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Train operators help evacuate millions of Ukrainians to safety

Considered unsung heroes in the war, railway workers risk harm to help their compatriots.

TERNOPIL, Ukraine — Since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, more than 5 million Ukrainians have fled their country, many by train as conductors and attendants risk putting themselves in harm’s way to help their compatriots.

A total of 95 railway workers have been killed and 103 injured since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, according to Alexander Kamyshin, head of Ukraine’s national rail system. Another four were held hostage, he said.

On April 8, two missiles hit the Kramatorsk train station in eastern Ukraine, where thousands of civilians were trying to evacuate. At least 59 people were killed, including seven children, according to the Ukraine Ministry of Defense.

The Pentagon said Russia was responsible for the attack, although Russia denied it.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the missile strike a war crime, and other officials pointed to the attack as an example of why Russia should be charged with violating international law. Ukrainian officials said they would send a blood-stained children’s toy found in the rubble to the United Nations as “proof of this barbaric crime.”

Even after the deadly attack, railway workers continue to show up for their jobs every day, knowing their train could be struck at any moment. A quarter of Ukraine’s 14,000 miles of railways have already been damaged by Russian bombs, Kamyshin said.

“We are working, doing our duties that we were charged to do,” train driver Andriy Bobrovsky said. “People rely on us, citizens who are running away from war. I have fear, but I have to do my duty.”

In addition to evacuating citizens, trains are being used to help people get to loved ones within Ukraine and to distribute humanitarian aid.

Ukrainian citizens said they recognize the workers’ courage and devotion.

“They are heroes, to just to take care of all these passengers, take care of Ukrainians, and just support and give us these trains,” said a woman who identified herself only as Valentina from Lviv, who was trying to reach her terminally ill father in the country before he died.

Trains also provide key transportation for people who want to return to Ukraine. Nearly 900,000 people who left the country during the war have already gone back, according to the U.N., and 30,000 people are returning to Ukraine daily.

Raf Sanchez and John Boxley reported from Ukraine, and Christina Fiorentino Blinn from New York.