This is Milana. She’s two year old and arrived in Berlin on Sunday morning on the EC 60456 from Wroclaw, after a 5-day journey from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
She, her 8-year-old brother, and her mum, Lena, left Kharkiv on Tuesday, March 1 after their neighbourhood came under Russian air attacks. “There is hardly a building left standing around ours,” says Lena. “During WW2 the historical centre was spared, not this time,” Her husband and many friends have stayed behind.
She speaks without visible emotion, a restraint that conveys the general sense of disbelief experienced by most Ukrainians at the station. This was not supposed to happen. Only a week ago they were dealing with the daily routine of any European on the continent: kids, a job, planning holidays or new projects…. It’s as if the reality of Russia’s invasion had not sunk in. Now they are in the central station of a foreign capital. Not for holidays. They are refugees.
There, stands Milana, light years away from these geopolitical considerations. She’s more interested in the dizzying display of sweet snacks and toys gifted by Berliners all around her.
When the air raid siren sounded, they ran to the cellar. “There was that grandmother with us who said that the last time they’d done that, it was during WW2. She never thought she’d have to run away from bombing again in her lifetime.”
It’s been quite a trip. 1800km in total; 1000km riding overcrowded trains til Lviv, where they had a friend that gave the three a bed for the night. Then over to the Polish border and a one-night stay in Wroclaw.
Nearby, two volunteers debate the role of NATO and whether Putin’s invasion was irrational or just evil.
And there, stands Milana, light years away from these geopolitical considerations. She’s more interested in the dizzying display of sweet snacks and toys gifted by Berliners all around her. She can’t get enough of those bags of sweets handed over by volunteers. She grabs a stuffed pink fish, then goes for her favourite, the Kinder egg. Her brother Vanya is polite and affectionate. “That’s enough,” he says. “We don’t need more.” We get some tea for his mum. “Black, with sugar”, he whispers in my ear.
The family travelled without too much trouble, taking advantage of the free rail offered to Ukrainians. Some others weren’t so lucky: they say they were asked for money by ticket inspectors on the train and ask how they can be refunded. They won’t: it’s a scam. Meanwhile we’ve all been told to be on alert for dodgy hosts offering to bring female refugees to a ‘safe home’ – sometimes even offering money.
Mila, Vanya and Lena only spent 55 minutes at Hauptbahnhof before boarding a train to Frankfurt, where a distant relative lives.
But I won’t forget Mila – those tiny hands I held as we took the escalators up and down the Hauptbahnhof. Watching her curious little face, looking right into my eyes from inside the departing train, my heart sank.