In the first weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, residents from the frontline cities belonging to the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk feared that each day would be their last before Russian occupation. It soon became clear that the only way to evacuate large numbers of people westward toward safety was by railway.
The Ukrainian authorities hoped to create “green corridors” for the millions of civilians fleeing the violence, but the siege of Mariupol, a southern port city, showed that organized convoys of cars were not able to leave, while civilians who left alone risked coming under fire.
The main departure point in the east quickly became the red-brick railway station in Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region, the largest city farthest from the hostilities. Several dozen volunteers coordinated the constant flow of passengers who arrived from the combat zones, often shocked and disoriented. No tickets were needed or issued; volunteers directed people to a large tent where they could get cups of steaming tea. Lining up to get onto the trains could turn into a battle for survival: Sometimes, those who were fitter pushed the weaker passengers out of the line, volunteers recalled.
The station director, Lyubov Pazyura, kept all records in a handwritten journal in which the 64-year-old carefully entered the number of evacuees, train arrival and departure times and the contacts of the train conductors. In March 2022, the second month of the Russian invasion, an average of 3,000 people were evacuated each day. On April 6, a total of 8,200 people left the station.
Pazyura is sure that April 8, 2022, would have broken this record. The day before, the Russians shelled the railway bridge about 40 miles from Kramatorsk, making all trains stop for several hours. Some of the passengers who hadn’t managed to get out were stuck at the railway station, and it heaved with people. Around 10 a.m., according to Pazyura’s calculations, there were at least 3,000 people at the station; they were mostly women, children, the elderly and the sick, who were given priority by Ukrainian Railways. Able-bodied men weren’t allowed onto the trains unless there were empty seats, but there usually weren’t any.
At 10:28 a.m., there was a powerful explosion, so strong that blood started to spew from people’s noses. Children watched as their own skin was ripped from their legs, exposing the bones. Fifty-nine people were killed and more than 120 injured when the Russian army launched the attack, firing a Tochka-U ballistic missile equipped with a cluster munition warhead. The disproportionately gruesome condition of the victims’ bodies shows how this missile attack — one of the bloodiest Russia has used against Ukrainian civilians even after more than a year of war — was designed to inflict maximum damage.
In the months since, survivors and witnesses have relayed their experiences to journalists and investigators working for justice; their testimonies, told here for the first time, offer evidence of a war crime. They demonstrate both the cruelty of the perpetrators and the incredible strength of the survivors, who also fought to save the lives of others.
The use of such precision weapons as the Tochka-U points not only to the fact that the strike was targeted, but also that it was designed to disrupt the evacuation of civilians from the region.
As is often the case, Russia attempted to justify the strike by claiming its forces were targeting Ukrainian military equipment. Even if this were true, its actions would still amount to a war crime — thousands of civilians were in the zone of the strike.
On the morning of April 8, 19-year-old Nastya Shestopal took a local train to Kramatorsk, where she planned to wait for a car to take her to Dnipro. She was studying at Kyiv University but had been learning remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning she lived with her parents in Druzhkivka, a small town in the Donetsk region. The city, less than a dozen miles from Kramatorsk, was being shelled, and Shestopal increasingly feared for her life. Even the basement of her building felt unsafe.
It was warm when she got off the train that morning. Shestopal found a place on a bench to the left of the platform and began to read.
Twins Olya and Maryna Lyalko, along with Maryna’s daughters, 12-year-old Katya and 9-year-old Yulya, planned to leave Druzhkivka and stay with relatives in the much safer western region of Vinnytsia. The factory where the sisters worked had stopped operating, but Maryna didn’t want to leave home. They arrived at 9 in the morning at the station, where they waited inside. They discussed who would stay to watch their belongings while the other went to fetch some tea.
“She always got lucky,” Olya recalled of her sister, who was born before her. “I was so fed up with her always getting to be first, so I insisted that I go, then she goes.”
Olya went with little Yulya to a nearby cafe and returned. Then Maryna and her eldest daughter set out. Olya clearly remembers how her sister paused for a moment before telling her to keep a close eye on the bags. Then mother and daughter walked off.
