Day 25 of the Russian Invasion
Ten hours at Vienna's main train station. A catalogue of stories and impressions. In no particular order. A snapshot of the humanitarian tragedy from those who managed to leave Ukraine.
Tanja Maier lives in Vienna, Austria, where she has been passionately chronicling the invasion of Ukraine for the last four weeks through her newsletter Weight of the World.
Her work started with a focus on military movements and battlefield reports, but as the refugee crisis has exploded in Europe she has found herself on the front line—often hands-on—with the Ukrianian refugees whose lives have been upended and who are streaming homeless across European borders.
I’ve been reading her work since she began posting in mid-February. She’s not a professional journalist, but I’ve found the daily emails to be as—or more—illuminating than anything out there.
I highly recommend that you sign up. You can read all her work for free or upgrade to a paid subscription to support her reporting and direct help to refugees.
This extensive piece captures the relentless barrage of humanity she encountered while volunteering at Vienna’s main train station.
As part of our continued effort to give a voice to the voiceless, we’re thankful to Tanja Maier for the opportunity to directly share these stories.
By Tanja Maier
This is 15 year old Malysh, which means little one. He escaped Hostomel’ with his owners during the first days of the war, fleeing first to Kyiv, then via Moldova and Romania to Budapest. In Hungary, Malysh and his owners (five adults travelling together, including an adult son with a disability) were living in the kitchen of a hostel until they were given notice to leave the next day. A Russian man living in Hungary got to know the family, and advised them to travel to the Netherlands, where through friends of friends a roof over their heads was waiting for them. The Russian man reached out to me through a mutual acquaintance, and asked me if I could meet the group, help them buy tickets to Amsterdam, and get them safely on the night train. I agreed, thinking I could combine this with my regular translation shift.
Malysh’s family stepped off the train from Budapest like everyone else: with many small bags, tired faces, a him, their beloved pet, who is very scared of escalators and starts to shake when he has to step on the metal steps, but managed to hold his pee for 18 hours straight on the night train that took them out of Kyiv to the Moldovan border. We quickly sorted out tickets to Amsterdam (free of charge, sitting upright — no beds in second class overnight trains). We stored their luggage in lockers and my car. I gave the father some money to have a meal in Vienna. I thought they would see the city. Instead, they stuck to the area near the station. Everyone is afraid of getting lost and missing their train. It’s understandable. They returned back an hour too early. We sat down in a quiet corner, bought some teas, and I listened as they charged their phones.
This family wanted to talk. They want the world to know what happened to them on February 24 when they woke up to rockets flying over their heads in both directions. When they had to hide in the unfinished basement of their home that was only a meter or so deep. The death and destruction and body parts they saw everywhere. How many of their neighbours did not manage to rescue their pets. Some dogs ran away with the shooting began. Others jumped out of cars. There had been a local woman, Yana, who tried to feed the dogs left behind in Hostomel’. The Russians shot and killed her, leaving behind a young child, now motherless.
We were just making plans, the family explained. We just bought a new meat grinder and renovated part of the house. We took out loans. We got international passports thinking we might take a holiday one day, abroad. You never know. The grown son who is disabled recalled a long ago holiday to Crimea on a double decker bus. He asked if the night train would also be a double decker. I don’t think so, I said, so sorry to disappoint. He asked if he could puff on his electronic cigarette. Sure, I said, just don’t let them see you here inside in the building. He inhaled deeply on a little orange stick the size of a lighter and blew the vape down into his jacket.
The father of the family is the kind of man who is of slight build but keeps going for days on end miraculously never running out of energy or optimism. He is relaxed despite all the circumstances. “Two revolutions, two wars, if you think about it, over a pretty short period of time” he says to me in the elevator as we go down to the parking garage to get some of their bags out of my car. He insisted on not letting me carry them because I am a woman and his host for those few hours.
