KRAKOW, Poland, March 20 (Reuters) – It’s 11:30 a.m. at Krakow’s main train station and Ruslana Shtuka is in desperate need of some fresh air.
She and her friend, Anya Pariy, are Ukrainian refugees who have spent the last hour sorting through boxes full of children’s clothes in a dark tent just outside the train terminal in Poland’s second-largest city.
As Shtuka, 30, and Pariy, 25, push their shared black pushchairs around a historic square, they pass Italian tourists and shoppers with designer handbags in the sun, a world away from war in Ukraine.
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The two mothers left Mykolaiv four days ago as Russian forces began shelling the southern Ukrainian city at the mouth of the Black Sea. They have been sleeping in a temporary shelter near the station for two nights. Shtuka and Pariy soon head to the Polish city of Poznan, where they have been promised jobs and housing.
When Shtuka called her mother to check if she was safe, she told her daughter not to come back.
“She said, ‘there’s nothing to go back to, just nothing,'” Shtuka said, staring straight ahead. Snow is falling in Mykolaiv and the morgues are already full. “She said, ‘just try to settle down there and maybe we’ll come back later.'”
Back in Krakow’s sun-drenched square, Shtuka’s daughter, Alina, throws a piece of ice, left over from a Christmas rink, until it crumbles into small shards of snow. “Mom, mom, did you see me throw it?” said the little girl.
At noon, Shtuka and Pariy begin to return inside the station, where hundreds of newly arrived refugees are waiting in small groups in the multi-storey terminal.
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine more than three weeks ago, more than 3.3 million people, mostly women and children, have fled, more than half of them to Poland. Krakow Main has become an artery for thousands of people as they make their way to accommodation across the country or to travel to the rest of Europe.
The station is a modernist maze of train platforms and bus terminals, all connected to Galeria Krakowska, a busy shopping mall where businessmen scroll on their iPhones and sip Starbucks next to teenagers posing for Instagram in their Doc Marten boots. In the space of 24 hectic hours at the station, the lives of commuters and ordinary shoppers intersect with the path traveled by war refugees, who roll their suitcases towards an uncertain future.
GOLDEN CHANDELIERS AND FOLDING BEDS
Julia Wyka knows the station better than anyone after working as a volunteer throughout the terminal.
At 3 p.m., the 19-year-old university student is busy sorting through coffee cups in an ornate room that used to be the train station.
Since the Russian invasion, the 19th-century building has turned into a temporary refugee shelter, where around 100 mothers and children sleep side by side under gilded chandeliers on folding beds.
Dressed in her gray Girl Scout uniform with a blue and white bow tied in the front, Wyka throws a butter knife into the large jar of Nutella on the table. She says she normally volunteers in the afternoon between her online lectures in the morning and her classroom seminars in the evening.
“I just don’t want to sit at home when there are people in pain.”
Wyka, who studies psychology at a university in Krakow, says she regularly encounters people who are on the verge of collapse.
“You can sometimes see in people’s eyes that they’re so tired or scared,” she says. All she can do, she says, is give them a hug.
Volunteering with Ukrainians made Wyka reflect on how his government treated refugees in the past. More recently, evacuees have come from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and were stranded in the border area between Poland and Belarus last year in a standoff between Minsk and the European Union. Rights groups have criticized Poland’s nationalist government for forcing migrants to return to Belarus. Poland said it was meeting its international obligations while trying to stem the flow of people.
“I don’t think we should erase that from our memory,” Wyka says. “I think we should remember that these people were pushed back and received no help from us.”
At 6 p.m., Wyka leaves the shelter, leaving the next scouting team to take over. Outside, a group of German students wheel their suitcases up a ramp, past a line of Ukrainian mothers holding giant sports bags on their arms.
Upstairs at the bus station, two tall men in dark clothes wait while elderly women get off a long-haul coach that has just arrived from Ukraine. Men come to the terminal several times a week to drop off donated supplies. Tonight they are handing over two boxes of military boots to the volunteers of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces. The men watch the women and children get off the big white bus and take out their suitcases.
