PRZEMYSL, Poland -- Stepping into the baroque halls of Poland's Przemysl station during the first days of the war, you would have immediately gotten lost in the chaos: refugees with bags, small children, and pets; student volunteers, not quite sure what to do; journalists arriving and departing from all over the world.
Now, over eight months after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the main train station in this small border town in eastern Poland is quiet.
Ukrainians arriving from all corners of Europe line up at passport control. It's 11 p.m., 10 minutes before the train to Kyiv is due to depart, but a woman who has evidently taken this route before tells the others not to worry: The train won't depart until everyone boards.
With the absence of air travel, Ukraine's railways, with nearly 20,000 kilometers of track, have been crucial in the time of war. Since February, the trains have transported thousands of refugees to safety. Now, after Ukraine's counteroffensive, many of them have come home.
In the passport queue, people speak in low voices, holding their bags tightly. Ahead of me, a girl leaning on a small suitcase is speaking loudly, describing a cake recipe to someone on the phone. Many of the people here are not returning to Kyiv for the first time. Those who found refuge elsewhere in Europe sometimes travel back on business or to see family and friends.
The train is a pleasant surprise: warm and comfortable, a fast intercity train with clean carriages and blue velvet-covered seats. It's a stark difference from February, when fleeing refugees recounted overcrowded carriages with children sleeping on piles of bags and adults left to stand.
In 5 minutes, everyone's seated, and in 10 some are already asleep. This would seem like a normal European train journey were it not for the safety instructions on the monitors above: how to protect yourself from explosions, how to console a child, where to seek help if you've been a victim of sexual assault during the war.
Every night, around 80 to 100 long-haul trains crisscross the country, and another more than 200 regional trains run through the early hours. Beside Poland, international trains depart for Vienna and Budapest. Going east within Ukraine, the trains run right up to the areas occupied by Russian forces -- Kramatorsk, Pokrovsk, and Izyum.
At midnight, we set off on the 12-hour journey, and after 20 minutes we're already in Ukraine. Just before Lviv, two female border guards with guns check passengers' passports. They ask your reason for travel, stamp your papers, and move on to the next person. Outside the window it is pitch black as most cities turn their lights off at night to save electricity. I had hoped to stretch my legs at the Lviv station, but the train only stops for 2 minutes and the conductor won't let me disembark.
When I return to my seat, my neighbor is awake. "Maria," she says in introduction, shaking my hand. A 32-year-old dancer, she's traveling to see her boyfriend in Kyiv after a tour. "I texted him that I missed him, and he said, 'I can't talk now, I'm packing the emergency backpack.' I think it's the most romantic thing I've ever been told." The "emergency backpack" is a bag of essentials -- clothes, toiletries, documents --- things they would need should they have to flee in a hurry. Maria has already packed up three flats this year, stashing her belongings and those of her friends in basements where they would be safer from the shelling.
This had been Maria's first time leaving Kyiv. She realized a tour abroad would pay more, she says, and she donates a portion of each pay check to the Ukrainian Army. "I didn't used to be like this. To be honest, I was even lazy to vote sometimes. But during these [past few] months, I've come to realize that it's important to be able to say 'I am here, I am doing this.'"
I confess to Maria that I'm surprised by how calm people are. "You know, you have a right to have a rest. To have fun, to recharge. If you're simultaneously helping others while taking care of yourself, it's OK," Maria says. "There was a moment when I realized, I was not afraid anymore. 'Let's start recovering,' I said to myself. First, psychologically, by seeing a therapist. Then, physically, by training how to let the stress out. Then I found a job. Then, creatively, by dancing again."
Sometime before sunrise, Maria falls sleep, and I visit the dining car. The two women working there have spent almost the entire night on their feet and won't let me photograph their faces. "We're on our second shift in a row and we look awful," says Ira, one of the stewardesses. "We travel all around Ukraine and work on different trains. If we don't make it home before curfew [11 p.m.-5 a.m.], we sleep in the depot, and in the morning go straight to work." The hours pass quickly and, as the sun rises, passengers line up in front of Ira's counter for coffee.
The state-owned Ukrainian Railways is the country's biggest employer, according to the head of the passenger department, Oleksandr Pertsovsky. The company employs 230,000 people, with 9,000 conductors. Earlier this year, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development repurposed 150 million euros ($155 million) of existing loans to Ukrainian Railways to allow the company to "address critical liquidity needs, ensuring vital railway passenger and cargo transport services are available for people and business affected by Russia's war on Ukraine."
"We've lost 260 people (Ukrainian Railways workers) during the war (the number has increased since the interview). About 8,000 were conscripted or went to war voluntarily. Some died on duty. A conductor in Donetsk was killed in a bridge explosion that hit an evacuation train," Pertsovsky said. "Some employees…lived close to the railway and didn't evacuate during a [bombardment] because they wanted to ensure that the trains kept running, and they died in the shelling. We don't have an exact number at the moment, since there are cities like Mariupol where we still don't know the amount of losses."
In the morning, I meet Maria again. She is looking out of the window at the passing villages, holding a big cup of cappuccino. "Sometimes, I distance myself from the war, as if it's Game of Thrones. It's both good and bad. Bad, because I'm less prepared. Good, because I'm not paranoid."
