Riding Ukraine's last train line out of Donbas with families fleeing for their lives Russia is fighting to conquer the entire Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. To help civilians escape, the Ukrainian railway runs a free evacuation train out of the east. Here's what it's like.

Riding Ukraine's last train line out of Donbas with families fleeing for their lives

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At least 34 people are dead after Russian missiles struck two apartment blocks in a town in Ukraine's Donetsk province this week. Russia has intensified its attacks in the east as it tries to consolidate control over the entire Donbas region. To help people evacuate, the Ukrainian rail service has added a special line from the Donbas. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The train from the Donbas pulls into the central eastern town of Dnipro for a 45-minute stop each evening. It crosses Ukraine from east to west once a day, every day, bringing people to safety.

LIDIA KONSTANTINOVNA HAVRILENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

BEARDSLEY: Eighty-three-year-old Lidia Konstantinovna Havrilenko (ph) steps from the train, looking frail and lost. She's holding her most precious possessions in two plastic bags by her side.

HAVRILENKO: (Through interpreter) I came with two cats.

BEARDSLEY: Why are you wait - did you wait so long to leave?

HAVRILENKO: (Through interpreter) How can I leave my nest? It's very hard. It's - the one option is bad. This other option is bad.

BEARDSLEY: Havrilenko says she thought she could hold on in the town where she spent her whole life. But the shelling became unbearable. She made it out with her 52-year-old handicapped son. With no other family, they have no idea where they'll go or if they'll ever return. This sweltering train is packed with mothers, children and elderly people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hello.

BEARDSLEY: Sixty-five-year-old Svetlana Yefremova (ph) invites us to sit in her compartment and talk.

SVETLANA YEFREMOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

BEARDSLEY: She fled shelling in her town of Bakhmut with her daughter and five grandkids. They're heading to family in central Ukraine. Even though there's been a frozen conflict in the east for the last eight years, she said she never thought it would break into full scale war.

YEFREMOVA: (Through interpreter) No, of course not. And even when there were talks about war, I laughed and I said, like, what, war with Russia? It is impossible. And now I'm angry with myself. (Speaking Ukrainian).

BEARDSLEY: She says, before, they lived a normal life. They had freedom, and their children were happy. But in 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin began to exploit divisions over the pro-democracy Maidan revolution in Kyiv. Putin took Crimea from Ukraine and stirred up Russian separatist sentiment in the Donbas. Yefremova says Russian TV propaganda was like poison. She says many people in her town still believe it, despite what's happening to them.

YEFREMOVA: (Through interpreter) It is impossible to say anything for them. They really believe that Russian soldiers don't shell, don't shoot, don't kill. But I say them, like, you have eyes, you have ears.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Ukrainian).

BEARDSLEY: Keeping order on the platform, railway worker Valerie Garbechuk (ph) says there were always divisions between western and eastern Ukrainians. But this war has brought the country together. When the train arrives in Lviv, locals come out to greet passengers with hot dumplings. And all along the 24-hour, 750-mile trip, Garbechuk tries to reassure them.

VALERIE GARBECHUK: (Through interpreter) Yeah, we try to stay positive to support people, for example, the elderly lady and gentleman are traveling. And I say them, like, you will come back home soon. Putin kaput, Ukraine will win. Everyone will come back to their homes. Everything will be good. Everything will be Ukraine.

BEARDSLEY: Seventy-eight-year-old Vladimir Bekiko (ph) describes what's happening in his town of Sloviansk.

VLADIMIR BEKIKO: (Through interpreter) They're bombing all the time, in the afternoon, at night, in the morning.

BEARDSLEY: He says, all this is Ukraine's fault, too.

BEKIKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

BEARDSLEY: "Putin gave us ample warning," he says, "and we should have been ready for this invasion." Bekiko says Russia will never stop bullying Ukraine until Putin and all those bastards in the Kremlin are killed. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Dnipro, Ukraine.

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