Ivan Popov’s family had no choice about leaving. They were fleeing their hometown of Popasna in the Luhansk region, which had been besieged since the first days of the war. Popov, 24, worked as an electric welder and lived with his parents. On the evening of March 14, a Grad rocket had hit their house, sending the family into the basement. When they emerged the next morning, nothing was left of their home.
“I started to crawl through the rubble and saw two pipes sticking out in my room. Once I realized what it was, I was petrified. Two rockets landed in the house but didn’t explode,” he recalled.
The only shelter in the town was the basement of the local water utility company. The shelling was too intense to evacuate civilians. The repair crew’s vehicle was parked outside the building. The people in the basement decided to try to get to Bakhmut, some 18 miles away, on their own. Fifty-five people packed into the vehicle, including 13 children. Bakhmut seemed safer, but Popov didn’t want to risk waiting for another town to come under siege. The train to Khmelnytskyi region, where the family had relatives, was scheduled to leave from the Kramatorsk train station at noon on April 8. Popov and his parents got there early, arriving at 9 a.m.
On April 7, the volunteers and station staff didn’t finish working until the 10 p.m. curfew. The head of the traffic safety department of the Kramatorsk City Council, Anton Malyuskyi, had been helping with evacuations. He knew the sheer number of people at the station would mean a hectic next day, so he spent the night at the station.
Husband and wife Roman and Olena Sementsov began their volunteer shift at the station at 7 a.m. In the first days of the full-scale war, their church was asked to help with evacuations at the station. Roman, who worked at the Kramatorsk Machine Building Plant, is one of those people who can rally others: reliable, humane, organized. Olena took care of their two sons, aged 12 and 15. Their two older daughters moved to Poland and Germany before the war started. The parents had no plans to leave the city.
Vitaliy Osmukha started helping out at the railway station in mid-March. After his neighbors were killed by shelling, he tried to persuade his wife to leave Kramatorsk with their daughter, who was only a year old. She initially refused — and they almost divorced before he finally managed to convince her. The war had forced the store where he worked to shut down, and a classmate asked him to help out at the station instead.
Volunteering wasn’t easy for Osmukha. “There’s noise, cursing, shouting, disgruntled people. When people panic, they’ll push aside those next to them to climb ahead. Once a woman fell to the ground and people simply walked over her. Somehow three of my nails broke off,” he recalled.
On April 8, Osmukha turned 28 years old, and he wanted to take a day off, his first, for his birthday. The station was short on volunteers — many were evacuated on trains the day before — and others persuaded him to work until at least noon that day. When he got to the station at around 8:30 that morning, he was immediately put to task coordinating families with little children. “I shouted into the loudspeaker, asking if there were little children for the train to Lviv. Two-year-olds, 3- and 5-year-olds. I took the children by the hand and got them and their families ready to board the train.”
Pazyura had worked at the Kramatorsk station for 46 years, 30 of them as station manager. She knew everything about the place; it is both her home and her life. That morning, she was nervous, knowing that an even greater influx of people was expected.
On April 8, two trains were expected to depart from Kramatorsk to Uzhhorod and Odesa, as well as three to Lviv. Around 9 a.m., she received a message that the train to Uzhhorod — the safest region in Ukraine, which sits on the border with Slovakia, making it the most popular route — was delayed and wouldn’t arrive until after noon. It usually arrived at 9 a.m., and boarding lasted another two hours.
To the right of the platform entrance was a volunteer tent that always had a large crowd of people. There, you could drink tea in the fresh air. Maryna paused and had some. Katya photographed her mother in front of the railroad tracks. The photo shows a slim woman in white sneakers, black jeans and a yellow jacket. The sun makes her squint as she looks into the camera, barely smiling. Her daughter was by the tent.
Katya heard someone near her shout, “Get down!” She fell to the ground and felt the tent fall on top of her. The explosion stunned her: Katya looked down at her leg and saw that it was covered in blood, but she didn’t feel any pain.
