It is 22:00 at the train station in Suceava, Romania, less than an hour’s drive from the Siret border with Ukraine.

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A train pulling in to a platform
The last train to Bucharest of the day is seen pulling into Suceava railway station, Romania, on March 7, 2022 [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

By Omar Havana

Published On 2 Jun 20222 Jun 2022

It is 22:00 at the train station in Suceava, Romania, less than an hour’s drive from the Siret border with Ukraine.

Every day at the border crossing, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people fleeing the war pass through on their search for safety.

And every day, the number of journalists and photographers hoping to document their stories increases.

But some 47km (29 miles) away in the station in Suceava, the atmosphere is different – quieter, calmer.

As soon as we enter the station, the smiles of the young volunteers helping the refugees welcome us. Only the distant sound of children’s laughter interrupts the silence. We follow the sounds until we reach a hall where dozens of people with suitcases sit waiting.

A woman sits in a train station
A Ukrainian woman hugs her dog while waiting to catch a train to Bucharest at the Suceava train station in Romania on March 5, 2022 [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

The volunteers explain that the space is reserved for those arriving from Ukraine. After they cross into Siret, Romanian emergency services and volunteers help them get on buses and other vehicles bound for Suceava; here they wait to get on one of five daily trains that will take them to the capital.

Tonight, we join them as the minutes tick by for the arrival of the 23:30 train, the last train to Bucharest.

Many travellers, most of them women and children, look exhausted but try to hide the nervousness and worry they feel about the situation at home, the fate of their friends and relatives who remain behind, the future of their country.

But the mostly calmer faces here stand in contrast to the stressed expressions we have seen for days at the border. Here, people seem more relaxed, some of them even sleep. Others hold their children in their arms, while the younger ones, full of energy, run around the hall and in between seats and luggage.

A woman and child sleep in a train station
Kolya, 4, and his mother asleep in the waiting area at the Suceava train station on March 8, 2022 [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

“Finally, here I feel less stressed,” says Tatiana, a 69-year-old grandmother from Irpin, in northern Ukraine, who arrived at the station with her daughter Yaroslava and granddaughter Angelina. “It is the first time since I left my house in Irpin that I am in peace,” she tells me.

“Now I have some hours here to wait for the train, but at least we are safe now.” The three plan to make their way to Brest in France where one of Angelina’s aunts lives.

For most Ukrainians waiting here, like Tatiana, their journey began hundreds of kilometres away. First, they left their homes, travelling for hours until they reached Chernivtsi on the Ukrainian side of the border. That is where many said goodbye to their male relatives – who are required to remain behind either to fight or to be on standby in case they are called upon to fight – before crossing into Siret.

As they cross into Siret – a town of about 8,000 inhabitants – there are signs of support from residents and volunteers who hope to give their neighbours a sense of peace. But fears about Ukraine’s uncertain future and what awaits them as they travel to another country with little more than a suitcase leave most refugees with a sense of trepidation.

People wait on a train platform
Ukrainian refugees cross the platforms of the Suceava train station before boarding the train to Bucharest on March 8, 2022 [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

After arriving at the train station in Suceava, which is the nearest city to Siret, other volunteers help them with free train tickets so they can travel on to Bucharest. Almost 500,000 free tickets have been given all over Romania since the start of the conflict, according to Ms Barascu, the head of ticketing office at the Suceava train station.

The Suceava station, also known as Burdujeni, was completed in 1902. The historic building was designed with baroque influences inspired by the railway station in Fribourg, Switzerland.

The architecture itself takes you back in time; from the outside, large wooden gates, kept closed to keep the cold out, give way to a large square corridor with cold marble walls and floors that run through the station.

In the centre of the space is the hall where the refugees are welcomed. Normally used as a transit area for all travellers, it has now been reserved for those from Ukraine.

In the middle of the hall, people sit on dozens of blue plastic chairs linked by iron bars, while the children run and play between them.

Most of the adults wait without moving, repeatedly asking the young volunteers when the train will arrive, worried that they might miss it.

