A Ukrainian mum has told how a suspected Russian saboteur used a flashlight to signal from a train packed with refugees as her family made a fraught journey to reach the UK.
Sasha Antonenko, 36, feared the man would ‘get us all blown up’ as rockets and shells exploded nearby on the 12-hour trip towards Poland.
The Kyiv resident, who spent weeks sheltering from Russian fire in a school basement, told how women and children screamed in panic before the man was overpowered by a passenger.
She had been travelling overnight in cramped and stifling conditions with her sons Andre, seven, and Roman, 16, on their way to join her brother-in-law, Daniel Garner, and his family in the UK.
They left in March as a now-aborted Russian attempt to seize the capital intensified, having spent weeks sheltering from the bombardment in the makeshift shelter linked to a school. After taking a bus to a train station in the capital, they found the platform crowded with people headed for Lviv, the gateway city for refugees in western Ukraine.
Sasha’s husband, Vanni, came to say farewell amid the sea of people predominantly made up of women and children, as the country’s martial law prevents men from leaving except under certain exemptions.
‘The military walked with weapons and drove everyone away from the edge of the platform, there were so many people that there was not a millimetre of space between us,’ she said.
‘We were lucky because right in front of us the doors of the train opened.
‘My husband stepped to the side and what happened was like a war film.
‘Thousands of people were knocked down screaming, 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 from behind me fell and I began to just squeeze my child screaming, begging for him to be put in the car.
‘Thank God that I had my eldest strong son, who helped us get through and hooray, we sat down.’
Swept up in the crush, Sasha did not get the chance to say goodbye to her husband, who has taken up arms to fight in defence of his homeland.
The trio were told by other passengers to disable the location feature in their mobile phones and later to switch off the handsets altogether.
The need for radio silence soon took on terrifying form.
‘Near us, two rockets exploded and shelling began,’ Sasha said.
‘We all lay as low as possible with our heads bent. Everything was fine and no one was injured. The lights on the train were turned off and we ate in spots where there was light from the shelling that had not subsided.
‘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 the noise of children crying, the refugees had to contend with suffocating conditions in the darkness as they kept the windows closed for safety. But the worst was yet to come.
‘A saboteur was signalling to call in missiles or to someone else by shining a flashlight through the windows,’ Sasha said.
‘Women and children were panicked by the man and by the rockets being fired at the train. A woman screamed and begged the people standing nearby to stop him shining the torch.
‘He stopped for a couple of minutes but then started again. We were worried he could get us all blown up.
‘Everyone asked a man in the car to stop him and a fight started. There was more screams and crying. He was overpowered by the man who took his mobile phone and smashed it to prevent any further communication. I don’t know what happened to him, but the main 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 effort to stop the transportation of foreign weapons into Ukraine.
Ten hours into the journey, the cramped conditions and a shortage of water began to take their toll as the train crawled towards Lviv in the darkness.
‘People began to faint and we tried to care of them as best we could,’ Sasha said. ‘Our legs had been planted in the same position for so long I didn’t think we would be able to move them again.
‘My youngest screamed in pain as he felt sick, all I could do was ask him to sleep and I prayed he would be able to walk again after the trip.
‘We poured water on the children to cool them down and let them drink as the water ran out.’
An announcement told the passengers to keep quiet and a deathly hush prevailed as Sasha saw explosions in the distance, with those in the carriage again having to take cover.
‘After about 20 minutes the train very abruptly began to rush at a tremendous speed, we thought it would overturn or derail, as if 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 were becoming increasingly ill due to the lack of air and water.’
Hungry and exhausted, Sasha and her sons managed to get to their feet as the lights were finally turned on and the train doors opened as it arrived in Lviv, a staging post for millions of refugees fleeing the war. Emerging in the freezing cold, they crossed the tracks to wash their hands and use a toilet.
‘We came alive a bit, but the cold was making itself felt,’ Sasha said. ‘It was the depths of night and we didn’t know where to go next.’
The family managed to find another crowded evacuation train destined for Przemyśl, a city in south-eastern Poland. They boarded at 5am after queuing for several hours in the cold.
‘We didn’t have any food and only one bottle of water,’ Sasha said.
‘We were told that we were being taken to somewhere over 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 unwell and children begging to go to the toilet.
‘I felt like soon I would not be able to breathe and we managed to open the doors in the vestibule to let some air through. The train then stood still for a third hour with no reason given to the passengers.
‘No one had any water or food, people just thought they needed to throw things together and just go somewhere over the Polish border.
‘After another half an hour the Ukrainian border guards came on.
‘We begged for water and they gave us everything they had left in their reserves. There was one 1.5 litre bottle for three families but it was enough, we were just thankful to be alive. We finally arrived in Przemyśl, our saviour.’
The displaced civilians were greeted at the border by humanitarian groups who have set up bases in the region as they respond to the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.
More than six million people have fled Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion, according to the United Nations.
The Home Office last week published figures showing 46,100 refugees have travelled to the UK, from a total of 102,000 visas issued.
‘We were given soup, tea and coffee and there were places for the children,’ 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 made their way 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.
Mr Garner, 47, has further welcomed his parents-in-law, also from Kyiv, to his home after they became stranded while on holiday in Egypt at the outset of the Russian invasion 13 weeks ago.
He has raised concerns over red tape causing delays to visa applications through the UK government’s two schemes to relocate Ukrainians fleeing the warzone. With a household of nine, Mr Garner has also found bureaucracy is making it difficult for his newly arrived relatives to access work, school places and other UK services.
Mr Garner has set up Change.org and GoFundMe pages accessible here
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