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Riding Ukraine's last train line out of Donbas with families fleeing for their lives

Irina Garmash, a mother of four from the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk, sits on an evacuation train that has stopped in the center-eastern city of Dnipro, on July 8. The train carries residents from the eastern Donbas region fleeing war during the Russian invasion.
Carol Guzy for NPR
Irina Garmash, a mother of four from the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk, sits on an evacuation train that has stopped in the center-eastern city of Dnipro, on July 8. The train carries residents from the eastern Donbas region fleeing war during the Russian invasion.

Updated July 16, 2022 at 6:46 AM ET

DNIPRO, Ukraine — Every evening a little before 8, a train pulls into the station in this central-eastern Ukrainian town, brakes squealing. It's the last rail service out of Ukraine's bombed-out Donbas region.

Eighty-three-year-old Lidia Havrilenko steps off the train, looking frail and lost. She's holding her most precious possessions in two plastic bags by her side.

"I came with my two cats," she says, as one of the felines fearfully pokes its head from the top of the bag.

She's also traveling with her 52-year-old son, who recently had a stroke and walks with a cane.

Lidia Havrilenko, 83, arrives from the eastern Ukrainian city of Druzhkivka with meager belongings, including her two cats, on an evacuation train carrying refugees from the Donbas region, on July 9.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Lidia Havrilenko, 83, arrives from the eastern Ukrainian city of Druzhkivka with meager belongings, including her two cats, on an evacuation train carrying refugees from the Donbas region, on July 9.

Havrilenko, from Druzhkivka, in the Donetsk oblast (region), says their town is being shelled night and day. Asked why she waited so long to leave, she says, "How could I leave my nest?"

"It's very hard to go," she says. "One option is bad but the other is also as bad." She says they have no idea where they're going or if they'll ever return.

Lidia Havrilenko carries her two cats, Kuzma and Nyusya, in plastic grocery bags as she flees the Donbas region.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Lidia Havrilenko carries her two cats, Kuzma and Nyusya, in plastic grocery bags as she flees the Donbas region.

Russia's been pummeling the region

Russian forces are fighting to conquer the entire Donbas region. Earlier this month, Russian and Kremlin-backed separatist forces completed their takeover of the remaining Ukrainian-held parts of Luhansk, and now are making slow gains in Donetsk. Taking the Donbas would give Russian President Vladimir Putin a symbolic victory in a neighboring region that has long been in his sights.

The fighting and shelling in the east have been brutal, with civilian casualties mounting and whole cities and villages laid to waste. And many residents have been fleeing on this evacuation train, as their only escape.

Ukraine's national railway set up this free evacuation train out of the Donbas in April, providing porridge, beds and medics on board. Every afternoon, it sets off on a 750-mile, 24-hour journey from the eastern town of Pokrovsk, making stops along the way, like in Dnipro, before finally reaching the western city of Lviv.

Some still can't believe there's all-out war

Inside the train it is sweltering. The compartments, with three bunks on each side and a table in the middle, are jammed with families and older people. Some have brought their food on the train and children play in the aisle.

Svetlana Yefremova, who is 65, invites NPR reporters to sit in her compartment and talk. She looks exhausted and holds her hand to her face.

Top left: Volunteers from Victory Church assist a man getting of an evacuation train in Dnipro, Ukraine, on July 8. Top right and bottom: Angelina Karpova, 3 years old, is one of four children of Anna Karpova, 30, arriving from the city of Myrnohrad on an evacuation train on July 10.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Top left: Volunteers from Victory Church assist a man getting of an evacuation train in Dnipro, Ukraine, on July 8. Top right and bottom: Angelina Karpova, 3 years old, is one of four children of Anna Karpova, 30, arriving from the city of Myrnohrad on an evacuation train on July 10.

Yefremova fled shelling in her town of Bakhmut with her daughter and five grandkids. They're heading to family in central Ukraine.

Even though there's been on-and-off fighting in the east for eight years, it was contained in the region and she says she never thought it would break into full-scale war.

"When people talked about war, I laughed and said what? War with Russia? It's impossible! And now I'm angry with myself," she says.

Putin has long had the Donbas in his sights

Putin began exerting his influence in the Donbas in 2014. Although the Russian government denied participating, the Kremlin threw its support behind pro-Russian separatists in the east who fought to break away from Ukraine.