His partner is probably in her late 50s and she talks. And talks. She wants you all to know what they have been through. She wants you to know what they saw. She asked me if we see the photos and videos on Telegram. We do, I assure her. She nods in agreement. She switches from tears to impassioned speech and back again. The Russians won’t take Ukraine, the family agree. No way will they take the entire territory. No one thought we would hold on this long, the dad say. No one, I say in agreement.
And just like that it’s dark outside and we are on the platform lining up to put them on the dark blue sleeper train to Amsterdam. We hug and I offer words of optimism that for some miraculous reason feel and sound sincere. They are so grateful. I am so grateful to have met them. I hope they will be in good hands. The dad lifted Malysh I his arms onto the train and they were off, moving west, again.
My afternoon at Vienna’s central train station yesterday began with escorting a young woman of around 20 to find her mom and sister from whom she had been separated. We chatted as we walked. I asked where she was staying. A giant hall with many hundred (thousand?) beds near Arena Nova, in a satellite city about 50 kilometres from Vienna. Oh, I said, I heard it’s pretty rough there. Yeah, she said, laughing, but I managed to go clubbing! Clubbing? Sure! There was a club right next door and one of the volunteers took me. When people heard I was from Ukraine I was like a legit celebrity even though I couldn’t dance for shit. And by 1am I was back in my cot like nothing happened. She and her family are from Kyiv. They are headed to Cyprus. Her sister already has a job offer, she hopes to get one too. She assured me the war will be over in a week or so. I nodded, and wished her good luck, thinking I wished I could share her youthful optimism.
Next I met a mom and her daughter from Zhitomir. I’m also Tanya, she said, reading my name in Cyrillic script on my FFP2 mask. I drew my name in marker on one side and a Ukrainian flag on the other. It makes it a bit less weird when I walk up to Ukrainians proactively and ask if they have questions. Tanya and her daughter have a place to stay in a village about an hour outside of Vienna, but they need extra bedding and some kitchen items. They came to the train station as so many do, but we don’t have donations like that. I told them about the new IKEA in the city, the one reachable by subway, and gave them a little cash, hopefully enough to buy some sheets and some mugs. These are delicate conversations and I always do it in private and making sure the recipients understand the money is not from me personally, it is a collective effort, and I cannot help everyone but I try in specific situations to solve specific problems. They were grateful and asked for directions to the subway.
Next I met a mom and her young daughter from Kryvyi Rih, Zelensky’s industrial hometown in central Ukraine. They are staying at a hotel for refugees in Vienna and asked if we had an extra suitcase. We didn’t, but I ran into the supermarket and got them a small one. They were overwhelmed. I explained the zoo and museums in Vienna are free. Sometimes I think a nice distraction when you are waiting for information about permanent housing and registration (both questions unfortunately still 99% unanswered for Ukrainians who have arrived to Vienna) is to tell people what nice things they can do for free while they are waiting. I also shared with the mom a photo in my phone of a second hand bazaar which today would be free for Ukrainian women, organized by a Jewish charity. She was grateful for the tip. Her acrylic nails had broken off in a few places, like the videos on TikTok, that show the new Ukrainian manicure — half a hand of broken nails last done in the before times. Except this women had taken some polish and tried to match the black and white design on her shorter, real nails. A solution that showed despite all the hardship she still wanted to present herself as she had grown accustomed: with ten fingers of matching nails.
I often go up and down the ticket line and ask if anyone has any questions while they are waiting or if anyone wants a coffee. I met two young girls. They had just been checked out of the “covid” hotel in Vienna (a rather nice hotel near Schottentor in central Vienna), and were heading to French-speaking Switzerland. Oh, I said, I heard the covid hotel is nicer than the others. Yeah, they agreed, but we stayed inside for five days straight, we didn’t dare leave we were so worried we might never test negative. Oh, I sighed, so you must see the city tonight then! Look, the sun is shining, it’t not too cold outside. They nodded. We got the tickets to Switzerland for the next morning (four changes of train to their final destination where someone was waiting for them) and I wished them good luck.
