The photo shows the chaotic conditions at the Kharkiv train station, which Katarina describes in her story. The picture is very present in social media, but the source is not known. On the page https://correctiv.org/faktencheck/2022/03/14/ukraine-dieses-foto-zeigt-menschen-am-bahnhof-von-charkiw/?lang=de the claim that the photo is a fake is refuted. If you read Katarina's story, this claim also seems completely nonsensical.
My name is Katarina, I am 36 years old and I come from Ukraine. I have three children - eleven, nine and six years old. And I would like to tell my story, how I fled from the war.
We lived in the city of Kharkiv, which is 40 km from the border with Russia. The bombing of Kharkiv started immediately on the first day. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and heard the distinct sounds of explosions. A glow could be seen through the window. It was 24 February - my youngest daughter's birthday. She turned five on that day.
My husband worked in a factory producing insulation materials and had night shift, so we were alone at home. The children woke up and cried, the eldest daughter and son understood that the war had started. The youngest kept asking if we would celebrate her birthday. Well, a birthday cake in the cellar. Then my husband came in from the night shift. He said that the city was already completely paralysed, vehicles were not moving, soldiers and military equipment were everywhere. The noise of gunshots and explosions did not stop, and they were joined by the deafening howl of air raids. That is why many Ukrainian refugees in peaceful Germany flinch when sirens wail here to test the alarm. We tested these signals on ourselves in a real war.
We spent the next week in the cellar. There was no real air raid shelter in our area, we just went into the cellar under the house. The house was very small and the cellar cold and damp, and once I even saw a rat. Besides, the house was very old and I was afraid that the shelling would cause it to collapse along with the cellar. There weren't many people there, just us and our relatives who lived nearby. It was a terrible time. Everyone was very scared, but we couldn't allow panic because we had children with us. After a few days of such a life, when we were already completely frozen, I realised that I had to leave Kharkiv. At that time we had no money and only Ukrainian passports. However, refugees were allowed to travel across the borders with such documents.
It turned out to be impossible to call a taxi to get to the station. We didn't have our own car, there was no more public transport. The few taxis that could be taken charged such high prices that it was unaffordable. It felt like we were hostages and it was impossible to get away. Panic set in, but I tried not to give in - I have children. Thank God I was able to find volunteers to take us to the station! I had exactly fifteen minutes to get ready - in that time I took a bag with documents, passports, kissed my dog on his wet nose and walked out the door. I have not returned to that house since.
When we arrived at the station, I was shocked by the number of people. They were everywhere - in the park, on the benches, in the station building, on the platforms. The trains ran irregularly, there was no timetable. Nobody knew how long it would take. I met a woman with a small child who spent the second night at the station because she couldn't leave. We waited for a long time. We arrived at the station around 8am, the train came around 3pm. All this time the children and I ate nothing, then it started to rain, the youngest daughter fell into a puddle. We were wet, dirty, hungry and scared. Fighter jets flew overhead, explosions shook the platform at the station. Somewhere a child was crying and somewhere a grown bearded man was crying. He came to say goodbye to his wife and son and he cried because he didn't know if he would see them again.
Finally the train arrived. Because of the crowd, it became oppressive, people were pushing from all sides. I was afraid to step into the crowd with the children, it seemed as if we would be crushed. There was no chance to get on the long awaited train. The carriages were completely overcrowded, people stood facing the window and could not move. I understood that we could not even approach the train. And then suddenly there was a terribly loud explosion. So strong that some people fell to the ground. The platform shook, the windows rattled, my ears were numb. My children weren't even crying anymore, they were in shock. I thought they had blown something up in the station building. People instinctively ran from the train to the building and sought shelter. And I dragged my children in the opposite direction because I thought the station had been blown up and would now collapse.
And suddenly we were standing in front of the car. There were already people inside and the doors were closed. Someone started knocking on the windows to open them. Suddenly a soldier appeared in front of the wagons, opened a small window and shouted, "Women and children only!" He started throwing children through the window. So they loaded sacks of potatoes on the field. Panic spread, parents lost their children, children cried, there was commotion everywhere. But I realised that this was a chance to get on the train. I pushed the older children forward and put the younger one with my arms around my husband's neck. Men were not allowed on the train, but I screamed so hard that they let my husband in. I had to protect him with my body because behind us someone tried to grab his legs and pull him back. However, both my husband and all my children managed to climb through the train window. I was pushed back, I was afraid they would leave without me. I had to push my way through to get to the window. Then I got stuck in it, someone pushed me and I flew headlong into the compartment. It hit me hard, but I was very glad I had got in.
There were so many people in the car that not everyone could just sit on the floor. We drove standing up day and night, twenty-four hours, holding our youngest daughter in our arms. In the morning we had no strength left, we hadn't slept, we hadn't eaten anything at all for almost two days. Thank God someone gave the children bread and water. But we were still glad to leave Kharkiv.
And then a new life began. We quietly crossed the border to Europe and first entered Slovakia. I don't remember the name of the town we arrived in, but friends took us from there to Poland, to Krakow. We stayed there for about a week, then we decided to move on to Germany because there were already so many refugees in Poland. Friends of ours had acquaintances near Munich who were willing to take us in for the time being. But life proved to be very unpredictable. We had to move often. At first we lived with a German family, but we couldn't stay long because there wasn't enough room for us in the flat. Then I managed to find a house where we lived for about nine months, but it was old and was going to be demolished. And then the most unforgettable experience: the refugee camp. It was very difficult there. We had a tiny room with four beds for five people, a communal kitchen that was always dirty. I was constantly looking for a place to live, but in Bavaria that's very difficult. All this happened near Munich, in small towns. After two months in the camp, I finally managed to find a flat in a village near Augsburg. That's where we live now.
I am now divorced from my husband. When we fled Ukraine, I hoped that our relationship would improve as a result of our shared painful experiences. But unfortunately the opposite happened. The war and the flight presented us with new difficult challenges that our marriage could not cope with. My ex-husband now still lives with us in the same flat, in a separate room. Finding a flat is not easy, so you have to compromise. But I have no regrets, I am grateful for the shared experience with him and our children. But my further path will continue without him.
I studied and trained as an economist, but I have practically no work experience. I graduated, got married immediately and spent many years at home with the children. But I managed to work a little as a cook on the side. So I think I will start doing that in Germany.
I am currently attending an integration course and waiting for the result of my DTZ exam. My teacher believes in me and thinks I will get the B1 certificate. I hope he is right.
This flight has cost me a lot of strength, brought many emotions and tears. At the same time, I have met wonderful people, close friends and even mutual love. But that is another story...
Thank you, Katarina, for having the courage to tell this story here!