At 10:15 a.m., Shestopal made a video while she waited for her lift. “This is my suitcase, this is my backpack, this is me on the bench waiting for my BlaBlaCar [carpooling system]. I’m a little sad because I still have a long wait.” Shestopal sent the video to her friend. Thirteen minutes later, she heard an explosion and saw a rocket flying right above her. She ran away from the bench and fell to the ground. Her leg was unnaturally twisted and bloody.
Then there was a second explosion. She remembers thinking, “If there’s another strike, I’m not sure I’ll be able to survive.” A rescuer ran up to her, applied a tourniquet and called for help for “a seriously injured girl.” Shestopal didn’t realize that he was talking about her.
“More than anything at that moment I wanted to live. And it was also very scary that my leg could just fall off,” she later recalled.
Popov and his father were fed up with waiting inside the station, so they walked outside in the direction of the tent. His mother went to the restroom. At first, Popov heard a humming noise. Having come from the combat zone, he immediately understood that shelling had begun. “I saw the launch rocket explode in the air and the warheads with munitions fall out and gradually start to explode,” he said. He then saw the bodies of the dead and injured, including children. He assumed his own legs had been blown off: He couldn’t feel them. But when he looked, they were there. This calmed him down. Once the police came, an officer saw a large bleeding wound on Popov’s back and administered first aid.
Malyuskyi was escorting the groups of passengers to the platform through the main entrance. When the explosion ripped through, he described how many people around him started to bleed from their nose. He tried to manage the crowd that started to run into the building but then saw charged cluster bombs falling from the sky 65 feet away from him.
Before he started working for the local administration, Malyuskyi was a police officer, so he was good at distinguishing different types of weapons. “Kramatorsk was shelled with Smerch multiple-launch rocket systems in February 2015. I saw a similar thing happening now. It wasn’t some grenades; it was a cluster munition,” he said.
He thinks he survived the attack only because people around him had knocked him over and fallen on top of him. Other witnesses described how they saw adults covering their children on purpose, in an effort to save them. (A male volunteer covered Katya with his body. It was his first day helping at the station. He died.)
When Malyuskyi thought things had calmed down, he ran to help others, but the shells continued exploding. Surprised that it was so quiet, Malyuskyi realized he was shell-shocked and sat down by the wall and buried his head in his hands.
“There were too many dead bodies, too many with very serious injuries,” Malyuskyi said. “Many required amputation. The dead bodies were seriously disfigured. Puddles of blood were all around. Moaning and screams for help came from all directions.” He called the regional administration and asked urgently for ambulances. He told them he had counted at least 20 dead people and more than 100 injured.
Ukrainian investigators are confident that the Russians used a Tochka ballistic missile. “We are now investigating the use of a guided, single-stage, solid-propellant rocket 9М79-1 with a charge of 9N123К cartridges,” said Taras Semkiv, the representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine. This has been confirmed by international organizations that launched separate investigations, including Human Rights Watch. They analyzed the shrapnel left behind with the cartridges, including a shell that had been inscribed, in Russian, with a message: “For the children.” It is believed Russians write this on their weapons to avenge the deaths of children in eastern Ukraine; ongoing Russian propaganda alleges that Ukrainian armed forces kill Ukrainian children.
Malyuskyi explains that the Tochka is a hypersonic missile, but unlike modern cruise missiles that can cover a distance of 1,200 miles, its flight range is 60 miles. This means it is virtually impossible to warn people. It is a high-precision weapon, designed to injure or kill people in the intended impact zone.
The 9M79K-1 submunition is equipped with four fins with ribbons. While in the air, these ribbons stabilize the submunition and increase the chance of the missile working as designed. Detonators either explode when they hit a hard surface or self-destruct within a minute. Every cluster is deadly for any humans who are outside in the open air.
As they have done many times in other attacks, the Russian government pushed forward various changing narratives of what had happened. At first, Moscow said it was an “attack on Ukrainian troops,” but that quickly changed to “Ukrainian troops have fired at the train station.” In the Kremlin’s final version, it said Russian forces were targeting military equipment located at the train station.