I looked into my phone and saw a message from an old acquaintance, originally from Moscow now in Budapest, with a photo of a mom and son now on a beach in Barcelona. We had sent some money to help them get to Spain with more than $50 and a backpack. I smiled and kept walking.
I turned the corner to the area between platforms where free drinks, snacks and hygiene products are handed out. And then I froze. Because sitting there, amidst dozens of refugees from Ukraine, was the strange Austrian man who had come to the station earlier in the week and tried to speak with two young Ukrainian girls in English. Then, I interrupted him, told him he had to sign up as an official volunteer. Warned the girls in Russian not to talk to strange men who don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian and aren’t official volunteers. The man still hovered around, annoyed with us. My manager took his photo from a distance.
So when I saw him yesterday, just sitting there, looking around, I knew I had to do something. I grabbed two other volunteers, who asked him what he was doing. They in turn helped me get the train station security. The security team spoke with him. One volunteer took a video, I snapped a quick photo. The man spoke unaccented Austrian German and made up some strange explanation like he was waiting for a woman from Ukraine but doesn’t know what train she is coming on. He wasn’t at all scared by security. The conversation ended, but he didn’t leave. He instead positioned himself near the elevators, and kept watching the refugee waiting area.
I called the police hotline for such suspicions. The woman was nice but told me next time I have to call the police, because only the police can ask the man for his ID. A photo, she explained, means nothing and you can’t share it online (privacy). I hung up, frustrated. The man was still there, watching everything. I let our entire translator chat know what was happening, and walked across the street to the police station, as I couldn’t find a police officer in the station, which was strange for a Saturday evening. The police were great and to my surprise two officers came almost immediately back with me to walk around the station. A translator colleague had his eyes on the man. It was a team effort. When the suspicious man saw us coming with two police officers, he started to walk away fast, but didn’t succeed. They stopped him, got his ID (Austrian passport), and escorted him out of the station. The man had always given us volunteers and the station security a lot of lip, but he was dead silent with two police officers in front of him.
What happens next I do not know, but I am really glad I spoke up, our team effort worked, and if he comes back, we will have no problem to engage the police again for their help. Sadly, I have a feeling the creep will try again. War is a bit like an exponential multiplier which enlarges both the good and the bad, the entire range of the human experience, elevated, extended.
Next I met two twenty-something women of modest background who were really keen to get to Iceland. We spent a good 15 minutes googling options for “cheap flights” on Wizz Air which in the context of Ukrainian refugees who just fled war with what they could grab, are not exactly cheap. The women want to work and are trying to figure out where the prospects will be best. Scandinavia, they said. Ok, I answered, but that is still a lot of choices, and you can’t reach them all by train. A thoughtful pause. I shared my impressions of Iceland from our recent trip, and wished them good luck. I don’t know what they finally decided upon, if anything.
As I was getting ready to leave for the night I met two women, one from Vinnitsa, the other from Lviv oblast. They asked me to activate the free SIM cards they had been given. I failed. There are few things in life more complicated than Austrian SIM card regulations. I offered them a lift with their suitcases instead. One was headed to a hotel in the 5th district, the other to a friend of a friend of a friend in the 14th. We packed up the car and drove through Saturday night Vienna, sharing stories, trying to give advice which feels wholly inadequate. Everyone wants to know when they can work, how they can work, how much they can get paid, how much things cost here, where they will live. I don’t have good answers to any of those questions. I give honest advice about which social media groups are useful, how much people here might pay in cash for at-home services under the table. I warn about men and offers that seem too good to be true. As I drop off the second woman, also Tanya, she asks me to wait while she opens her suitcase in the dark street. She opens the front door of my car and hands me a giant Ukrainian chocolate bar. I smile and thank her. It was a lovely way to end a very long day.
I was back at the station early again this morning. My middle child had a swim meet in Südstadt. We aren’t allowed to watch anyway because of the covid rules, so I went to the station while she was competing.
