As the train from Lviv limps across the Polish border, children peer from the windows, their curiosity undimmed by the horrors they have left behind. Beside them, crammed tightly into the carriages, their mothers and grandparents sit bewildered, terrified and exhausted.
As the trains pulls into Przemyśl, teams of Polish guards and volunteers help them onto the platform. They are Europe’s newest refugees.
There are only women and children. They leave behind their husbands, their fathers, their sons. The men must stay to fight. The agony of parting is etched in every face.
Their shattered lives have been reduced to a suitcase full of clothes and a few cherished mementos, thrown together in the panicked final hours of escape. Family pets have joined the exodus — cats in plastic cages, dogs straining at the leash.
From Przemyśl, the refugees can change trains to travel across Poland and beyond, free of charge. Dozens of countries have offered free rail travel for Ukrainians fleeing the war. The European Union has given Ukrainians the right to live and work in the bloc for three years.
Anastasia, who did not want to give her family name, fled her home in Kyiv along with her son and daughter. The family is hoping to reach Lithuania.
“We will go on. We will get through it,” she said, fighting back tears. “I hope that everything will end well and that our Ukraine will win. I want to return. I want to go home.”
Every family has a similar story of loss and fear.
More than 1 million Ukrainians have fled the country in the first week of Russia’s invasion, according to the United Nations, with over 500,000 crossing into Poland. A further million are internally displaced within Ukraine. The EU predicts that up to 7 million Ukrainians could leave in the coming weeks.
There is already a large Ukrainian migrant population in Poland, and many refugees can stay with friends or family, which has helped ease the pressure on authorities. Others are housed in shelters set up in schools, hotels and warehouses.
Thousands of foreign nationals are also trying to escape the war. Kaleb Poitier, originally from Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, was studying electrical engineering in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa. He fled with his Ukrainian girlfriend as the Russian attacks began.
“Every time there was a bombardment, we had to go down to the basement to take refuge. The transport no longer works. The internet is almost cut off. It was very difficult,” Poitier told VOA.
“For one week we slept at the border on the way to get here. Now we’re fine, I can say that in Poland, we’ve been well received so far. We are here to wait to take the bus to go to the other side (of Europe), to other countries, maybe to get to France,” Poitier said.
Volunteers from dozens of countries have come to the Polish border to help, offering food, clothing and shelter. Many hold up cardboard signs offering free car rides to destinations across Europe.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are also fleeing by car or on foot, dragging their few belongings across the border crossing at the Polish village of Medyka.
But it’s not one-way traffic. Many Ukrainians are heading back home to fight. VOA spoke to three former soldiers as they prepared to cross back to their home country from Poland to fight the Russian army.
“It’s a normal reaction,” said Viktor, who did not want to give his full name. “We will beat (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and everything will be fine. We will send Russian tanks and armored vehicles straight to hell.”