Valentina Kurushenko ran through a field, carrying her six-week-old granddaughter, as Russian shells exploded over her hometown of Kherson.
Kurushenko fled the Russian-occupied city on Friday with her 22 year-old daughter and drove for two days, covering almost 900 km, to reach Lviv, a safe haven in western Ukraine for thousands fleeing Russian troops.
Now, the trio wait in a small, hidden room above Lviv train station’s still crowded platforms, alongside dozens of other women and young children who have left everything behind to escape death in some of Ukraine’s most besieged cities.
“Our house is destroyed. Only the walls are remaining,” Kurushenko says through a translator, rocking her sleeping granddaughter in her arms as her daughter sits, head bowed, on a mattress nearby.
“We managed to escape to here without almost anything.”
It is the same story for many of the women in this room, tucked away on the third floor of the grand Lviv-Holovnyi railway station, an imposing Art Noveau building that stands sentinel over the busy platforms.
While the refugee flows have slowed as the war in Ukraine enters its fourth week, Lviv mayor Andriy Sudovyi estimates the train station is still welcoming about 10,000 people per day, from its peak of about 60,000 — but this could rise again if Russian aggression in other areas continues to escalate.
More than 200,000 refugees remain in Lviv, Sadovyi said, and the refugee crisis was costing the city $1 million per day.
As of March 19, it’s estimated 3.4 million people have fled Ukraine, while 6.5 million within the country have been displaced. Many of those people head for Lviv, renowned as the country’s cultural heart, and a western city which has been largely untouched by the devastation wrought elsewhere.
The streets of Lviv, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, remain relatively calm as strikes bear down on Mariupol, Mykolaiv and Kyiv, but Russian forces fired a warning shot at the city late last week, hitting an aircraft repair facility at the airport.
Further strikes on the humanitarian hub that the city has become seem likely. But for now, for many, it is the safest place in the country.
As the train doors open on carriages from Kyiv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil, crowds of predominantly women and children flood the platforms, toting small suitcases and plastic bags — whatever they could gather in time.
Many of them have left fathers, husbands and brothers behind; men of fighting age, between 18 and 60, are not allowed to leave the country under a presidential decree, in case they get called up to fight.
While most of the incoming refugees head straight out the station’s main entrance, converging on a makeshift humanitarian centre outside, complete with medical tents, food stalls and a man playing ‘Let It Go’ on the piano, other, more vulnerable, refugees are directed in another direction.
Up two flights of stairs, and through a set of large wooden doors, is a safe space set aside for women and young children who need emergency shelter while they figure out their next steps.
Thin mattresses are laid out side-by-side on the floor, blankets and pillows strewn across their surface. A food bench has been erected at the front, brimming with hot drinks, bread and fruit. The room is a cacophony of confusion — babies wailing, children screaming with joy as they run after each other, unaware of the danger they’ve just left behind, and mothers cajoling those who won’t quiet.
Kurushenko and her daughter found a brief moment of respite here as they await transportation to get to Poland to stay with relatives. As Kurushenko describes her escape, there is a weary, haunted look on her face, typical of many others in this room.
The port city of Kherson, near the border of the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula, was one of the first in Ukraine to fall under Russian control. Home to more than 280,000 people, much of the outskirts of the city are now destroyed.
On Monday, Russian soldiers used stun grenades and gunfire to break up a protest in the city. Videos from the scene show hundreds of protesters approaching a city square before being forced to run away after automatic gunfire breaks out.
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Kurushenko says Russians occupied her home before it was shelled and almost completely destroyed.
She describes her escape from the city as “running through a field under the shelling.” Her husband remains in Kherson in the city’s self defense unit, as does her daughter’s partner. Her daughter does not raise her head the entire time we speak to her mother, instead staring transfixed into her mostly empty suitcase.
‘I can’t live under the shelling anymore’
Nearby, Alena Seitch sits on a mattress, her hand placed protectively on the back of her sleeping one-year-old son, as her eight-year-old son wanders around in the background, eating a cookie. The family arrived in Lviv from Sumy, in north-east Ukraine, through a humanitarian corridor. Sumy has been subjected to intense Russian shelling.
Seitch was supposed to travel to Poland where she had organized refugee accommodation, but arrived in Lviv to the news that was no longer available. Now, she’s planning on staying with relatives in a town nearby.
“I can’t live under the shelling anymore. I’m not ready to sleep in a train station,” she says, through tears.
“I had a train to Poland, but when I realized no one will take us there and won’t provide us with accommodation, I changed the ticket and I reached out to my relatives.”
Seitch is a professional gymnast, demonstrated by her delicate posture as she sits on the mattress, her left leg bent underneath her right, her right leg extended in front of her and toes pointed.
She was a gymnastics trainer before the war, she explains, showing off videos of the highly decorated young girls she trains in Sumy on her phone, competing at past international competitions. Her girls have all escaped Ukraine, she says, because “they are rich and could do it.”
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Seitch has not eaten in four days, because she is nervous and stressed. She says she stayed in Sumy for as long as she could, before the sound of explosions became too much. Her mother remains there, because she refused to leave her home.
“When you’re hearing the shelling all the time you think you’re going to be buried under this building,” Seitch says.
Everything she is doing is “a sacrifice for my children,” she says, the impact on whom she is visibly distressed over.
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While her one-year-old is too young to understand what is happening, she says her eight-year-old has started wetting the bed and even now in Lviv, in relative safety, he holds his head in his hands and adopts the fetal position every time he hears an air raid siren.
“He’s very, very strong. He is a sportsman like me, but because of this situation, our nerves have mostly reached their limit,” she says.
Drivers deliver orphans from cities under fire
Every woman in this room has a similarly distressing story. Another mother of two, called Anya, arrived here with her sister and her two young children. She says her parents remain behind in the basement of her home.
“I had a call with my parents…. and they said to us a shell had landed, like, not far from them but they didn’t know where exactly. Now they don’t have a mobile connection.”
Volunteers rush around in the background delivering hot tea and snacks to vacant faces as children somersault across mattresses nearby. A group of volunteers carrying a stretcher wave people out of the way as they deliver a small figure, draped in a blanket, to another room at the back of the hall.
Olha Slushinska stands at the front of the room and directs newcomers. Her eyes become glassy as she speaks of the people she has met over the past three weeks.
She remembers a mother and baby arriving the first day they opened this room, the day after the war broke out, on Feb. 25. The baby was totally naked, draped in a blanket. That moment has stuck with her.
Volunteers have come from all over, she says, including an Italian man who showed up not speaking a word of English or Ukrainian and just left yesterday.
Orphans and children are also arriving without parents and are being sent to nearby churches and refugee camps set up inside Lviv schools and kindergartens.
She speaks fondly about a man who is driving back and forth from here to the front lines, picking up orphans and delivering them here. She hasn’t heard from him in a couple of days and is worried.
The weight of war on Ukraine’s children
Shlushinksa isn’t sure of the capacity of the room but says it is always full, especially at night. She watches women silently grieving, “passing on the emotion to their children.”
“Each person is very emotional. One person can seem very stable and do emotional things very easily,” she says.
Slushinska has worked here since the beginning of the war and will continue to do so for as long as it continues. She feels duty-bound to do so.
“I feel that for people out there it’s more difficult than here. I know a lot of women are in basements seeing explosions,” she says.
“So we are trying to support these people as much as possible.”
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