By Mari Saito
KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) – It’s 11:30 a.m. at Krakow Main Station and Ruslana Shtuka is desperate for some fresh air.
She and her friend, Anya Pariy, are Ukrainian refugees who’ve spent the last hour sorting through cardboard boxes full of children’s clothing in a dim tent just outside the train terminal of Poland’s second city.
As Shtuka, 30, and Pariy, 25, push their shared black stroller around a historic square, they pass Italian tourists and shoppers with designer handbags in the sunshine, a world away from the war in Ukraine.
The two mothers left Mykolaiv four days ago as Russian forces began bombing the southern Ukrainian city, which sits on the mouth of the Black Sea. They’ve been sleeping in a temporary shelter near the station for two nights. Shtuka and Pariy are heading soon to the Polish city of Poznan, where they have been promised jobs and places to stay.
When Shtuka called her mother to check if she was safe, she told her daughter not to return.
“She said, ‘there’s nothing to return to, just nothing,'” Shtuka says, staring straight ahead. Snow is falling in Mykolaiv and the morgues are already full. “She said, ‘just try to settle there and maybe we will come later.'”
Back in Krakow’s sun-drenched square, Shtuka’s daughter Alina tosses a chunk of ice, left from a Christmas skating rink, until it crumbles into small snowy shards. “Mama, mama, did you see me throw it?” the little girl says.
By noon, both Shtuka and Pariy begin making their way back inside the station, where hundreds of newly arrived refugees wait in small groups in the multi-story terminal.
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine over 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 as they make their way to accommodation around the country or to travel onwards 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 teens posing for Instagram in their Doc Marten boots. In the span of one hectic 24 hours at the station, the lives of ordinary commuters and shoppers intersect with the harried path of war refugees, who roll their suitcases to an uncertain future.
GOLDEN CHANDELIERS AND FOLD-OUT BEDS
Julia Wyka knows the train station better than most after working as a volunteer all over the terminal.
By 3 p.m., the 19-year-old university student is busy sorting coffee mugs inside an ornate hall that was once the station.
Since the Russian invasion, the 19th-century building has turned into a temporary shelter for refugees, where around a hundred mothers and children sleep side by side under golden chandeliers on fold-out beds.
Wearing her grey Girl Scout uniform with a blue and white bow tied at the front, Wyka throws a butter knife into the large jar of Nutella on the table. She says she normally volunteers during the afternoon between her online lectures in the mornings and in-class seminars at night.
“I just don’t want to sit at home when there are people suffering.”
Wyka, who is studying psychology at a university in Krakow, says she regularly encounters people who’re on the verge of falling apart.
“You can sometimes see in people’s eyes that they are so tired or scared,” she says. All she can do, she says, is offer them a hug.
Volunteering with Ukrainians has made Wyka reflect on how her government treated refugees in the past. Most recently, the evacuees came from countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and got stranded in the border area between Poland and Belarus last year in a stand-off between Minsk and the European Union. Rights groups criticised Poland’s nationalist government for forcing migrants back into Belarus. Poland said it was respecting 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 those people were pushed back and didn’t receive any help from us.”
By 6 p.m., Wyka departs the shelter, leaving the next shift of scouts to take over. Outside, a group of German students roll their suitcases down a ramp, passing a line of Ukrainian mothers balancing giant duffel bags on their arms.
Upstairs at the bus terminal, two tall men in dark clothes wait as elderly women step off a long-haul coach that just arrived from Ukraine. The men come to the terminal several times a week to drop off donated supplies. Tonight, they are handing over two boxes of military boots for volunteers in Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces. The men watch as women and children step off the large white bus and pull out their suitcases.
“We’re just doing what we can,” one of the men says, without giving his name.
Back in the main train terminal, 18-year-old Oleg, whose family immigrated from Kyiv several years ago, is trying to help find a Ukrainian family. They accidentally left their empty cat carrier in a busy office that has been turned into a 24-hour operation to match refugees with temporary accommodation.
Wearing lanyards with volunteer registration cards around their necks, volunteers switch between Ukrainian and Polish as they take down each refugee’s name and contact information.
When Oleg first started to volunteer here at the start of the war, the station was in a state of chaos. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of refugees would wait hours outside the office, while volunteers scrambled to find enough accommodation for all of them.
“You just felt helpless,” he says. The number of refugees has eased in recent days, he says, and the operation is now far smoother and more efficient.
The Polish government this month passed a bill to set up a fund for war refugees, but cities like Krakow have called for more assistance.
LIVES LEFT BEHIND
As night wears on, more refugees gather around the office, where a few metres away women and children sit on highlighter green and blue benches and lean against a souvenir shop that sells novelty t-shirts that read “I LOVE KRAKOW”.
At 10:30 p.m., 16-year-old refugee Anya Vasylyk nervously checks the schedule for a train that will take her mother and grandmother to the northern Polish town of Olsztyn.
“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 says. Her mother opens her new, donated phone to show an image of a charred apartment block in Bucha, a town 25 kilometres from Kyiv that has come under heavy bombardment since the start of the war.
After staying with their relatives in another part of town for two weeks, the three of them decided to leave Bucha, but first they had to pass through Russian checkpoints where they wore white sashes around their arms to show they were civilians and had their phones confiscated by Russian soldiers.
“I’m walking badly on foot, you know,” the 63-year-old Halya says in Ukrainian. “So my granddaughter is cheering, ‘Granny, you can do it’, while that one,” Halya says, pointing at her daughter Oksana. “She’s scolding me using bad words,” Halya laughs. Later, she demonstrates how the three of them crawled on the ground to avoid getting shot.
Anya, who still wears braces, listens as her mother and grandmother talk over each other, while family cat Snezha stares out of her carrier.
When their train finally arrives, Anya, her mother and grandmother carry all that remains of their life – three small backpacks and four heavy shopping bags – up the escalator to platform 4.
Icy wind whips through the platform, but Halya says she isn’t cold.
“We Ukrainian women are hot, don’t you know?” Halya laughs.
All night long, evacuees continue to arrive at the terminal. Many of them stare into their phones as they slump against the wall. Mothers sleep next to their children on flower-patterned blankets laid out on the cold concrete floor.
A few minutes past midnight, workers make a path through the refugees to deliver fresh groceries to stores inside the station.
By early 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 refugees spill back onto the platform, where they look up anxiously at the bulletin board.
Russian Orthodox priest Mihail Pitnitskiy and his wife Anna wait with their six children on platform 3. It’s 10:30 a.m. and the Ukrainian family is bound for 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 says was being used as a bomb shelter for civilians, was one of many buildings that was shelled 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 hard and very bad,” Anna says.
Seemingly spent, she looks over at her sons, who chase after each other around a concrete pillar.
Before boarding her train, Anna says she has no idea when the family will be able to return home.
“Our home is not destroyed yet but who knows? Maybe next week it may be,” she says.
Once inside the carriage, Anna takes one final glance at the station as she clutches her baby son.
She begins to cry and looks away.
(reporting by Mari Saito; editing by Janet McBride)