The Kremlin has been partially successful in justifying indiscriminate attacks in the eyes of public opinion, blaming the Ukrainian army for endangering civilians while fighting on its own soil. For the prosecutors, it’s harder to prove in cases of such attacks. However, most of the civilian casualties in Ukraine are due to shelling. In Kramatorsk, proving that the weapon specifically targeted people fleeing war is even more important. Indicting those responsible may be critical for holding them accountable but also for warning others of Russian military tactics, therefore possibly preventing future tragedies.
According to volunteers and passengers, the station was an entirely civilian location. The only soldiers there were seeing off their relatives. In the photo Katya took of her mother, there is a freight train on the platform with military cars.
An attack on a civilian object, even if there is non combat military equipment present, is still considered a disproportionate attack and a war crime.
“A missile with a cluster warhead has one purpose — the destruction of manpower. You won’t damage a tank with a cluster,” Malyuskyi said. The analysts of The Reckoning Project reached the same conclusion. There was no serious damage to the train tracks or infrastructure. Most of the injuries were to human limbs, direct evidence that cluster munitions were used. Therefore, this attack can be qualified as a war crime.
Malyuskyi is convinced there would have been even more people in the affected area were it not for the delay of the Uzhhorod train.
The second rocket landed by the entrance to the station next to Olena’s car, where she had gone to drink some water. The time was 10:28 a.m. “There was one explosion followed by many more. It seemed like there would be no end to it,” Olena recalled.
Her husband wasn’t answering her calls. “When I got out of the car, I saw the bodies of people who were alive just a few minutes ago – a mother and child, part of whose skull had been blown off. A girl whose legs had the flesh torn off from the bones and she didn’t even scream. She just stared at them with these unnaturally large eyes. I saw a father holding his child in his arms with his feet blown off.” Olena said she will never forget that moment. She was surrounded by human blood; it was impossible to walk without stepping in it. “I shouted, ‘You bastards, what are you doing?!’”
Before the first explosion, Osmukha had gotten around four or five families ready to board. He went to the station’s main building for the next group. Then he heard a loud bang. He saw people running, a burning car and an unconscious man lying next to it. Osmukha ran over to him, but the man was already dead.
He saw that the families he had just led to the train only a few minutes ago were on the ground. A woman was asking for help for an unconscious man with severely injured limbs. Osmukha fashioned a tourniquet out of the man’s belt, combining it with his own belt, and tied it around his legs to stop the bleeding.
“The worst was when I saw a boy without a head. He was the first one I had to carry. I said I couldn’t carry him. But they told me to carry him,” Osmukha recalls.
He said it felt like hours before the ambulances came, although other volunteers and witnesses said they came in under 10 minutes.
“Where is Roman?” Olena asked around the station, convincing herself that he was probably “helping someone, like always, so he couldn’t answer.” Near the tent, volunteers were cutting up the tarp to make stretchers for the dead and injured. Olena looked first for her husband’s white volunteer T-shirt among those who were helping. Only then did she dare to look down and search among the injured. She began looking in the bags with dead bodies. They had taken almost all the injured out of the station.
She kept calling her husband’s cellphone, but it just rang. Finally someone picked up. “Roman, where are you? Roman, I can’t find you!” But there was silence on the other end. She then received a call from an unknown number. The man explained that he was picking up telephones scattered across the platform and was dialing each phone’s last number.
“There’s a man lying not too far from here,” he told Olena. When she went to see her husband, his body was only partially covered. She recognized his jeans and sneakers, though the legs they belonged to were oddly twisted. “The scariest thing was wondering why I couldn’t see his face,” she remembered. A stranger tried to get her to turn away, yelling, “Don’t look! Please don’t look!”
Olena needed to tell her daughter that “Dad was dead.” The 10 minutes between the explosion at 10:28 a.m. and her text message at 10:38 a.m. “stretched on endlessly,” she said. A woman she did not know drove her home in a minibus.
Inside the crowded hall, Olya and Yulya were waiting for her sister and niece to return. When Olya heard the explosion, she fell to the ground and covered Yulya with her body. The people inside ran out into the street; those outside ran inside. Maryna wasn’t answering her calls, but Olya thought maybe her phone simply had fallen out somewhere. The police told Olya they had seen a girl around 12 years old dressed in jeans and a pink jacket being taken to an ambulance with leg injuries. She eventually found Katya in the Kramatorsk hospital because the girl was able to tell them her name. But her twin sister Maryna was nowhere to be found.
