On a quiet branch line in Lviv, western Ukraine, the city that was the main destination for evacuation trains that helped millions flee the Russian invasion, another potentially life-saving service is brewing on the dusty platform.
The exterior of the aging blue and yellow carriages is unremarkable, but hides an intensive care unit and other refurbished cabins in which war wounded and other patients travel from the battle-scarred east to the relative safety and less overcrowded hospitals in Lviv.
It can only work because most of the country’s vast rail network is still functioning three months after the Kremlin fully invaded Ukraine, despite repeated missile strikes on a system vital to the military’s war effort. , economic and humanitarian of the country.
“We have an intensive care unit and the capacity to provide oxygen and care for patients who are fully on mechanical ventilation,” says Yasser Kamaledin, emergency project coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who has adapted and operates the train.
“Sometimes we transport recently arrived war wounded to these hospitals [in the east] and have just stabilized… and we are also transporting patients who have been hospitalized for various chronic conditions to empty some of the bed capacity so that these hospitals can receive more patients if a new incident occurs,” he says. .
“We regularly have freshly injured patients, whether near an explosion… or with gunshot wounds,” adds Kamaledin, noting that MSF will treat any patient “as long as they show up without a weapon or uniform.” .
The train and its 18 medical and support staff left Lviv two days ago, traveling at night to the Donbass region where they picked up patients in Pokrovsk, 50 km from the front line, and then to Dnipro , a town 200 km further west, before returning at night.
Two MSF-operated medical trains have now made more than 20 trips, serving as what Kamaledin calls “long-distance ambulances” for a total of more than 500 patients across the 1,000 km from Donbass to Lviv.
“MSF did not have a similar train in any of the other countries where it works. This was developed specifically for the context here in Ukraine… where you have large distances and a large number of hospitals that can receive patients here [in the west] and hospitals in the East which are continually overwhelmed by the number of patients.
“In Ukraine,” he adds, “the rail network is still largely functional, which is why we have chosen this mode of transporting patients.”
Just as the Ukrainian military proved far more capable than most experts had predicted, and Ukrainian society united and mobilized in a formidable war effort, so too did the country’s railway system. evidence of extraordinary resilience and adaptability.
When Russia poured troops and armor over the border before dawn on February 24 in a bid to occupy Kyiv, Kharkiv and other major cities, millions began fleeing west. by train to Lviv and neighboring regions and to countries of the European Union.
At the same time, Ukraine’s allies stepped up arms deliveries, which joined the flow of other military supplies, soldiers and humanitarian aid that flowed east to frontline areas. on a rail network that Moscow immediately targeted with cruise missiles.
“The rail system is really important for us because our airport infrastructure has been destroyed and road traffic at the border is horrible,” says Serhiy Leshchenko, deputy director of the supervisory board of Ukrzaliznytsia, Ukraine’s state-owned rail operator.
“That’s why Russia is attacking electrical substations. Without them, we can still run trains on diesel, but it’s more expensive…and there’s a shortage of diesel in Ukraine,” he says. “Another target is bridges…because they want to stop the export of grain and iron ore, which are two crucial export commodities, to weaken our economy,” Leshchenko says, stressing the importance of rail freight during of a Russian blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports. .
The fighting displaced an estimated 14 million people, four million of whom fled to safety by rail, many cramming into crowded evacuation trains which in the first weeks of the war rolled out of teeming stations that continued to operate despite the constant threat of attack.
As these trains headed west, others continued to run in the other direction, serving Kyiv even when enemy troops were in its suburbs; Kharkiv – just 35km from the Russian border – as it came under heavy shelling; and other places near the front line.
Evacuation trains are still running from Donbass as Russian forces advance and hammer its towns, villages and villages, but most of those who are ready to leave have already done so, and many services headed for the east are now occupied by Ukrainians returning to their homes in places like Kyiv. , Kharkiv and Odessa which are still firmly in the hands of the government.
Although many stations are largely dark after dark and train windows are covered with clear plastic shatterproof film and must be covered with curtains at night, these services are otherwise surprisingly normal – Transport attendants, who are mostly middle-aged women, are always welcome. passengers on board and serve tea and coffee, and the overnight trains are clean and comfortable and most are remarkably punctual.
The network has also brought dozens of foreign dignitaries to Ukraine since the Polish, Czech and Slovenian prime ministers were the first to visit wartime Kyiv on March 15, including Foreign Minister Simon Coveney in April and a delegation of the Oireachtas last week.
“I guess you’re called ‘Iron People’ – men and women of iron – because that’s the craft, the industry you work in,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said as he thanked staff at the ‘Ukrzaliznytsia for bringing him from Poland to Kyiv last month. “But I think it also reflects the spirit you are showing and the spirit of Ukraine opposing the appalling aggression we are witnessing,” he added, while offering his condolences. to the families of railway staff who were among more than 50 people killed and 100 injured three days earlier when a missile hit Kramatorsk railway station in the Donbass.
One of Leshchenko’s grandfathers was a train driver at Lyman, a major rail hub in Donbass that Russia claimed to have seized this week, and he says Ukrzaliznytsia workers played a vital role in the resistance of Ukraine to invasion.
“It is the largest company in the country, with a quarter of a million workers, and in addition to delivering goods and passengers, they have been important in gathering information on the Russian attacks on our territory, which have immediately passed on to our military commanders,” he said.
Leshchenko claims the railway workers also hampered Moscow’s efforts to supply its forces through the network and played a direct role in capturing at least one Russian soldier and one armored personnel carrier.
The train operator also has the daunting task of storing the remains of soldiers that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime allegedly refused to take home. “As of May 26, we had 320 bags of Russian soldiers’ remains stored in our refrigerated cars,” says Leshchenko, who is also an adviser to Zelenskiy’s chief of staff.
“The Russian military and political leaders don’t care and so we spend our diesel to keep those fridges cool to store bodies that Putin doesn’t need.”
The grim task, like the radically different work of MSF’s medical train which is run by international and local staff and a Ukrainian support team, relies on people who have decided to stay in their home countries and carry on regardless. the risks.
“The Ukrainians have stepped up their game. They are not hiding at any level,” says Joao Martins, MSF’s head of mission in the country, explaining how the commitment of everyone from government officials and health executives to doctors and volunteers , helps his organization provide effective support in Ukraine.
“We can do it because there are these super-motivated people who have stayed here on the ground even though maybe their families have left… and they’re brave enough to say, ‘you’re leaving and we’ll stay, and you do your part and we will do our part. It’s a group effort. On a personal level, for all of us who come here and see this, it really touches you. »