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As many people flee Ukraine, others are traveling to the embattled country


There's a refugee crisis because of Russia's war. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled through Poland. But some Ukrainians are going the other way, going home. And we took that journey with them. We got in line for the only passenger train of the day headed to Lviv, in western Ukraine. In that line, we meet Igor. He's a 32-year-old beer brewer carrying a bicycle and a black bag. He has headphones around his neck. But at first, he won't talk to me.

So you said you're worried about your grandma hearing this interview?

IGOR: Yes.


IGOR: This is normal for grandma, yes?

FADEL: She's worried?

IGOR: Yes.

FADEL: Why was she worried?

IGOR: It's danger, yes, to come back.

FADEL: Igor doesn't want his grandma to know he plans to fight. He's never been in conflict before. And in this line, there are many others who plan to take up weapons for the first time as well.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: The line for the train begins to move. People present their passports to the customs agents and file out on the tracks. Weapons, medical supplies, food all take priority over passengers. So the first few cars are filled with supplies.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: When we board the train, the floor is covered in trash - water bottles, a hat here, a mitten there, blankets left behind by earlier passengers. Sitting alone by a window, one woman is heading back from Paris to get her parents. There are couples cuddling under blankets, an older man reading about the war he's headed into in the day's newspaper. Sviataslav Vovk walks over in a Yankees cap.

And why are you going to Lviv?

SVIATASLAV VOVK: I'm going to visit my parents and to defend them.

FADEL: And when you say defend them, what does that mean?

VOVK: I need to defend them from the occupation.

FADEL: So does that mean you're planning to fight?

VOVK: Yep.

FADEL: And you're not scared?

VOVK: I got no choice. I can't forgive me if I will sit in Poland and just know that my parents there.

FADEL: OK. I feel you're very emotional right now.

VOVK: A little bit.

FADEL: And so today you decided, I'm going back. Why today?

VOVK: Because I saw the people that came from Ukraine. I was helping them. And because I saw that terrible situation in the eyes of the people and I understand that my parents feel the same, so I can't just leave them.

FADEL: His final destination isn't Lviv. That's still considered safe. He's going to his hometown that's further east, where Russian forces are attacking cities. We carry on talking to people in different cars. And then the train stops for Ukrainian border control. On the other side of the track, another train has stopped.

So right now, we're passing a train going the other direction, towards Poland. And that train is filled with people standing, really, shoulder to shoulder - so different than the train that we're on, which is pretty empty, actually.

As we pull away, the train going to Poland, it stays still. It will take hours to get through the thousands of passports on that train. And then we're in Ukraine. It's the last leg of Jenny's journey. I find her sitting in the middle of what I thought was a group of old friends. Turns out, they met in line.

And now you're sharing chocolate...

JENNY: Yeah (laughter).

FADEL: ...And chatting. How did this happen?

JENNY: I mean, we were chatting all together. And we are constantly checking our websites on the news, what is going on, you know?

FADEL: Yeah.

JENNY: Everything - all this has united our nation in abnormal way.

FADEL: She asks us not to use her last name. She says it's because she doesn't know who will win this war. When the Russians invaded, she was on vacation in Milan.

JENNY: And it was shock. It was shock because nobody expect it. I would never plan to travel if it would happen because, you know, part of the family is there. Everything is there.

FADEL: Yeah.

JENNY: So of course, I'm very much afraid of the people who are now in Kyiv or in east of Ukraine because it's a disaster.

FADEL: Yeah.

JENNY: It's a disaster for the civil population. You see all these trains going out. And I was not actually expecting that somebody will be going in - 80% men and just, like, 20% women...

FADEL: Yeah.

JENNY: ...Who are going back home. But it's probably those people who really have something to save, to protect and to - and see their future in Ukraine.

FADEL: Her teenage son is in Lviv.

Do you think Lviv will stay safe?

JENNY: I'm not sure. I'm - you know, after everything what happened, nobody can be sure that Lviv will stay safe and that Poland will stay safe and all the other countries will stay safe. I think this is a really big game.

FADEL: Who are the players in this game? When you talk about it being a game, who's playing?

JENNY: I think it's geopolitics in the final act. So this is a struggle between big giants. And you know these giants, the three...

FADEL: The U.S., Russia...

JENNY: And China.

FADEL: And China.

JENNY: So...

FADEL: Do you feel like you're caught in the middle?

JENNY: We are just - exactly. We mean nothing.

FADEL: You mean to these big powers?

JENNY: Yes. Yes. So it's about resewing the world, recutting the areas of control. So we are now, like, area between - in between the NATO and Russia. And it looks like now, this is a historical moment for Ukraine. So I think we pay the price now for all our efforts to become part of this big, democratic world that this democratic world should really understand and support. But, I mean, not in a, again, political game or whatever, but just to make a decision to take us as a part of this world. So we hope for the wiseness (ph) and for bright will of the U.S. president and the government to support EU in the decision of taking the right decision - and to take this, not to lose control because now, our will exist. And we will win the war and become, finally, the part of democratic world. Or democratic world will - can lose completely the Ukraine in the range of a couple of years, I think. So this is really critical moment for us, for our history.

FADEL: All right. Well, thank you so much.

JENNY: Thank you.

FADEL: With that, we approach Lviv. It's one of the last safe cities in Ukraine. But even so, the first sounds we hear are air raid sirens.


Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Arezou Rezvani is a senior editor for NPR's Morning Edition and founding editor of Up First, NPR's daily news podcast.
Graham Smith is a Senior Producer on NPR's Investigations team and winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for audio reporting. He works with staffers, station reporters and independent journalists to dig deep and create sound-rich, long-form stories and series.