The Last Train to Germany: A Free Lifeline for Ukraine’s Refugees




Przemysl, Poland — The 10:30 p.m. special night service to Germany waits at the platform of Przemysl station, its dim lights barely visible through the freezing fog. It is the last free train for refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion.

A few kilometers from the Ukrainian border, the Polish city of Przemysl is a hub for Ukrainians escaping to Western Europe. In the first weeks of Russia’s invasion, refugees were offered free travel across Europe.

A year on, the service to Hanover — a city in central Germany — is the only remaining free transport, paid for by the German state and operated mainly by volunteers. It departs every two days and is reserved solely for refugees. But getting a place on board isn’t easy.

Waiting list

Inside Przemysl station, the main waiting room has become a shelter reserved for mothers and young children. They are the first to receive the wristbands that guarantee them a place on the train.

Volunteers from the Red Cross oversee the process. They are frequently offered bribes to jump the line. The charity operates a strict waiting list based on when the refugees arrived across the border.

In the chaos of the station foyer, Alexandr Hrabarchuk, his wife and three children have been given wristbands and are collecting free food and drink for the long journey ahead. They fled the city of Severo-Donetsk, on the frontline in eastern Ukraine.

"Seventy percent of the city has been destroyed," Hrabarchuk told VOA. "It will take at least three or four years to rebuild. Of course, I want to go back, I grew up there. It was very hard to leave. We did it for the sake of the children."

’Tetris’

Each compartment on the train can sleep six people, or up to eight if there are young children. There is an urgent need for more capacity, says Sebastien Bertin, a volunteer with the Red Cross who travelled to Przemysl from his home in France last year.

"We have only four railroad cars on the train. So, we have 210 people with the wristbands who will join the train to Hanover. We wish that we could have five or six cars — we have an enormous need for these extra railroad cars to be able to accommodate all the refugees," Bertin told VOA.

The process of getting the refugees on board is slow and methodical. Many arrive with several large suitcases, boxes and bags. Some carry pets — mainly cats and birds. Larger animals like dogs must travel separately.

When the service first started, Bertin says the platforms were chaotic as the refugees rushed to get a place on the train, meaning fewer people could get on board.

Now each family is loaded on one at a time. He likens the process to the video game ‘Tetris’, fitting the cargo — human, animal and inanimate — in the most efficient way possible.

Hanover

The train arrives around 2 p.m. the following day at Messe-Laatzen station, in the outskirts of Hanover. The refugees then have several options, Bertin explained.

"The people who will stay in Germany are received at Hanover Messe-Laatzen station by the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations," Bertin said. "The others take another train or make their way to the central station in Hanover, where another group of volunteers gives them free tickets to travel elsewhere."

Hope

Some refugees are able to purchase their own rail, bus or flight tickets to Western Europe and beyond, or drive their own vehicles across the border. But many have lost everything — homes, businesses, possessions — and rely on the free Hanover service.

Olga, who did not want to give her family name, escaped from Zaitseve, a village outside Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, scene of some of the most intense fighting of the war.

"The houses were completely demolished. There is no place to go," Olga told VOA. "They destroyed the village in the middle of the night. I don’t know where I can start again. Now I can’t buy a house, I can’t build a house. I don’t know how I can live. I don’t know what hope God can give us.’

For now, the only hope is to escape from the war, to put faith in the charity of strangers.

After a two-hour operation, over 230 refugees are squeezed on board. At exactly 10:30 p.m., the train pulled out of Przemysl for the 16-hour journey to Hanover.

Another step on the long road to a new life in an unfamiliar land.

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