A person sleeps in a train station
A young Ukrainian girl sleeps next to a snowman plush toy that volunteers have for children to play with in the waiting hall of the Sauceava train station on March 8, 2022 [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

“I have told my kids that we are doing a treasure hunt through different countries as well as exploring new territories,” says Tonya, an English teacher from Chernivtsi, and a mother of three. Her sons Eugen, 9, Yurii, 6, and Volodymyr, 3, are with her. “So this train station is part of the treasure hunting game and we will have a lot to play until we arrive in Portugal, where we may stay even after the war finishes in Ukraine,” she says, explaining that the family planned to journey there as their final destination.

“I have also explained [to] them about the war, as in [in] war, there are good and evil people, they can show the worst of them and they destroy things in our cities and this is wrong,” she adds. Tonya says she wrote her name and telephone number on pieces of paper and put it in her children’s jacket pockets, in case something happens along the way.

At the station, any little distraction is a break from the monotony of waiting. The children peer at our cameras with curiosity. Some adults stare out of the windows at the snow that covers everything in white, or at the horizon, watching the time go by. It is chilly inside and there is no heating, but at least they are protected from the polar air outside. Only the most courageous smokers venture outdoors.

Two people say goodbye at a train station
A young Romanian woman is seen saying goodbye to her boyfriend who looks at her from inside a train on March 16, 2022 [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

Suitcases occupy most of the floorspace in the hall – but the belongings are minimal; just enough so that those who fled could carry some essentials with them as they escaped home in a hurry. It is comforting to see the little ones hugging their favourite toys, or how they treat the pets they have brought with them.

In the long corridors of the train station, amidst the refugees, some local travellers mingle with the crowd as they wait for other trains. There are a few looks of longing on some refugees’ faces as they watch Romanian couples holding hands or saying goodbye through the windows of the trains that leave the station.

Many Ukrainian women tell us sadly that they don’t know when they will hug their own husbands again. “When will we see our husbands, brothers, fathers … our men again?” they lament.

Time passes. The night and the cold take over. The travellers keep looking endlessly at the empty platform in search of the train that will take them to a new temporary life far away from home.

People wait to board a train
Ukrainian refugees wait to board a train for Bucharest at the Suceava train station on March 7, 2022 [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

“Bucharest, Bucharest!” one of the volunteers shouts suddenly. In seconds, those who were seated rush to gather up their few belongings and their children while others start to line up, pushing to get close to the doors where a volunteer guides people to the exit of the building. All the calm and quiet of the last hour is now noise and nerves, as people scramble to reach the platform where the trains will soon arrive.

“But we don’t see the train, where is the train?” people ask when they see an empty platform. “The train will be here, please go to platform three, the train will be arriving in a few minutes,” comes the reply.

Minutes later, everyone is huddled in the darkness of the platform; in the distance a light from a torch can be seen. “It’s coming, it’s coming,” people in the crowd repeat. But only one locomotive is approaching; many understand that it is not the right train, but someone still asks, “Is this our train?” A few others around us laugh.

“The train, the train is coming, stay away from the edge of the platform, STAY AWAY!” the station employees shout non-stop.

At last, it arrives.

A child on board a train
Several children are seen on board the train to Bucharest while a group of adults wait to board it on March 8, 2022 [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

Everyone quickly looks for their carriage. Some are lost, shuffling from one place to another without knowing where to go, while dozens of others crowd the doors of the train, speedily putting suitcases and pushchairs on board – all of them afraid to miss the train.

It has taken just minutes from the first call of ‘Bucharest!’ to the throngs of people pushing through the platform and onto the train, that it is near impossible to get on board to photograph the feat.

We also realise that it is now more important for us to help them carry and load their belongings, and to take their babies to their seats, than to stand aside and photograph. They keep asking for our help, and what can we do but oblige?

People wait to board a train
A volunteer helps a mother put her baby’s pushchair on the train to Bucharest on March 8, 2022 [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

In just a few more minutes – moments really – through the large windows of the train carriage, we say goodbye to those we have met.

We wish them a good trip, and offer them our final smiles, hoping that someday this same train will be their first one back to Ukraine.

But for now, in the distance, it is 23:30 and the silhouette of the last train to Bucharest blurs.

A girl on a train
A young girl is seen with her toy parrot through the window of the train carriage where she will travel with her family to Bucharest on March 8, 2022 [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]


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