Igor Mikhailovich (left), 73, from the city of Kostiantynivka, lies in a van as volunteers help transport people with disabilities away from an evacuation train in Dnipro, Ukraine, July 8.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Igor Mikhailovich (left), 73, from the city of Kostiantynivka, lies in a van as volunteers help transport people with disabilities away from an evacuation train in Dnipro, Ukraine, July 8.

Putin exploited east-west divisions in Ukraine following its pro-democracy revolution that led to the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych. While much of western Ukraine called it the "Revolution of Dignity," many in the east were angry about the overthrow of the president, a fellow easterner, and considered the uprising a coup.

Russia stepped in to encourage that sentiment, backing separatists in the Donbas and taking Crimea from Ukraine.

Yefremova says Russian TV propaganda became pervasive. It spread fears that "fascists" had taken over Ukraine's national government in Kyiv and would come for them next. She says Russian propaganda has poisoned their lives. And even now, many residents believe in it.

"They really believe that Russian soldiers don't shell, don't shoot, don't kill," she says. "I tell them, 'You have eyes, you have ears and you know that Ukrainians are not shelling you.' "

Top: An evacuation train arrives carrying residents from the Donbas region fleeing war as shelling escalates in their towns, on July 9. Bottom left: Volunteers from Victory Church assist a man getting off the train, July 8. Bottom right: Nina Ivanovna Voronyuk, 84, and her husband Mikhail Ivanovich Sotnikov, 95, arrive on July 11.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Top: An evacuation train arrives carrying residents from the Donbas region fleeing war as shelling escalates in their towns, on July 9. Bottom left: Volunteers from Victory Church assist a man getting off the train, July 8. Bottom right: Nina Ivanovna Voronyuk, 84, and her husband Mikhail Ivanovich Sotnikov, 95, arrive on July 11.

In February, two days before launching the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin formally recognized the separatist-held Luhansk and Donetsk as "people's republics" independent of Ukraine. (Today, Syria, the Afghan Taliban and North Korea are among the few others that back this claim.) Putin said Russia needed to carry out a "special military operation" to "liberate" the regions.

Yefremova says her family has broken in two. All her children are pro-Ukrainian and one of her sons fights in the Ukrainian military. But she gave up trying to convince her husband, who believes they would be better off under Russian. He stayed behind.

She begins to cry. "We lived a normal life, we had freedom, our children were happy and now we have to leave everything and run away," she says.

Ukrainians are on a platform at a station in Dnipro, Ukraine, as an evacuation train arrives carrying people from the Donbas, on July 8.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Ukrainians are on a platform at a station in Dnipro, Ukraine, as an evacuation train arrives carrying people from the Donbas, on July 8.

The passengers speaking to NPR this month all come from the Ukrainian-run parts of Donetsk that the Russian army is now trying to capture. The separatist-held areas have been difficult to access and even cut off from the rest of Ukraine for the last couple of years.

Railway worker Valeriy Garbatyuk says there were always divisions between western and eastern Ukrainians, but this war has brought the country together.

He says when the train arrives in Lviv, locals come out every night to greet passengers with hot dumplings. And Garbatyuk tries to reassure passengers along the way.

"We try to stay positive to support people," he says. He says he tells older passengers, "You will come back home soon, Putin kaput, Ukraine will win, everyone will come back to their homes, everything will be good, everything will be Ukraine."

Vladimir Bekitko is smoking a cigarette on the platform at Dnipro station. Despite the heat, the 78-year-old is wearing a soiled sweater.

Bekitko says his town of Sloviansk, one of the Ukrainian-held parts of Donetsk, is being bombed by Russia "afternoon, morning and night."

His family is Ukrainian but they fled Soviet ruler Josef Stalin's man-made deadly famine in the country in 1932, he says. He lived in Russia for 60 years before moving to Ukraine, after it had gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Bekitko says Ukraine should have been better prepared for Russia's invasion.

"Putin gave us ample warning," he says. "We should've been making more weapons and built a stronger army." He believes if Ukrainian governments had been more nationalist, the country might be in better shape.

Vladimir Bekitko sits on the train stopped at Dnipro. He says Ukraine should have been better prepared for Russia's invasion.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Vladimir Bekitko sits on the train stopped at Dnipro. He says Ukraine should have been better prepared for Russia's invasion.

Russia will never stop bullying Ukraine, says Bekitko, until Putin and "all those bastards in the Kremlin are dead."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.