She was sobbing; her young daughter Polina was kneeling next to her, stroking her mother’s hair and clumsily wiping her wet cheeks.
Iryna, 37, had just brought her two children to safety. These were the first tears she had allowed herself to shed since the war in Ukraine erupted more than a month ago.
The airbase in Iryna’s hometown of Nizhyn in northern Ukraine was attacked on the morning of the first day of the invasion on February 24. The next day, Russian warplanes bombed the railway line to the capital Kyiv.
“The first day we weren’t sure whether to leave; by the next day, we couldn’t leave,” says Iryna, a high school English teacher. “So we stayed at home and every time we heard the sirens go off we would run down to the basement.”
Polina, 10, has Down’s Syndrome and “doesn’t understand it is war, to her it was more of a game” but Iryna’s 8-year-old son Timur understood better. “We were running downstairs five, maybe eight times a day. Sometimes more. All through the night. We made sure we were organised: shoes, backpacks ready.”
For nearly five weeks, they lived like this. Iryna slept in her clothes, waiting for the next siren. Then on Monday came the chance for her to escape with the children and her 23-year-old niece Vika. Her husband, of fighting age, has remained behind.
The family left Nizhyn at noon; by mid-afternoon they were on a train from Kyiv to Lviv in western Ukraine.
It should have meant safety. Instead it was terror.
They were about 20 minutes into the journey the train guard shouted to everyone to lie on the floor. “That was a shock. We didn’t expect anything like that. My kids knew what to do, they just laid down. I laid on them because I understand I am a little stronger than they are,” says Iryna.
“My niece immediately said to the children ‘it’s just a game!’ and we tried to pretend that’s what it was. But Timur was so upset because he didn’t have his shoes on. He said ‘if I am wounded how will I run?’ So I tried to find his shoes and I put them on him. I put a blanket on top of us and we were just lying there on the floor of the train.
Timur knew it wasn’t a game. “He said ‘mum if we are bombed, I don’t want you to be killed, I don’t want Vika to be killed, I don’t want even Polina to be killed’ because you know, sometimes they fight, ‘I don’t want even Polina to be killed’ That’s what my son said.”
Mum, if I am wounded how will I run?
Iryna is still sitting on the floor of Przemsyl station, in the jeans and black jacket she’s been traveling in for 24 hours. Now both of her children are comforting her as she tells the story of their escape.
She tries to contain her sobs as she tells me Timur’s next words.
“And then he says ‘mum, if I die, I want you to know that I loved you’,” says Iryna, who lets out a howl and Timur puts his cheek to hers. She grabs his hand. “He even said that in the past tense, you see? He said ‘I loved you’. It was just… madness.”
On the train, lying on the floor, Iryna switched on her phone to look at their location. With Timur she watched the blue dot on the screen slowly edging westward across Ukraine.
“I said look there are no points around, nobody’s here. We stayed there for about 40 minutes until the man came back and said it’s ok, we are out of danger, you can go back to sitting in your seats,” she says.
‘We couldn’t believe it was war’
Even though there were weeks of speculation about a Russian invasion, Iryna never believed it would happen. The children were going to school, everything was normal.
“My mother lives in a small town near the Russian border. On the day of the invasion she called me early in the morning. She said there were tanks – hundreds - and military vehicles, we didn’t know what to do. We couldn’t believe it was war, how could that be in the 21st century?”
The family were told there were mines on the road out of town. Russian rockets hit Nizhyn’s suburbs. “The house of my close friend was damaged, her and her children never left their basement again, her husband goes out to do the shopping.”
A week ago Iryna noticed that humanitarian groups were starting to arrive in town which signalled that the road to Kyiv was clear. “That’s when we decided to go somewhere, leave Ukraine. Actually it was my husband who decided we should leave.”
Iryna’s mother, brother and niece Vika, living in the small town of Semenivka near the border, were now living in occupied Russian territory. “They’re in a different situation,” says Iryna. “The Russian soldiers can come around the houses - she’s a young girl who could be raped.”
Iryna offered to bring Vika to Poland with her, if her brother could drive her niece to Nizhyn.
“On the way they found two broken bridges so they had to go back, try another way, another broken bridge. They tried three times and finally they found a way. I had to ask everyone on the bus to wait for her, and nobody said no. The bus waited.”
Now safely in Poland the family has been welcomed with kindness. Polina carefully lays out the contents of a goody bag she was given on arrival at the station – a colouring book, set of pencils, a packet of wet wipes featuring Elsa from Frozen, a carton of apple juice and a bar of Nestle white chocolate.
They’re in a covered section of a platform set aside for women and children by the charity Caritas Poland, there are toys and snacks and Timur is playing football with other boys who have newly arrived from Ukraine.
These kids are among the more than 1.5 million children who have fled Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion. In all, 4.3 million children, well over half of the country’s entire child population, have been forced from their homes by the war.
Unicef has warned that Ukrainian mothers and their children, and unaccompanied minors, could be at risk of exploitation and trafficking when they arrive at their destinations, many with no money or contacts.
Luckily, Iryna, Polina and Timur have somewhere to go. At 6pm they will take another train north, to the Polish city of Koszalin where family friends will meet them and take them in.
“This is the first day I’ve been crying. Because I couldn’t show the children that we were in danger. Now we are safe,” Iryna says. “But the people we love and many others are still there in Ukraine. We have left them behind.”