At the time of the explosion, station manager Pazyura was sitting in front of the information desk window. “Get down!” she shouted to her colleagues when she heard the first explosion. Through the glass, she saw a bloodied person being carried on the platform. “Where could he have been injured like that at my station?” she thought. In her mind, the Kramatorsk railway station was always safe. Outside, she saw the body of a boy lying on a bench, missing half his head.
“They’re all dead!” she thought.
As she walked along the platform, some of the people started getting up.
The injured were transported to hospitals in Kramatorsk, Pavlohrad and Dnipro. Three thousand people needed to be quickly moved to a safer area. Malyuskyi organized buses to neighboring towns where several evacuation trains were provided. The process was quick: There were no casualties at the station an hour after the explosion.
“Once the injured and dead had been loaded and taken away, many of the law enforcement people felt sick. Some of them had combat experience, but it’s one thing when there’s a war between two armies. These were just civilians,” Malyuskyi said.
In the morning, Pazyura had made one of her standard journal entries: “8 April 2022, Train 45/46 Kramatorsk-Uzhhorod, 14 cars are expected around 12:00 p.m.”
After the attack, she added a new line, writing with a trembling hand, “10:30 a.m. — missile attack.”
“The station was empty, and it was just me and my colleague from the information desk. I stood there confused. What should I do? I’m scared,” she recalled. But Malyuskyi and a colleague came up to her and said, “‘Lyubov Volodymyrivna, we won’t leave you.’ And the four of us started to clean up.”
The next day, a Saturday, Pazyura decided to give in to her sadness. She didn’t worry about rushing to work; instead, she began to softly cry. But she’d only allow this until 8 a.m. After that, she told herself, “‘You have so much work to do, get up and start working.’ At first, I was scared to call the team. ‘What do I tell them?’” she thought. She called the city management. They sent people to clean up part of the station. But the building was still covered in blood. Another station employee, “a weak girl with a disability,” approached her and said, “Lyubov Volodymyrivna, don’t worry,” again using her patronymic. Pazyura described how the girl then took a bucket and began cleaning everything by herself. But it would take another two months of rain before the blood was fully washed from the platforms.
In her final journal entry, Pazyura wrote, “As a result of an attack, the train station ceased operations. 57 people dead, 100 injured. As of April 14 — 59 dead. 110,620 evacuated between 26 February and 7 April 2022, inclusive.”
The large-scale evacuation from the Donetsk region stopped. Trains continued to run from the neighboring city of Pokrovsk. Railway stations were no longer considered safe places. For many residents of frontline cities, the decision became harder: Do you stay in dangerous but expected circumstances, or do you take a risk?
Those are the circumstances under which Russia conquered Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk in summer 2022, and how it later approached Bakhmut, Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.
However, after the liberation of Izium — slightly further north of Kramatorsk — in autumn 2022, the region became safer for a while. On Oct. 14, Ukrainian Railways resumed connections with Kramatorsk. But as of spring 2023, the city continues to be shelled.
Shestopal was conscious for the first few hours after the attack. She remembers the doctors in the emergency room cutting open her favorite jeans. She remembers how she felt regret at them being ruined forever, before immediately realizing how inappropriate that thought was. Her mother tried to find out from the doctors whether her daughter would be able to walk again. Instead she was told, “Pray that she survives.” Amputation was Shestopal’s only chance.
“Nastya, remember that we will always be with you. We’ll make you the best prosthesis,” her mother told her.
After the operation, Shestopal posted on Instagram: “I’m in Dnipro; the bad news is that they amputated my left leg. Not all of it. I believe and know that I will have the best prosthesis and I will be able to run and dance like before.” Under the photo, she wrote, “We’ll take thousands of happy photos. I promise!”
She had six operations, including preparation for a future prosthesis in Essen, Germany, where she now lives. She is studying remotely to become a social worker and plans to help other people with prosthetics. Shestopal learned that another young woman she traveled with that day died, and another sustained serious injuries protecting her own child.
