There was a distant look in the faces of the people. Most moved listlessly in the courtyard outside the station, even when the sirens sounded†
A family piled blankets over their baby in a pram. Two women dressed a shivering French bulldog in a knitted pink sweater. Several other families sat together, barricaded by large suitcases and plastic bags. They said they hadn’t slept for days because of the bombing that devastated the regions they left.
They had traveled to Lviv from towns and villages across the country, quickly packing backpacks and collecting some belongings before fleeing their homes.
Still reeling from the violence, many say they don’t know where to go. It’s a question complicated by a new Ukrainian martial law that has been rolled out. It bans, among other things, men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country.
Families considering crossing the border into Ukraine face not only the trauma of becoming refugees, but also the prospect of separating from their sons, brothers, husbands and partners.
Artem Zonenko has just arrived in Lviv from Kiev, along with his mother-in-law and daughter. They spent the night sleeping on the floor of a metro station, taking cover from the bombing and shelling of the Ukrainian capital. His wife had been in Lviv for a few days. The family plans to spend a day together before deciding whether to leave grandma, mother and child to Poland, leaving Zonenko behind.
When asked what he thought of it, he smiled desperately. “I’m not sure what to tell you. It is what it is,’ he said, pushing his family into a taxi.
The UNHCR said at least 100,000 people had left their homes in the first 24 hours of Thursday’s military strike. State media and an eyewitness said more than 7,000 cars lined up at the border crossings on the Polish border, with a queue stretching more than 30 kilometers.
Andrei, 45, looked into the distance as he took a long drag on his cigarette. He had just come from his native Odessa, in the southeast, and made up a plan to meet his Belarusian wife in Poland. ‘She is pregnant. I have to see her,’ he said, refusing to reveal his full name for security reasons. “This law makes no sense.”
The government announced the general mobilization order – including the travel ban on men – while he was on the train. It’s a crooked ball that could rock his family’s future, he said. “And then [we] got off the train and the sirens went off,” he said. “I was shocked because we weren’t even told where to take cover. I was shocked because this place is supposed to be safe.”
“And now we’re being told we can’t even leave the country, while the migrants can,” he gestured to a group of foreigners nearby. “I ask you, is this fair?”
For migrants arriving in Lviv, their destination is certain: Poland or a neighboring state that will receive them.
“I don’t know where to take cover, because nowhere is safe,” said Mehmet, a Turkish resident of Ukraine, as he drags two large suitcases across the sidewalk as sirens sounded. “We’re just going out of the country.”
A group of Algerian university students arriving from Odessa frantically discussed their plans. “We’re just going to Poland,” said Takieddine, who asked not to be named in full for security reasons. “It is impossible that we stay in Ukraine.”
“We never thought this would happen in Europe. Never. Not in a million years.”
Ihor Nakonechyi, 52, is in the border town of Mostyska preparing to bring his ex-wife and daughter to Poland. He plans to drop them off at the nearby intersection and then turn back, not just because the law forbids him to leave the country, he says, but because he “can’t wait to pick up a gun” and to join the fight against the Russian forces.
“It’s hard… but I’m not bothered by the law. In fact, I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Journalist Roman Tymotsko contributed to this report.