- Ukrainians fleeing the war into Poland have faced terrifying situations along the way.
- A family from Zaporizhzhia worried the train they were on would be bombed when it was halted by an air raid alarm.
- Russia recently attacked a nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, which raised fears of a major disaster.
LUBLIN, Poland — It took Katerina Kompaniets and the seven family members traveling with her over a week to get from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine to safety across the border in Poland. Normally, that journey takes roughly 15 to 16 hours by car.
At one point, a train they were traveling on from Zaporizhzhi to Lviv, in western Ukraine, was stopped due to an air raid alarm. The power was shut off. They were packed into a train car with roughly 250 people, all of them worrying it could be targeted by a Russian airstrike. When asked what was going through her head during that tense moment, Kompaniets offered a one-word response: “Fear.” She and her family spoke to Insider from Lublin’s main train station on Friday, which has become one of many transit hubs for Ukrainians fleeing the war, where they were hoping to move on to Germany.
Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine has made travel in the country a harrowing, potentially life-threatening ordeal. More than 2.5 million Ukrainians have left their country — by foot, train, bus, and car — since the war began in late February. A lot of Ukrainians fleeing into Poland have traveled for 24 hours or more, and have to wait for hours at the border before crossing, after already experiencing a hellish situation in their home cities and towns.
Kompaniets’ hometown, Zaporizhzhia, was the site of a Russian attack on a facility that constitutes the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. For Katerina and other residents of Zaporizhzhia, the incident was terrifying. During the fighting, they remembered the experience of the Chernobyl meltdown and prayed that something like that wouldn’t happen again in Zaporizhzhia, she said.
There were serious concerns across Europe and the wider world that the fighting at the Zaporizhzhia plant could damage one of the nuclear reactors there, causing a terrible disaster in the process. Part of the facility caught fire as Ukrainian and Russian forces clashed there, and Ukrainian authorities accused Russia of denoting ammunition at the site. An NPR video investigation of the dangerous fighting, which resulted in Russia gaining control of the plant, found that the Russian attack on the Zaporizhzhia plant came closer to the nuclear reactors than initially thought.
Milena Ramatova, 19, and Vadim Pilipchuk, 17, a couple from Zaporizhzhia that also traveled to Lublin, told Insider the attack on the nuclear plant created an “atmosphere of fear.” Romatova and Pilipchuk, who said they were headed for Germany, also faced a difficult journey to Poland. The train they were on was very crowded, and they had to stand in the aisle. It took them 36 hours to get from Zaporizhzhia to Chelm, Poland (by car it’s usually 15 hours). The young couple also left family behind, and Ramatova had to leave her German shepherd in Ukraine, too.
Indeed, many Ukrainian refugees fleeing into Poland and other European countries have left family behind — and often not by choice.
The Ukrainian government has banned men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country because of the war. Kompaniets said her husband served in the Ukrainian army in the Donbas (eastern Ukraine) back in 2014, where a war against Kremlin-backed rebels began that year, and is now serving in the Territorial Defense Forces.
In some cases, the wives of the men barred from leaving have stayed with them — determined to help the war effort by cooking or running ammunition. And many older Ukrainians have either refused to leave or have difficulties making the journey due to disabilities.
Zenaida Matsnieva, 37, who was traveling with Katerina, told Insider the hardest part of fleeing Ukraine was the relatives that were left behind. “We don’t know what will be next, or if we will see them again,” Zenaida said.
But Ukrainians are also hopeful about the outcome of this war. “We believe in [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy,” Kompaniets said, adding, “We believe we will win.”
Marta Yatsenko provided translation services in Poland.
Sign up for notifications from Insider! Stay up to date with what you want to know.
Subscribe to push notifications