Faces of Ukraine

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Alona Velynska

Alona – people share food and water on the train for five days

It’s the most terrible night of her life, Alona Velenska says in retrospect. When night falls in Kyiv on February 24th, the biochemist first flees to a friend’s apartment. It’s pitch dark outside and the air-raid sirens are howling. She can see flashes in the night sky time and again, she hears detonations and feels the explosions shaking the walls.

War is here.

The two young women are permanently listening to the news. They learn which streets have been hit by missiles but don’t know how close the threat to their lives is. Remembering that still makes her feel terrible, Alona says in Wolfenbüttel, when she tells the story of how she fled.

Eventually, they look for shelter in a nearby underground car park. “More and more people kept coming”, Alona remembers. There are mothers, old people, parents with their children, many fear for their lives. On top of that it’s freezing cold. You can only sit on the bare concrete. A few brave people leave the shelter of the garage to look for crates and other things that can be turned into chairs. Alona paces back and forth all through the night.

In the morning she is exhausted and gets a fever – 39 ° Celsius

She leaves the underground car park. The pharmacies are closed in Kyiv but she can get some medication in her friend’s apartment, where she stays for a whole week. She doesn’t even leave when the air-raid sirens are sounding. She prays. “It’s hard to accept that there is war”, she says later. She felt left alone, also because media personalities endorsed the war or just disappeared from public view.

When her fever subsides, she takes it as a sign that she can go on living. She signs petitions and writes letters to Russian celebrities. “I want the world to understand what is happening in Ukraine”, she explains. The war and the permanent danger take a huge mental toll on the people. In the apartment building where she is staying the mood is becoming more aggressive. After having stayed with her friend for a week, the neighbours start threatening her: either she moves out or something bad is going to happen to her. Alona takes her winter coat and leaves.

Her family lives close to the Russian border. She cannot go there, so she goes to the train station.

She boards a train headed for Poland.

That train normally takes nine hours. This time, however, the journey takes five days. The people on the train share food and water. In a small village along the route volunteers provide them with basic necessities. “I was so happy I wrote down the name of the village which is called Ljuboml”, Alona recounts. The experience in the town of Chelm in Poland is a stark contrast. When the refugees get off the train journalists are already waiting to take pictures. “We hadn’t washed for five days and were completely exhausted. I felt like prey.”

She takes the next train going west, sleeps for seven hours and gets off at Poznan. It feels like salvation to her: “I knew I had survived then.” She initially plans to stay in Poland but she can’t speak the language and also can’t find work. Then she reads on the internet that there are job opportunities for scientists in Germany. She continues her journey. Now her biggest wish in Wolfenbüttel is a small apartment.