Maria tells me there are two groups of people at the moment. The first, like Maria, are fatalistic. They keep calm and carry on with their daily routine, sometimes not even going to shelters during an air raid. These people are mostly those who returned to Ukraine or who never left in the first place. The other group, according to Maria, are "paranoid" Ukrainians who keep an eye on the country from afar and live under the impression that everything is constantly burning.
On the return journey, after paying almost double (around 70 euros), I'm in the sleeper car. My three companions in the four-berth compartment are Sonya, a high-school student at an international school in Krakow, Poland; Inga, who is returning to be with her mother in Ireland, where the two have found refuge; and Oleh (name changed), who asked to remain anonymous.
The train leaves just before 8 p.m., and over tea and snacks my bunkmates share their stories. Sonya had visited her family in Kyiv, but after spending the past three years in Poland, she already feels at home in the neighboring country. After the war began, Sonya's teachers gathered all the Ukrainian students together and asked them to keep good relations with the Russian students. "We all talked about it and decided it would be wrong to be hostile to them," Sonya says. "It was the only time a Russian has ever apologized to me," she adds, without elaboration.
"I couldn't bear to hear a word starting with 'Ru,'" says 26-year-old Inga. She is carrying a book in Ukrainian, as she decided she will read in this language from now on instead of Russian. Ukrainians don't need visas to visit Ireland, so that was where she and her mother chose to move. Her father and grandmother have remained in the Donetsk region. They have a radically different view of the war, she says, and believe that Russia is protecting them. Inga found it hard to be around them and went to stay with her boyfriend in Kyiv. She couldn't stay there for too long, she says: "I'm scared. I'm a very sensitive person, and I couldn't keep calm there."
Oleh lives in Kyiv but is traveling to see his family in Germany. The journey seems peaceful, he says, but inside everyone is tense. He proceeds to calmly show us a picture of an explosion taken from his bedroom window. Inga prefers not to look.
"I wish I had traveled on the train with [movie star] Angelina Jolie. I'd be beside myself," Inga says. During the war a host of celebrities and diplomats have boarded night trains to Ukraine -- from the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, to U2 front man Bono. On April 10, former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson traveled to Kyiv and praised the courage of the railways staff in a tweet: "I gather you are called the 'iron people.' This is not just because of the industry you work in. It also reflects that you are showing the spirit of Ukraine in standing up to the appalling aggression that we are seeing." The trains that VIPs board are the same ones taken by everyone else -- the difference is that the important guests usually get a separate compartment or carriage.
The conductor distributes bedsheets and at around 2 a.m. we fall sleep. A couple of hours later, when we arrive in Lviv, the train splits in two: Part of it goes on to Rakhiv, a city in western Ukraine, and is replaced by carriages that have come from Odesa. This new 12-carriage train will do the final, short leg of the journey to Przemysl. Ukrainian Railways joins carriages together like this, forming longer trains, because the station in Przemysl wasn't built to cope with so many arrivals.
Our conductor tonight, Vasyl Tkachenko, was on duty when the war started. His train was immediately repurposed for evacuations and, starting that night, they spent the next month ferrying people from east to west, to safety. At that time, there would be 250 passengers in each coach. Normally, a similar train would take around 500 passengers overall.
"We took people in the common spaces, 10 people in a sleeping compartment. Thirty, 50 people in the corridor. We traveled in darkness, with the curtains closed and the lights out. We heard the explosions and the shooting outside," Tkachenko says. "Of course, we were scared, too, but we knew we had to take people, children, the elderly. We had to calm them and answer their questions, which were many. These days, people have gone back to more banal questions like how much longer the journey will take or when will we stop for passport checks. We eased the security measures after we kicked out [the Russian troops from around] Kyiv. Now we are even selling tickets again, trying to cover some of the costs that Ukrainian Railways has [incurred] over the [past few] months."
The evacuations are much more targeted now. The trains take people with special needs, the elderly, or the sick. Pertsovsky of Ukrainian Railways says that in the winter people might be evacuated from areas that suffer electricity and heating outages.
In the corridor, I encounter a fellow insomniac. When we were leaving Kyiv, this young woman's boyfriend ran alongside the train as she waved from the window. Olena Nedashkivska now stands by the same window, which is covered with tape, and she looks out into the dark.
"It's to protect your face, if the glass shatters from an explosion," she says of the tape on the window. Olena became an expert in this during the 38-day occupation of Ivankovo, a town close to Bucha, a Kyiv suburb that has become infamous for alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces. "The experiences of that one month have haunted me for half a year. We lived in a vacuum; we couldn't watch TV, and I thought the whole of Ukraine was the same. When I finally saw that life was going on as usual in Kyiv and there was food in the stores, I was nearly hysterical. It's just 50 kilometers from us," Olena says.
Taping up the windows and keeping the lights out are among the many safety measures Ukrainian Railways has adopted. On a war footing, trains move slower and passengers embark and disembark quickly, spending whatever possible waiting time protected in a station's underpasses.
Pertsovsky says the railways are "damaged daily" by Russian attacks. When the damage occurs, mobile groups hurry to fix it, sometimes within hours. That's impossible in the newly liberated regions, he says, because of the mines. That requires more time. Railway workers, he says, are the unsung heroes of this war.
We approach the border at dawn, and our passports are stamped again. Oleh reads the news and tells us that overnight there was a drone attack about 100 kilometers from Kyiv. Inga says she slept poorly, waking up every other hour. Sonya has her nose in a book, studying for school. This leg of their journey is over. For the staff of Ukrainian Railways, it's just another night, another day.