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Riding the ‘evacuation train’: In Kyiv, a scramble to get out as Russians close in

People at Kyiv's central train station seek spots on trains heading from the Ukrainian capital on March 2. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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KYIV, Ukraine — There were young parents with their toddler children in strollers. There were middle-aged women helping their elderly mothers up the steps. And there were sons and daughters desperate to reach their parents — before the Russian military arrived.

Many simply wanted their children never to know or feel the pain of war.

As explosions rattled the capital, thousands of Ukrainians headed to Kyiv’s central station on Wednesday in the hope of catching an “evacuation train.” Many had waited until the seventh day of the war to flee for a variety of reasons. Some had tried — and failed — to convince elderly relatives to leave. Others had prayed that international sanctions or diplomacy would halt the Russian onslaught.

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Thousands of Ukrainians flooded the Kyiv train station on March 2, with hopes of escaping the advancing Russian military forces. (Video: Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post)

By Wednesday, though, any shred of hope had vanished as Russia intensified its attacks on several Ukrainian cities. All around this besieged capital, Ukrainians felt a sense that the noose was tightening.

“We were waiting for the situation to stabilize, but it’s not going to happen,” said Serhiy Ralchenko, 35, who was inside the station with his infant son Danylo in a stroller. “There is no more time to wait.”

For Tanya and Vitaly Snitko, too, it was time to escape. And on Wednesday morning, they entered the mad rush inside the station with their 4-year-old son, Vladik, and a sunflower-yellow rolling suitcase.

For days, they tried to persuade Vitaly’s parents to leave, but they refused. Other relatives agreed to care for them, so now the couple were thinking only about Vladik. They were determined to keep his childhood innocent as long as it was possible in a conflict that was closing in on them and the capital.

“We want to move our kid away from here,” Vitaly Snitko said. “It’s for him not to see the things that might happen in Kyiv.”

On Wednesday, Ukrainians who reached the train station were more worried than ever about the things that might happen in Kyiv: civilians killed in bombings; families separated by strife; urban war; shortages of food, water, fuel and other necessities.

Many were so desperate to leave that they arrived with small backpacks or suitcases for easier mobility; some turned up with just the clothes on their backs. Many came with tickets for other dates or none at all. For some evacuation trains, tickets were waived, said train conductors.

“With the children, it’s really scary to be without electricity, without water,” Ralchenko said. “The Russians are already aiming for strategic targets to harm our information sources. So the water and electricity could be next.”

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Ukrainians here watched in horror as the Russians pummeled Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, with rockets and suspected cluster bombs. They had been terrified by Russian warnings that they could bomb government buildings in Kyiv and reports of a 40-mile-long Russian convoy of tanks, armored personnel carriers and other weaponry within 20 miles north of the city’s center.

And then both the horror and the terror converged when Russian missiles struck a TV tower on Tuesday, killing at least five people and injuring five others, according to Ukraine’s government.

“We don’t want to wait any longer and experience what happened in Kharkiv,” said Tanya Snitko. “We are afraid for our child. We just need to be sure our child is safe.”

Maryna Semenchenko, 27, wanted to keep her mother safe. For days now, her family has run down from their apartment and taken shelter inside subway stations. But her 68-year-old mother, who uses a cane, always stayed inside, hiding in the bathroom.

“It’s very hard,” said Sofia Lopatkina, her mother. “Every time I went down the stairs, my legs hurt and I couldn’t move them. So I stayed home.”

Then, the explosions were getting closer. “The Russians are moving forward, attacking and bombing us,” said Lopatkina. “I saw the incoming rockets.”

That, and Lopatkina’s inability to reach a bomb shelter, convinced Semenchenko and her husband to flee toward the western part of the country where they have relatives. They could only buy tickets for Friday, but “because of the explosions yesterday and today,” they decided to leave, said Semenchenko, who was also with her 7-year-old daughter, Kateryna.

As they walked up the steps inside the train station, Semenchenko held her mother’s hand.

They would get on the train, she said, and pray the conductor would accept their tickets.

Viktoria Zhalovaha, 35, was trying to get to her parents in the eastern part of the country. She said that her friends had offered a safe haven, but she needed to help her parents.

“I didn’t believe that war could start,” she said. “I thought it would last two or three days. But now I realize that I am alone here, and they are over there. I need to be with them.

“When we will be together, it will be better for us.”

Mykola Matsyshyn, 32, arrived at the train station with his wife, Anna, 32, and their nearly 4-year-old daughter, Lidia. Their tickets to Ivano-Frankivsk, a western Ukrainian town, were for five days ago. They couldn’t come to the station on that date because there were no taxis operating in their northwest enclave of Kyiv due to bombings and fighting nearby. And they don’t own a car.

“It was my mistake we didn’t leave the first day,” said Matsyshyn, a software developer.

By Wednesday, the fighting was less than five miles from their house, and they decided to flee immediately. They carried two small bags and two backpacks. Friends drove them to the station, they said.

“Lidia was scared,” Anna said. “We saw rockets in the sky. I took her and we ran to our bathroom. There were some explosions nearby. It frightened us all.”

If they stayed in Kyiv, she added, “I don’t want to guess what the Russians will do to us.”

“I believe Kyiv can look like Kharkiv soon,” Matsyshyn said.

“Now, it’s time to go,” she said.

They were hoping to get on a train and pay for the tickets onboard. And if it didn’t work out?

“We can go back home, but I don’t want to,” she said.

Even as thousands were fleeing the war, some were taking a train toward it.

Ruslan, an aircraft engineer, was boarding a train toward Kharkiv. A reserve officer in Ukraine’s military, he had started a new job at an engineering firm in neighboring Hungary. Two days later, when Russia invaded, he quit his job and crossed back into Ukraine.

Now, he was heading to a town 100 miles from Kharkiv, where his family lived. He wants to make sure they are safe, he said. Then, he’s going to pick up a gun or help maintain Ukrainian fighter jets, he said.

“I wanted to get back and fight,” said Ruslan, 45, who spoke on the condition of giving only his first name because of security concerns.

Oleksandr Melnychuk, 25, one of the train conductors on his train, said that the roughly 100 passengers were heading to Kharkiv, mostly men who are going to fight. But the train coming back will have around 1,000, he said. There are 579 seats on the train, he said.

The train to the western city of Lviv is even more crowded, he said.

“We can’t even close the doors,” said Melnychuk.

Ralchenko was also hoping to get to Lviv with his family and his brother-in-law’s family. They had ordered train tickets online, but he wasn’t sure if they had been approved. But they heard that people were being allowed on trains even without tickets.

They were prepared to stand. All they carried were two backpacks.

“Everything in the backpacks are for the children,” Ralchenko said. “We adults are wearing the clothes on our back. We want to be able to move fast.”

He and his brother-in-law want to find their wives and children a safe place from the war. “Then, we will come back and fight,” he said.

The Snitkos arrived with tickets for Friday from their home in Kyiv’s northern Obolon district. The shelling had gotten worse, they said.

So far, the couple have managed to keep the war away from their son, Vladik.

“We don’t tell him that we are in a real war,” said Vitaly Snitko. “We tell him it’s a game, that we are playing hide and seek. It’s like an adventure.”

On Wednesday night, around the time they were supposed to board the train, a projectile struck near the railway station, damaging the facility’s heating system, said authorities, adding that one person was struck by shrapnel and was hospitalized.

Volodymyr Petrov contributed to this report.

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