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One woman's 18-point survival checklist for fleeing Ukraine as Russia invades

Millions have fled Ukraine, with many coming to Poland through Przemyśl's main train station.
Omar Marques
Getty Images
Millions have fled Ukraine, with many coming to Poland through Przemyśl's main train station.

PRZEMYŚL, Poland — As millions leave Ukraine to escape the Russian invasion, one woman's checklist for surviving the train ride into Poland reveals the desperation and struggle that awaits those who try to flee.

Inna Grynova was in a rural part of western Ukraine when Russia began its troop buildup. She had been anxiously waiting for the moment an attack might start, and then, on the morning of Feb. 24, it began.

"I woke up to a call from my parents. And the first thing that I heard from them was 'Enough. Putin has attacked Ukraine. Run away,'" she told NPR.

Inna Grynova waits at Lviv train station among a sea of people trying to escape the war.
/ Inna Grynova
Inna Grynova
Inna Grynova waits at Lviv train station among a sea of people trying to escape the war.

Grynova's brother offered to drive from Kyiv with his family to pick her up, but as the planes stopped flying and panic set in, the roads became jammed.

What would normally be a half-day trip from Kyiv to the countryside ended up taking three days. It took eight hours just to leave the city. They eventually reached her at 2 a.m. on Feb. 27 — three days after the invasion began.

At first, the plan was to drive their car across the border, but the lines were growing and it was taking two days just to cross. Then came the news: Ukrainian men ages 18-60 would not be allowed to leave.

"My brother was immediately out of eligibility to cross, and he was our driver," Grynova said. "He was suggesting that, OK, maybe I give you my car and you girls will try on your own. But I told him that he needs the car much more than we do."

Instead, Grynova made her way to Lviv train station in western Ukraine with her niece, her sister-in-law and her sister-in-law's mother to catch the evacuation train into Poland.

Most families arriving in Przemyśl, Poland, then make their way on to another city farther from the border.
Omar Marques / Getty Images
Getty Images
Most families arriving in Przemyśl, Poland, then make their way on to another city farther from the border.

What followed was a grueling 24-hour journey.

In an effort to help those who would come after her, Grynova wrote a detailed account of the trip and outlined exactly what to expect.

"It was like a life hack post," she said. "Like, this is how to survive and how to bring your family to safety."

Below is a translated and lightly edited version of her account.

Grynova's survival checklist

  1. Preference is given to women and children. If you are a man, come to help, but do not try to get on the train. You still won't be allowed in, but you are blocking women behind you from coming in.
  2. Come to the train station at least two hours in advance. Otherwise, there won't be enough space on the platform. We couldn't get on the first train because we came too late. To get into the train, we stood on the platform for 4 hours on the same spot.
  3. Don't take things that are too bulky. We saw people leave strollers and large suitcases right on the platform because they couldn't get onto the crowded train.
  4. There is no need to purchase a ticket. This is an evacuation train. When it arrives and the door opens, it's the law of the jungle. You have to act fast. Don't panic, keep the children in front of you, let them go first. It's a scary moment, many are scared, children fall into hysterics afterward. But it has to be survived, and adults: Don't panic.
  5. The wagons get crowded to the very last centimeter. In our "coupe" (of course there are no walls) there were 12 people for 6 seats. In ours, there were 8 adults and 4 children. They were sitting in each other's arms. Standing is difficult and there is nothing to hold onto.
  6. When waiting for the next train, we did not leave the place where the door of the previous train was. We tried to keep the spots. We went to the toilet one by one. There were actually airstrikes signaled, and some of us were hiding in the underground, while others would keep our spot on the platform.
  7. Usually the train takes around 4 hours. Our train left at 8 p.m. on Feb. 27. Somewhere at 10 p.m., we stopped at Mostysʹka Station. The driver didn't know how long we had to wait in this spot. The queue of other trains was ahead of us. Initially we thought we would be there for 30 minutes. In fact, we left at 11 a.m. the next day, all this time was just standing there. Two more borders follow. We went out in Przemyśl in Poland at 8:25 p.m. the next day. So it took 24 hours to get to Poland.
  8. So expect a very long journey. There are no toilets. The first six hours we were were not allowed to get off the train. Since the train is clogged, it's just impossible to get out. We needed to make arrangements so that others would start coming out as well. There was no platform, so you have to jump about half a meter or more. Climbing back is hard as well, but people do help each other. Drink very little water on the train. For children, take enough diapers.
  9. Dress in layers. If you get inside the wagon it gets really, really hot. If you don't get inside the warm part of the wagon, it is very cold.
  10. Take high calorie snacks with you. Preferably those that do not leave garbage — there is nowhere to throw it away or keep it, and in 24 hours the smell will be unbearable. The water was put in huge buckets and passed through the wagon. Water should be conserved. Take a sip in your mouth and wait for a few minutes, and only then swallow. This way you have enough water for a longer time and you can live longer without a toilet.
  11. Have medicine on hand. A lot of people were getting sick, so you need to have some bags to throw up.
  12. We didn't sleep for all 24 hours. There is a bright light, children are crying. There were about 250 people in our wagon. If you can sit down, it is good to have your earbuds, face mask and inflatable pillow under your head (or at least roll up a fleece/sweater).
  13. Everyone is stressed and emotional to the max. There is a war at home, men are left to fight, children are on their hands, everyone is stressed. The level of aggression was off the charts. That's why you need to stay balanced, to achieve your own goal. Don't respond to the aggression of others. Some people refused to let others go to the toilet, and many were not allowed back on the wagon.
  14. I had no connection for most of the trip. So warn your loved ones that you won't be able to respond, and that's OK. The signal broke through very rarely. But the phone is dying while you're doing so.
  15. Ukrainian border guards entered the car, immediately checked the documents and put stamps in passports. Some passports were taken for inspection. Several foreigners were dropped off. The station has a toilet and food. Almost no one left the wagon — and it's a mistake. Once the documents are checked, go to the main house for the toilet and for food.
  16. Upon arrival [in Poland] the volunteers immediately start throwing water, cookies, candy and various treats for the children through the windows. There were even a couple of toys.
  17. When you exit to the platform, the border guards set up a queue. The first are families with children under 2 years old. Then, others with kids. At the very end, those who arrived without children. At the exit of the building you meet volunteers who can take you for free to other cities. In the building of the main station there is free tea, coffee, food, hygiene products. The same volunteers will find you free housing, there at the station coordination centers. Come, say what your situation is, and you will be helped quickly and free. If you need clothes, shoes — everything will be found. Even car seats for the kids.
  18. The way on the train is hard, very hard. But it's much easier than being under fire. Nothing to compare with what our people are going through in the cities under bombardment. I have parents, brother and many relatives and friends left in Ukraine. Those who took up arms are actually heroes!

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The crush Inna Grynova sees as the train arrives.
/ Inna Grynova
Inna Grynova
The crush Inna Grynova sees as the train arrives.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Matt Ozug
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.