A Ukrainian mother has recounted how a suspected Russian saboteur used a flashlight to signal from a train packed with refugees as her family made a difficult journey to reach Britain.
Sasha Antonenko, 36, feared the man would ‘get us all in the air’ when rockets and grenades exploded nearby on the 12-hour trip to Poland.
The Kyiv resident, who spent weeks in the shelter of Russian fire in a school basement, recounted how women and children screamed in panic before the man was overpowered by a passenger.
She had traveled overnight in cramped and suffocating conditions with her sons Andre, seven and Roman, 16, on their way to her brother-in-law, Daniel Garner, and his family in the UK.
They traveled in March when a now-interrupted Russian attempt to conquer the capital intensified, after spending weeks protecting itself from the bombing of the temporary shelter of a school. After taking a bus to a train station in the capital, they found the platform crowded with people on their way to Lviv, the port city for refugees in western Ukraine.
Sasha’s husband, Vanni, came to say goodbye in the middle of the sea of people made up predominantly of women and children, as the country’s martial law prevents men from leaving except under certain exceptions.
“The military went with weapons and drove everyone away from the edge of the platform, there were so many people that there was not a millimeter between us,” she said.
‘We were lucky, because right in front of us the doors to the train opened.
‘My husband stepped aside and what happened was like a war movie.
‘Thousands of people were toppled screaming and crying as they threw their children on the train.
‘We were the first and I quickly threw my youngest son on the stairs but the crowd behind me dropped and I just started hugging my child screaming and begging for him to be put in the car.
‘Thank God I had my oldest strong son who helped us through and hurray we sat down.’
Sasha was swept up in infatuation and did not get the chance to say goodbye to her husband, who has taken up arms to fight in defense of his homeland.
The trio was asked by other passengers to disable the location feature in their mobile phones and later to turn off the handsets completely.
The need for radio silence quickly took on a frightening form.
“Near us, two rockets exploded and the shelling began,” Sasha said.
‘We all lay as low as possible with our heads bowed. Everything was fine and no one was hurt. The lights on the train went out, and we ate in places where there was light from the shelling that had not been put off.
‘Another rocket came close and thank God flew past us. The next day, the same train was shelled and two cars were damaged. ‘
Exhausted and with noise from children crying, the refugees had to struggle with suffocating conditions in the dark as they kept the windows closed for safety. But the worst had not yet come.
“A saboteur signaled that he should summon missiles or to another by shining a flashlight through the windows,” Sasha said.
‘Women and children were in panic over the man and over the rockets fired at the train. A woman screamed and asked the people standing nearby to prevent him from lighting the torch.
‘He stopped for a few minutes but then started again. We were afraid he might get us all blown up.
‘Everyone asked a man in the car to stop him and a fight started. There were several screams and cries. He was overpowered by the man who took his cell phone and smashed it to prevent further communication. I do not know what happened to him, but the most important thing was that we were all safe. “
Although it is not known what the suspected agent was doing at the time, Russian forces have been targeting railway infrastructure in an attempt to stop the transport of foreign weapons into Ukraine.
Ten hours into the journey, the cramped conditions and lack of water began to take their toll as the train crawled towards Lviv in the dark.
“People started fainting and we tried to take care of them as best we could,” Sasha said. “Our legs had been planted in the same position for so long that I did not think we would be able to move them again.
‘My youngest screamed in pain when he felt sick, all I could do was ask him to sleep and I asked that he would be able to walk again after the trip.
‘We poured water on the children to cool them down and let them drink while the water ran out.’
A message told passengers to keep quiet, and a death knell reigned as Sasha saw explosions in the distance where they in the carriage again had to take cover.
“After about 20 minutes, the train started rushing very abruptly at a tremendous speed, we thought it would overturn or derail as if it was running away from something,” she said.
‘We ate with the windows closed, the lights off and no phones.
‘After another hour we were told we would arrive in an hour.
‘This was encouraging, but people became more and more ill due to the lack of air and water.’
Hungry and exhausted, Sasha and her sons managed to get to their feet when the light was finally turned on and the train doors opened as it arrived in Lviv, a staging post for millions of refugees fleeing the war. When they emerged in the icy cold, they crossed the tracks to wash their hands and use a toilet.
“We got a little alive, but the cold prevailed,” Sasha said. ‘It was the night’s deep and we did not know where to go next time.’
The family managed to find another crowded evacuation train destined for Przemyśl, a town in southeastern Poland. They boarded at 5 a.m. in the morning after standing in line for several hours in the cold.
“We had no food and only a bottle of water,” Sasha said.
‘We were told we were being led to a place across the border without knowing where. We were then told that it would be Przemyśl.
“After four hours of travel, we arrived at the border crossing. There was no food, no water, and it was very stuffy. The train stopped for an hour with people feeling uncomfortable and children begging to go to the toilet.
‘I felt like I would soon not be able to breathe and we managed to open the doors of the vestibule to let some air through. The train then stood still for a third hour without any justification for the passengers.
‘No one had any water or food, people just thought they should throw things together and just go somewhere across the Polish border.
“After another half hour, the Ukrainian border guards came in.
‘We begged for water and they gave us everything they had left in their reserves. There was a 1.5 liter bottle for three families, but that was enough, we were just grateful to be alive. We finally arrived at Przemyśl, our Savior. ‘
The displaced civilians were met at the border by humanitarian groups that have set up bases in the region as they respond to the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
More than six million people have fled Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion, according to the UN.
The Home Office last week released figures showing that 46,100 refugees have traveled to the UK, out of a total of 102,000 visas issued.
“We got soup, tea and coffee and there were places for the kids,” Sasha said of the family’s arrival in Poland. ‘We had survived. We thanked the workers and volunteers for the warmth and for our beating hearts. ‘
The trio moved on to Warsaw and stayed in a hotel for two weeks, which was paid for by her brother-in-law in the UK while they waited for their visas to be processed. They then flew to Gatwick before joining Mr Garner’s household in Worthing, West Sussex.
Garner, 47, has further welcomed his in-laws, also from Kiev, to his home after being stranded while on holiday in Egypt at the start of the Russian invasion 13 weeks ago.
He has expressed concern over bureaucracy causing delays in visa applications through the UK government’s two schemes to relocate Ukrainians fleeing the war zone. With a household of nine, Mr Garner has also found that bureaucracy makes it difficult for his newly arrived relatives to gain access to work, school places and other British services.
Garner has created Change.org and GoFundMe pages, which are available here
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