It’s 11:30 am at Krakow Central Station and Ruslana Shtuka is desperate for some fresh air. She and her friend Anya Pariy are Ukrainian refugees who have spent the past hour searching through cardboard boxes full of children’s clothes in a dim tent just outside the train station of Poland’s second largest city.

As Shtuka, 30, and Pariy, 25, push their shared black stroller across a historic square, they pass Italian tourists and shoppers with designer handbags in the sun, a world away from the war in Ukraine.

The two mothers left Mykolaiv four days ago when Russian forces began bombing the southern Ukrainian city at the mouth of the Black Sea. They have been sleeping for two nights in temporary accommodation near the station. Shtuka and Pariy will soon go to the Polish city of Poznan, where their jobs and places to stay have been promised.

When Shtuka called her mother to make sure she was safe, she told her daughter not to come back.

“She said there’s nothing to return to, just nothing,” Shtuka says, staring straight ahead. Snow is falling in Mykolaiv and the morgues are already full. “She said, ‘Just try to settle in there and maybe we’ll come later.'”

Back in Krakow’s sun-drenched square, Shtuka’s daughter Alina throws away a chunk of ice, left behind from a Christmas skating rink, until it shatters into small snow-covered shards. “Mommy, mama, did you see me throw it?” says the little girl.

By noon, both Shtuka and Pariy begin to return to the station, where hundreds of newly arrived refugees wait in small groups in the multi-storey terminal.

More than 3.3 million people, mostly women and children, have fled since Russia invaded Ukraine more than three weeks ago, more than half of them to Poland. Krakow Main has become a thoroughfare for thousands of people finding their way to accommodation across the country or onward to the rest of Europe.

The station is a modernist maze of train platforms and bus terminals, all connected to Galeria Krakowska, a bustling shopping center where businesspeople scroll on their iPhones and drink Starbucks alongside teenagers posing for Instagram in their Doc Marten boots. In the span of a hectic 24 hours at the station, the lives of ordinary commuters and shoppers cross the hurried path of war refugees, who roll their bags into an uncertain future.

Julia Wyka knows the train station better than most after working as a volunteer in the terminal.

At 3 p.m., the 19-year-old university student is sorting coffee mugs in an ornate hall that was once the station.

Since the Russian invasion, the 19th-century building has been turned into a temporary refuge for refugees, where about a hundred mothers and children sleep side by side under golden chandeliers on pull-out beds.

Wyka wears her gray Boy Scout uniform with a blue and white bow in the front and tosses a butter knife into the large jar of Nutella on the table. She says she normally volunteers in the afternoon between her online lectures in the morning and the class seminars in the evening.

“I just don’t want to sit at home when people are suffering.”

Wyka, who studies psychology at a university in Krakow, says she regularly encounters people who are on the verge of falling apart.

“You can sometimes tell in people’s eyes that they are so tired or scared,” she says. All she can do, she says, is give them a hug.

Volunteering with Ukrainians has made Wyka reflect on how her government has treated refugees in the past. Most recently, the evacuees came from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and were stranded last year in a standoff between Minsk and the European Union in the border region between Poland and Belarus. Rights groups criticized Poland’s nationalist government for pushing back migrants to Belarus. Poland said it respected its international obligations while trying to stop the flow of people.

“I don’t think we should erase that from our memories,” Wyka says. “I think we have to remember that those people were pushed back and got no help from us.”

By 6:00 pm Wyka leaves the shelter and the next squad of scouts leave. Outside, a group of German students roll their bags down a ramp and pass a line of Ukrainian mothers balancing giant duffel bags on their arms.

Upstairs at the bus station, two tall men in dark clothes wait as older women get off a long-distance bus that has just arrived from Ukraine. The men come to the terminal several times a week to deliver donated goods. Tonight they hand over two boxes of military boots to volunteers of the Ukrainian Territorial Forces. The men watch as the women and children get out of the big white bus and get their bags out.

“We’re just doing what we can,” says one of the men, without giving his name.