First I meet a man with his wife and child. They want to go to Ireland but haven’t understood you can’t easily get there other than by plane. He is concerned they cannot buy plane tickets with their internal Ukrainian IDs; only he has an international passport. Two phone calls to Air Lingus, I confirm it would be possible and tell him if he can get to Frankfurt there are two flights tomorrow. Tickets can be bought in the airport. As for a discount, say you are from Ukraine, I explain. I leave him at the train ticket counter, figuring out his route to Germany with another translator.
I see a grandmother holding a small toddler in her arms. She looks like she cannot carry him anymore. He is half dressed. Three little girls stand around. One with a pacifier in her mouth, standing in an adult’s jacket. It reaches to her ankles. The mom is very petite. Dad is there too (when you have 3 or more kids and tried to leave Ukraine in early March, you were allowed out as the father of a big family — that has since changed). Another volunteer is trying to explain where the cafeteria is, which is nice, but it’s a long walk for a family with four small children none of whom are dressed to go outside, plus luggage. I take them to the first class lounge instead, which has now thankfully been turned into a waiting room / playroom. I bring them some more food and hot cocoas for the kids. The oldest daughter, about 6, asks for coffee.
They are from outside of Odessa, and like so many others, left in a hurry with no time to plan under rocket fire. They left once the bombs were flying, grabbing whatever they could hold onto. They have no stroller. The mom, I’ll call her Oksana, finds a donated double stroller in good condition in the corner of the lounge. She asks if she can use it. My youngest are too young to walk far, she explains. At first the staff say they can only use the stroller in the station. A few minutes later, they change their minds and say the family can keep it. Oksana is almost in tears with gratitude.
They want to go to Spain, but first just to rest for a few hours. Oksana’s father is Cuban and lives in Cuba. She hasn’t seen him or her half-siblings in 28 years, but she speaks Spanish, as does her Ukrainian mother. I delicately ask Oksana if I can help them with some money from all of you for the onward journey. She is thankful. I always try to be careful in that moment. You don’t want to offend anyone but you know once they leave Vienna they will be alone, and the journey is long. Oksana looks at her three daughters (6, 4, 3) and baby son (1) and says to me, I couldn’t manage this journey without my mom and husband. I know, I say. I have three of my own. They are big now, but I know. I remember. Some things you never forget. I could barely manage an Easy Jet flight at that age with my kids. Oksana and her family just spent days on end travelling, fleeing bombs at a moment’s notice. Our friends from Nikolaev, we met them on the train, she continues, they also ran the same way. No notice, rockets flying, grabbed what they could. I know, I say, and nod.
A mom and daughter find me whom I helped a few days ago. I bought them sneakers. They ask me again for more. I explain it is Sunday, the shops are closed. I told them about the second hand shop for Ukrainian women. I make a mental note in my head that I cannot spend more than €100 per family, that I must keep track of this math, in order to try and help more people. I explain that I cannot buy them more now, but try to tell them where they can get what they need free of charge. My gut told me I was being tested, and as much as I want to be generous given the circumstances, I also have to balance things. There are so many people in need and we cannot help them all nor can I give a disproportionate amount to any one family. It makes me feel cold to write this but I know rationally it is the only fair approach. She kept pushing, will you be here tomorrow, she asked? I don’t know, I said. They insist on a phone number. I can see it is a psychological reaction, to want to grab onto what you think is a lifeline, but at the end of the day was only two pairs of shoes and new socks. I hope I did the right thing. It’s hard to listen to your gut in the moment.
A loud family group arrive and are visibly upset. They have come back from Zurich. Back from Switzerland, I ask? But why? It was terrible, they tell me. We were put in a refugee center with men from other countries and they tried to rob us. The food was awful. We left. I told them things are probably not great in Austria but hopefully the housing would only be with other Ukrainians the vast majority of which are women and kids. You never know how much truth is in any of these statements but I share them as I hear them. I had heard other people talking about Switzerland earlier that morning (“it’s where all the banks are they are rich”) and now I was left wondering if I should have known better.
