Dispatch

In Kharkiv, a Desperate Choice: Stay or Go?

As Russian forces continue their assault, people in Ukraine face terrifying uncertainty.

A large group of people in cold-weather clothing stand packed closely together on a train platform.
A large group of people in cold-weather clothing stand packed closely together on a train platform.
People gather on a platform at the train station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 26. Jack Losh photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker whose focus spans conflict, conservation, humanitarian issues, and traditional cultures.

KHARKIV, Ukraine—Hundreds of people huddled on a platform at Kharkiv’s train station on Saturday, glancing up toward each approaching thud of Russian shellfire. Braced against the biting cold, suitcases stacked all around, they waited for the next westbound train to escape the invading Russian army.

“Work has stopped, and it’s too dangerous to stay,” said Stepan Golovatiy, an engineer in his 30s who moved to the city, Ukraine’s second largest, seven years ago. “We can’t sleep here, but my hometown out west is quiet, at least for now.”

He and his girlfriend, Anna, would have to change trains in Kyiv amid the Russian bombardment. “I know it’s dangerous there, but it’s dangerous here, too,” Golovatiy said. “We think our connection will be OK. We trust it will be OK. Right now, we’re not scared, but we’ll see once we get there.”

KHARKIV, Ukraine—Hundreds of people huddled on a platform at Kharkiv’s train station on Saturday, glancing up toward each approaching thud of Russian shellfire. Braced against the biting cold, suitcases stacked all around, they waited for the next westbound train to escape the invading Russian army.

“Work has stopped, and it’s too dangerous to stay,” said Stepan Golovatiy, an engineer in his 30s who moved to the city, Ukraine’s second largest, seven years ago. “We can’t sleep here, but my hometown out west is quiet, at least for now.”

He and his girlfriend, Anna, would have to change trains in Kyiv amid the Russian bombardment. “I know it’s dangerous there, but it’s dangerous here, too,” Golovatiy said. “We think our connection will be OK. We trust it will be OK. Right now, we’re not scared, but we’ll see once we get there.”

Stepan Golovatiy and his girlfriend Anna wait for their train in Kharkiv on Feb. 26.
Stepan Golovatiy and his girlfriend Anna wait for their train in Kharkiv on Feb. 26.

Stepan Golovatiy and his girlfriend, Anna, wait for their train in Kharkiv on Feb. 26.

Russia’s ruthless assault on Ukraine has sent hundreds of thousands of civilians on exhausting and dangerous journeys across their besieged country. Many have decided to stay and fight—yet for every stirring story of armed resistance, there is another personal ordeal of reluctant escape, desperation to survive, and heart-wrenching farewells.

While some Ukrainians, like Stepan and Anna, seek an uncertain sanctuary within other towns across their embattled homeland, more than 150,000 others have decided to cross into neighboring countries, rushing to the borders by train, bus, car, or even foot. On Saturday, mothers and grandmothers were leading their children across the border into Moldova, having left husbands and sons behind to fight.

As violence mounts and fuel, cash, and medical supplies dwindle, the United Nations believes the number of Ukrainian refugees could rise to 5 million. Border crossings to Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia have been backed up for miles with cars stuffed with bags and people desperately trying to flee. The waiting time at one Moldovan border post was reported to be 27 hours.

Ukrainians cross the tracks at Kharkiv's packed train station on Feb. 26.
Ukrainians cross the tracks at Kharkiv's packed train station on Feb. 26.

Ukrainians cross the tracks at Kharkiv’s packed train station on Feb. 26.

It’s not only Ukrainians who are on the move. Those gathered on Saturday at the train station in Kharkiv, a cosmopolitan university city, included Cameroonians, Indians, Nigerians, and Uzbeks.

“It’s been terrifying,” said Henry Liwonjo, a 24-year-old management student from Cameroon, as he waited to board the train. “The night before the invasion, I’d stayed up late studying Russian, as I’m not great at it, then woke up to explosions. I grabbed some clothes and went to stay with my brother. When the bombs came down, we went into the basement, but it’s so dusty and stuffy that we’ve had to take shifts sleeping down there, just two or three hours at a time.”

Liwonjo is no stranger to war, having grown up in Cameroon’s embattled southwest, wracked by an ongoing separatist conflict. “I’ve been harassed by the army there and assaulted by the police,” he said of his home country. “I thought Europe was going to be safer. Now I’m not so sure.”

Not everyone has the option to escape. Thousands of civilians remain in Kharkiv, despite the increasing frequency and proximity of Russian shelling and rocket fire. On the city’s northern outskirts, apartment blocks tower over snowy wastes that stretch out toward the advancing Russian military. In these exposed suburbs, long lines of people gathered outside a supermarket on Saturday to stock up in case of a siege. The shelling was loud, the shelves increasingly empty.

In the city center, another grocery store line snaked down an otherwise empty street. “It’s absolutely terrifying,” said Ilya, a 24-year-old tech worker who was hoping to stock up on groceries. He asked to withhold his last name for security concerns. “I didn’t expect it was going to go this far.”

A menacing rumble of multiple rockets exploded inside the city, jolting the line of people.

Ukrainian military trucks race through Kharkiv's streets on Feb. 24.
Ukrainian military trucks race through Kharkiv's streets on Feb. 24.

Ukrainian military trucks race through Kharkiv’s streets on Feb. 24.

“At this point, I have no words,” Ilya continued. “We can’t leave—it is impossible. Everything is blocked. Train stations are full of people. Everyone wants to escape.”

He exhaled sharply, before adding: “The Russians aren’t joking.”

As the capital, Kyiv, continued to fend off a Russian assault—during which Russian cruise missiles struck apartments and families crammed into underground shelters—Russian forces on Saturday stepped up their bombardment of Kharkiv to the east, forcing civilians once more to decide whether to leave their homes or risk staying.

Ukrainian troops are dug in around the city, having pushed back advancing columns of Russian armor and infantry. At a desolate crossroads on Kharkiv’s northern edge, some 30 miles from the Russian-Ukrainian border, the signs of a fierce battle littered the asphalt: burned-out Russian military vehicles, charred helmets, spent ammunition, a soldier’s boot. Snow dusted the lifeless body of a Russian soldier.

A helmet and other detritus litters the ground by the burned-out wreckage of a Russian armored personnel carrier in northern Kharkiv on Feb. 26.
A helmet and other detritus litters the ground by the burned-out wreckage of a Russian armored personnel carrier in northern Kharkiv on Feb. 26.

A helmet and other detritus litter the ground by the burned-out wreckage of a Russian armored personnel carrier in northern Kharkiv on Feb. 26.

To the north, an enormous column of tanks has been seen moving toward the border near Kharkiv, raising fears of an imminent assault on the city. Meanwhile, in the city center, Ukrainian soldiers spoke of concerns that Russian sabotage and reconnaissance groups had already begun to infiltrate the city—a serious worry for residents given warnings from Britain’s Defense Ministry on Saturday that overnight clashes in Kyiv may have been started by prepositioned Russian saboteurs.

“Some are entering the city in civilian cars and driving around,” said Vadim, a 27-year-old Ukrainian serviceman, smoking a cigarette outside his barracks. He withheld his last name because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. “The rest are shelling civilian areas. They are committing war crimes.”

As darkness fell on Kharkiv on Saturday evening, the wail of air raid sirens and blasts of Russian rockets sent those who remained in the city back down into bomb shelters and basements. The third day of the invasion had ended, with yet another uncertain night ahead.

Jack Losh is a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker whose focus spans conflict, conservation, humanitarian issues, and traditional cultures. Twitter: @jacklosh

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