Dispatch

In Ukraine, Refugees Flee West—and Volunteer Fighters Flood to the East

Thousands of Ukrainian men are rushing toward the threatened capital for hasty military training.

A woman and child board a train out of Ukraine.
A woman and child board a train out of Ukraine.
Families board a train at the station in Lviv, Ukraine, heading toward the Polish border on March 3. STEFANIE GLINSKI PHOTOS FOR FOREIGN POLICY
By , a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East.

Putin’s War

KYIV, Ukraine—On board the 11:19 p.m. sleeper train from western Ukraine to the capital, Kyiv, last Friday were about 200 men, almost all of them heading to the front lines. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month, trains across the country have become a lifeline for those wanting to leave—and those wanting to fight. In Lviv, women and children on the platform waiting for the train to Poland were interrupted by repeated announcements: “No men on the trains.” At least not on the trains heading west.

It was warm inside the train bound for Kyiv, and the steady thwack of the cars rolling over the tracks was strangely calming. The men talked quietly as they sat in their dimly lit compartments, some smoking by the window, others drinking wine out of Pepsi bottles and paper cups. Alcohol sales were banned across the country last week in a bid to keep the population focused and sober, but the men had found some anyway, and a few were determined to get as drunk as possible before passing out for the nine-hour-long journey. 

Slava, 33, said he just dropped off his ex-wife and 5-year-old son, Nikita, at the Slovakian border, then left his girlfriend in Lviv, where they spent a last night together before he returned to the capital. They had been living in Kyiv together, where Slava worked in the oil industry. “Now I’m fighting, and my girlfriend has joined a team in Lviv preparing Molotov cocktails,” he said, still in disbelief.

Women and children from Odessa board a train at the Lviv station, heading towards the Polish border on March 3.

Families board a train at the station in Lviv, Ukraine, heading toward the Polish border on March 3.STEFANIE GLINSKI PHOTOS FOR FOREIGN POLICY

KYIV, Ukraine—On board the 11:19 p.m. sleeper train from western Ukraine to the capital, Kyiv, last Friday were about 200 men, almost all of them heading to the front lines. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month, trains across the country have become a lifeline for those wanting to leave—and those wanting to fight. In Lviv, women and children on the platform waiting for the train to Poland were interrupted by repeated announcements: “No men on the trains.” At least not on the trains heading west.

It was warm inside the train bound for Kyiv, and the steady thwack of the cars rolling over the tracks was strangely calming. The men talked quietly as they sat in their dimly lit compartments, some smoking by the window, others drinking wine out of Pepsi bottles and paper cups. Alcohol sales were banned across the country last week in a bid to keep the population focused and sober, but the men had found some anyway, and a few were determined to get as drunk as possible before passing out for the nine-hour-long journey. 

Slava, 33, said he just dropped off his ex-wife and 5-year-old son, Nikita, at the Slovakian border, then left his girlfriend in Lviv, where they spent a last night together before he returned to the capital. They had been living in Kyiv together, where Slava worked in the oil industry. “Now I’m fighting, and my girlfriend has joined a team in Lviv preparing Molotov cocktails,” he said, still in disbelief.

Slava—who like many soldiers-in-training was afraid to share his full name—grew up in Donetsk and has seen war since 2014, when armed pro-Russian separatists seized government buildings in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, starting a conflict that has since slipped out of control. Back then he fled to Kyiv; this time he has enrolled in a monthlong military training course outside the capital that will eventually take him to the front line.

Majid Gul, Serge Nessan and Salva (left to right) sit in a train compartment heading to Kyiv to fight on March 4.

Majid Gul, Sergey Nessan, and Slava (left to right) sit in a train compartment heading to Kyiv to fight on March 4.

Slava shares a photo of his son.

Slava shares a photo of his son.

Slava pulled out his phone to show off a picture of his son around the compartment. “I already miss him,” he said, via Google translate on his phone. “We didn’t attack Russia and we don’t want war, but we are all going to war because there is no alternative,” he typed. “I would have never chosen to take up a weapon, but today I have no choice.”

As the newly ignited conflict moved into its second week, scores of civilians have died—with the Ukrainian State Emergency Service reporting more than 2,000 civilian deaths. Countless apartment blocks, schools, kindergartens, and entire town centers have been destroyed by Russian air and missile strikes. International organizations are working to document alleged Russian war crimes, including indiscriminate bombing of civilians. The International Court of Justice in The Hague on Monday heard Ukraine’s case for an investigation into possible Russian genocide. 

Many Ukrainian men in the country have already set aside their civilian jobs and joined Ukraine’s territorial defense units; well over 60,000 Ukrainians have returned from abroad to join the fight. 

In a way, Majid Gul, 36, done both. Gul, a Pashtun from Pakistan’s Swat Valley, moved to Kyiv with his Ukrainian wife in 2010 and later became a Ukrainian citizen (and, briefly, a player on Ukraine’s national cricket team.) The couple, who met while studying in Athens, had been raising three children together. Gul just dropped them all off at the Polish border, glad that they at least were heading to safety.

Soldiers at the Lviv train station on March 4.

Ukrainian soldiers at the Lviv train station on March 4.

“The mujahideen in Afghanistan defeated the Russians before—and many of those men were Pashtun like me. This time, I will help too,” he said, half joking, but with a hint of urgency. He sat in the dark train compartment, declining a drink when the wine went around. 

He said he was not afraid, because he is fighting for his family and his country. While his parents and siblings still live in Pakistan, Gul—who is also fluent in English, Russian, and Ukrainian—explained that he felt more Ukrainian than Pakistani; even his children don’t speak his native Pashto.

“Ukraine is where I’ve found my freedom, and I now witness it being taken away from me,” he said. “That’s why I’m going to fight.” 

War, he said, is “sadly” familiar to him. He grew up amid regular attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, and last spring, on a regular visit to Afghanistan to purchase precious stones—part of his import-export job—he was detained by the Afghan Taliban on his way to Khost province. “They thought I was a Pakistani spy,” he said. “They questioned me for two days before letting me go. I wasn’t afraid of them, and I’m not afraid of the Russians.” 

That attitude is widespread across the country, said one of the train’s conductors, Ivan Ilchuk, 40. He said he’d seen hundreds of men heading toward the front line every day. “They are coming from all directions,” he said. “Most of them haven’t been soldiers before, so they are now signing up for army training camps to get equipped.”

A few hours into the trip, many of the men had passed out: The Pepsi bottle of wine was empty, and the overheated compartments made for a drowsy night. But Slava wanted to share one last thought before going to sleep. He typed it out again on his phone and translated it.

“The hardest part is that I might never see my son again,” he wrote, “but I know that he will be proud of me.”

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East. Twitter: @stephglinski

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