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March 19, 2022

Lviv Offers Fast Track to Safety

By Brian Dooley

Lviv's magnificent old railway station in Ukraine is one of those Art Nouveau classics of eastern Europe. It survived a couple of world wars, Nazi and Soviet occupations, and the Cold War. It's impossible to know how many refugees and others running for their lives have fled onto its trains to safety in the last 118 years. 

It's seen it all before, and now it's seeing it again. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people are cramming on trains to Lviv from Kharkiv, Kyiv, and other cities to the east that are feeling the full violence of the Russian invasion. And from Lviv they push on to the safety of the west.

See Brian's video report from Lviv here

There is a lot of help at the station. I was there this morning -- I'm in Ukraine for Human Rights First to deliver medical supplies and other essential equipment to our human rights activist friends here. We've been working directly with groups here since 2014, many of which are now regrouping after being initially scattered after the invasion a few weeks ago.

Some are helping people escape to the west of Ukraine, and into Poland and other European Union countries, where the welcome is generally warm. There is plenty help here at Lviv, with dozens of tents offering advice, free hot food and free onward travel. Humanitarian organizations from several countries are at the station in huge tents, providing beds and meals. 

It's overcrowded but not chaotic. Ukrainian men aged 18-60 are not allowed to leave the country, and are expected to stay to fight with the Russian military, so it's nearly all women and children leaving. 

Many of those fleeing are headed to the safety of Poland. Krakow is about six hours away by train. Fleeing Ukrainians travel for free. 

I was in Krakow the day before yesterday and the atmosphere there was much the same, with huddles of families filling the station, looking exhausted but not desperate. Charities in Poland were ready with food, bunks, and advice on where to go next and how to get there. 

Lviv station today was for many kids the first stop in a long, tiring journey to somewhere else in the world.  

The rest of the Lviv has settled into a fairly calm defiance of the invasion. There is no mass panic, despite the radical adjustments being made by families here who are taking in friends and friends of friends and people they don't know at all from across the country.

There is a ban on all alcohol sales, a curfew from 10pm to 7am, and regular air raid sirens. The city has been hit by major rocket attacks twice in the last couple of weeks.  I spent an hour in a city center bomb shelter following alarms this afternoon, but there was no screaming rush – people were calm, determined, and stoic. 

Shops have plenty of food, restaurants are open and full. In daytime, crowds fill the public squares for patriotic singsongs.

Locals are coping with the family separations, with the threat of more violence from Russian troops, and with huge numbers of desperate people turning up in their city (a Korean restaurant is, like others, offering free meals for refugees twice a day). 

Ukraine's response to so many of its people on the move is remarkable. Western Europe's reaction has also generally been good, in sharp and shameful contrast to how it failed Syrians fleeing a decade ago.

Maybe Europe is rediscovering its soul in opening is arms to so many people in danger. Lviv station today gives a glimpse of what an outbreak of mass kindness looks like. We'll see if it's contagious.