A couple ask me for directions to the cafeteria. There is now a nice cafeteria with a small but appetizing selection of food from 7am-7pm. Because it is free, many Ukrainians are coming to eat who already have housing in Austria. One couple asked me how to order a taxi tomorrow from their housing in the middle of nowhere Lower Austria back to the train station. They were going to try their luck in the Netherlands instead. I tried to explain a taxi would cost them a fortune, to ask a local for a lift to the train station. Sometimes there are no good answers.
An older woman who spoke Ukrainian from Irpin with a sausage dog called Mary asked me to ask the ÖBB for dog food. Someone donated a bunch of dog and cat food to the railway, and all you have to do is ask for it at the ticket desk. Mission accomplished, I walked her and her grown daughter to the cafeteria. They are annoyed Mary will have to wear a muzzle if they go inside to eat. Austria, I explain. People are always saying every 3 seconds “FFP2 masks!” which makes zero sense because covid is everywhere anyway (I will test myself tonight) and once inside everyone is eating without masks so what difference do those 3 meters make but, alas, that too is Austria.
My last encounter of the day was with a young mom from Kharkiv, her 9 yo daughter, and their friend. They are staying in a nice Vienna suburb, but only for a few days. They have an offer to go to France, but aren’t sure if it is trustworthy. Somewhere outside of Lyon, in a home with other Ukrainians, but the owner of the home is a man. We talk about England, about how I have many offers of people who would like to open their homes to Ukrainians, but that requires having a place to stay for long enough to apply for a UK visa, wait for it to get approved, money for airfare, etc. They are intrigued and I promise to get them an email or phone number, but explain I don’t know any of these people personally.
We joke about all those countries: UK, Canada, Australia who valiantly offer visas to Ukrainians, visas Ukrainians themselves have no means of applying for, with what laptop? With what roof over their heads in Europe while they wait for a reply? With what money for a ticket. They joke about how much a flight to Canada must cost.
The young women from Kharkiv and the little girl survived 20 days of bombs before they managed to escape on a train headed west. 20 days. They came with a cat and an adorable fluffy little white dog, whose name I forgot to ask. I promised to let them know if I heard anything specific about the UK, and urged them to check everything out properly before deciding on France.
An older couple asked me which city in France is the nicest. How can I answer that question, I say? Nice is by the ocean, I say. But maybe you are better in a smaller city, one not overrun with refugees, where there will be resources. The women from Kharkiv ask me about Finland…they have a friend…but you’d have to take a train through Russia…or maybe a ferry from Poland? These are questions I have no answers to. These discussions are surreal. We all know it, feel it.
There are a million questions and no good answers.
There is so much uncertainty and only good intentions holding everything together.
There is so much pain and hope simultaneously.
I haven’t read the Ukraine news in two days. I’ve been so busy with this. I came home exhausted and slept. I will take a covid test tonight. A ticking time bomb, I suppose. I try to tell myself I will do what I can, as much as I can, but not more. You can’t solve everything. You can’t help everyone. Your listening is already something. It means something. You hope. You hope to give Ukrainians the feeling that other people from other countries truly care about what they are going through right now.
Last night I came home shattered and my husband told me Austria’s president said something in his speech at the charity concert to thank the translators working at the train station. I thought how at that moment I was probably trying to get the police to kick the creep out of the station. Two worlds. For the moment, with very little overlap. The western world hangs up Ukrainian flags and offers standing ovations but in the next breath says Ukrainians must apply for visas and pay international airfares. Unrealistic. Not exactly helpful nor welcoming. The professional charities who fundraise in the millions and then ask people to sleep in giant halls on cots for an unclear amount of time. I really do start to wonder about this disconnect. It feels like a huge gap at the moment. Huge.
All we can do is take one day at a time. And speak up. We have to speak up. We have to talk about the hands on problems and challenges and failed execution and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. You try not to become even more cynical but it is difficult.
Thanks for reading. Very long today, apologies. I’ll sign off with these inspiring photos from Kyiv last night:
Weight of the World is a reader-supported publication.
To receive new posts and support Tanja’s work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.