of refuge in a war-torn country. People here assume that the Russians will not attack the sixth largest city in Ukraine, because it will only take a stray bullet or rocket to cross the Polish border, and Moscow attacked a country in the NATO.

However, air raid sirens sound daily and everyone is ordered to take cover, a reminder that war is only a train ride away.

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