“We’re just doing what we can,” said one of the men, without giving his name.
Back in the main train terminal, 18-year-old Oleg, whose family immigrated from kyiv several years ago, tries to help find a Ukrainian family. They accidentally left their cat carrier empty in a busy office that’s been turned into a 24-hour operation to match refugees with temporary housing.
Wearing lanyards with volunteer registration cards around their necks, volunteers alternate between Ukrainian and Polish while writing down each refugee’s name and contact details.
When Oleg started volunteering here at the start of the war, the station was in a state of chaos. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of refugees waited for hours outside the office, while the volunteers scrambled to find enough accommodation for each of them.
“You just felt helpless,” he says. The number of refugees has decreased in recent days, he says, and the operation is now much smoother and more efficient.
The Polish government passed a bill this month to create a fund for war refugees, but cities like Krakow have called for more help.
LIVES LEFT BEHIND
As the night wears on, more and more refugees gather around the office, where a few yards away women and children sit on highlighter green and blue benches and lean against a souvenir shop that sells fancy t-shirts that read “I LOVE KRAKOW”.
At 10:30 p.m., 16-year-old refugee Anya Vasylyk nervously checks the timetable for a train that will take her mother and grandmother to the town of Olsztyn in northern Poland.
“Are you sure you have the right time?” Anya’s mother, Oksana, 43, asks as grandmother Halya Kyrylenko rests nearby.
“Show them our house,” Anya said. Her mother opens her new donated phone to show an image of a charred building in Bucha, a town 25 kilometers from kyiv that has come under heavy shelling since the war began.
After staying with their relatives in another part of the city for two weeks, the three of them decided to leave Bucha, but first they had to pass through Russian checkpoints where they wore white belts around arms to show they were civilians and had their phones confiscated. by Russian soldiers.
“I walk badly, you know,” said Halya, 63, in Ukrainian. “So my granddaughter clapped, ‘Grandma, you can do it’, while this one,” Halya said, pointing to her daughter Oksana. “She scolds me with swear words,” Halya laughs. Later, she shows how the three crawled on the ground to avoid getting shot.
Anya, who still wears braces, listens to her mother and grandmother talking to each other, while the Snezha family cat looks out of her cage.
When their train finally arrives, Anya, her mother, and grandmother carry all that’s left of their lives—three small backpacks and four large shopping bags—up the escalator to Platform 4.
An icy wind blows across the platform, but Halya says she’s not cold.
“We Ukrainian women are hot, don’t you know? Halya laughs.
Throughout the night, evacuees continue to arrive at the terminal. Many of them stare at their phones as they slump against the wall. Mothers sleep next to their children on flower-patterned blankets on the cold concrete floor.
Minutes after midnight, workers make their way through the refugees to deliver fresh groceries to stores inside the station.
Early in the morning, tourists and commuters return to the station, where a large crowd of women and children gather to board a 10:13 a.m. train to Berlin. The train is delayed and the refugees return to the platform, where they look anxiously at the notice board.
Russian Orthodox priest Mihail Pitnitskiy and his wife Anna wait with their six children on Pier 3. It is 10:30 a.m. and the Ukrainian family is on their way to Budapest, where friends have found them accommodation and work.
It took them four full days to reach Krakow from Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, where Mihail was a priest at the local cathedral.
The cathedral, which Anna said served as a bomb shelter for civilians, was one of several buildings bombed and damaged by Russian forces, according to local reports. The Russians, who describe the conflict as a special operation aimed at disarming Ukraine, deny targeting civilians in the fighting.
“Houses are destroyed, many people are dead, the situation is very tough and very bad,” says Anna.
Seemingly exhausted, she watches her sons chasing each other around a concrete pillar.
Before boarding her train, Anna says she doesn’t know when the family will be able to go home.
“Our house is not destroyed yet, but who knows? Maybe next week it might be,” she said.
Once inside the car, Anna takes one last look at the station as she hugs her baby.
She starts crying and looks away.
(Reporting by Mari Saito; Editing by Janet McBride)
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