Back at the main train station, 18-year-old Oleg, whose family emigrated from Kiev several years ago, tries to help find a Ukrainian family. They accidentally left their empty cat cage in a busy office converted into a 24-hour operation to match refugees with temporary housing.

With lanyards of volunteer registration cards around their necks, volunteers switch between Ukrainian and Polish as they jot down the name and contact details of each refugee.

When Oleg first volunteered here at the start of the war, the station was in a state of chaos. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of refugees waited hours outside the office as volunteers scrambled to find enough accommodation for all of them.

“You just felt helpless,” he says. The number of refugees has decreased in recent days, he says, and the operation is now much smoother and more efficient.

The Polish government this month passed a bill to create a fund for war refugees, but cities like Krakow have asked for more help.

As the evening wears on, more refugees gather around the office, where a few feet away women and children sit on green and blue markers and lean against a souvenir shop selling new t-shirts that read “I LOVE KRAKOW”.

At 10:30 p.m., 16-year-old refugee Anya Vasylyk nervously checks the timetable for a train that will take her mother and grandmother to the northern Polish town of Olsztyn.

“Are you sure you have the right time?” asks Anya’s mother, Oksana, 43, while grandmother Halya Kyrylenko is nearby.

“Show them our house,” says Anya. Her mother opens her new, donated phone and shows an image of a charred apartment building in Bucha, a city 25 kilometers from Kiev that has been heavily bombed since the start of the war.

After spending two weeks with their relatives in another part of the city, the three of them decided to leave Bucha, but first they had to pass through Russian checkpoints where they wore white sashes on their arms to show that they were civilians and that their phones were confiscated by Russian soldiers.

“I don’t walk well on foot, you know,” said 63-year-old Halya in Ukrainian. “So my granddaughter cheers, ‘Grandma, you can do it,’ while that one,” Halya says, pointing to her daughter Oksana. “She scolds me with bad words,” Halya laughs. Later she shows how the three of them crawled on the ground to avoid being shot.

Still wearing braces, Anya listens to her mother and grandmother talking over each other, while family cat Snezha stares out of her carrier.

When their train finally arrives, Anya, her mother and grandmother carry all that is left of their lives – three small backpacks and four heavy shopping bags – up the escalator to platform 4.

Icy winds howl through the platform, but Halya says she isn’t cold.

‘We Ukrainian women are hot, don’t you know?’ Halya laughs.

Evacuees continue to arrive at the terminal throughout the night. Many of them stare into their phones as they sink into the wall. Mothers sleep next to their children on floral patterned blankets on the cold concrete floor.

A few minutes after midnight, workers make their way through the refugees to deliver fresh groceries to shops in the station.

By early morning, tourists and commuters return to the station, where a large crowd of women and children gather to board a 10:13 am train to Berlin. The train is delayed and refugees flock back to the platform, where they look anxiously up at the bulletin board.

Russian Orthodox priest Mihail Pitnitskiy and his wife Anna are waiting with their six children on platform 3. It is 10:30 am and the Ukrainian family is on their way to Budapest, where friends have found them shelter and work.

It took them four full days to reach Krakow from Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, where Mihail was a priest at the local cathedral.

The cathedral, which Anna says was used as a civilian bomb shelter, was one of many buildings shelled and damaged by Russian troops, according to local reports. The Russians, who describe the conflict as a special operation to disarm Ukraine, have denied targeting civilians during the fighting.

“Houses have been destroyed, many people are dead, the situation is very difficult and very bad,” says Anna.

Seemingly exhausted, she watches her sons chasing each other behind a concrete pillar.

Before boarding the train, Anna says she has no idea when the family will be able to return home.

“Our house hasn’t been destroyed yet, but who knows? Maybe next week,” she says.

Once in the carriage, Anna takes one last look at the station while holding her son.

She starts to cry and looks away.

This post War between Russia and Ukraine: At the train station in Krakow, war refugees in Ukraine find care amid chaos

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