Popov underwent an operation on his spine and spent months in different hospitals around Ukraine. His condition is considered moderately severe. He lives with his parents in Pavlohrad, halfway between Dnipro and Kramatorsk. He doesn’t want to go any farther in either direction. “Once was enough,” he said. The doctors promised that he could regain full mobility. But he doesn’t think about or plan for the future.
Osmukha moved to Dnipro and is now a sales associate in an electronics store. He continues to volunteer on the weekends, saying he can’t do otherwise. “I didn’t know that I was capable of handling this. If you had asked me earlier how I would react in a critical situation, I would have said that I would most likely try to run away and hide,” he said. But Osmukha can’t forget that first boy whose body he carried and whose head was blown off. “My wife and daughter took the same train earlier, at a different time. What if something had happened? What if everyone ran off?”
Malyuskyi knew people in his native Kramatorsk who, before the war, were pro-Russian. But the most terrible day in the city’s history changed everything. “They say they are no longer ‘brothers’,” he said. He continues to work for the city municipality. “Abandoning a city is like abandoning your house for several years. You can’t repair it that easily afterward. That’s why I have to stay and maintain the critical infrastructure,” he said.
The doctors in Kramatorsk sent Katya to Dnipro. Olya began looking for Maryna in the terrible photos at city morgues and recognized her sister in the third morgue.
While Katya was regaining consciousness, her aunt was afraid to tell her that her mother was dead. “I thought that she was somewhere in the hospital. I didn’t have a phone for three days. Then I looked on Facebook and … it said that my mom died,” Katya said. Later she edited a 15-second TikTok video with photos of her mother. The last shot is of Maryna on the platform of the Kramatorsk railway station. After that came the explosion.
Katya had multiple operations and is being treated in the main hospital for children in Kyiv. She still has metal fragments in her legs. They hurt. But in Ukraine’s medical facilities, there is no way to get such small pieces of metal out. Katya dreams that one day, she will become a model.
Olya didn’t attend her sister’s funeral in their hometown but stayed with her nieces in the hospital. She still can’t forgive herself for insisting on switching places with her sister: Olya went for tea first, not Maryna.
We met in her new apartment in Kyiv, where she had moved with her two nieces. In the middle of the conversation, Olya suddenly began reciting a poem she had written about her sister. This came as a surprise to the girls; they didn’t know their aunt wrote poems.
I want to be back at the train station, where
I saw tears, moaning, and blood on the asphalt
You walked away and briefly turned around
You walked away, alive, without farewells
You walked away, and then an airstrike hit
My mother crying by the fence
And suddenly a shadow caused by the sun
Maybe she’ll tiptoe over her?
She will say: “Ma, that’s me. Don’t you see?
I’m alive, your Maryna.”
A year later, many who were at the station are still convinced they could have done something differently: Stayed inside the building, missed their volunteer shift, decided not to travel that day. Psychologists explain that this is a common aftereffect of trauma, as people search for a reason for the tragedy and blame themselves. When it comes to the Kramatorsk attack, over 3,000 survivors are coping with this horror.
Yet, the only reason they were hurt and their loved ones died was because the Russian military decided to launch that airstrike.
On the day of the tragedy, Olena called her sons, “Boys, Dad died. We will now live on our own. We’ll manage.” She couldn’t sleep the first three nights after his death — she kept seeing bodies. She didn’t bury Roman in Ukraine, deciding instead to take her boys and his ashes with them to Germany, where her daughter lives. She had never planned to leave Kramatorsk, but there was nothing keeping her there now. “I felt as if I died on April 8. I died with him,” she said.
Olena is ethnically Russian, but she now must distance herself from it. Her sister lives in Russia and even suggested she and her family move there, which for her is nothing short of madness. She has lived in the Donetsk region her whole life and says she had no need to learn Ukrainian. Russian remains her native language. But when her son now watches cartoons in Russian, she asks him to lower the volume — it is too painful to hear any content produced in Russian, also the language of the country that killed her husband.
She can’t forget, but it’s hard to remember. Nevertheless, Olena agreed to give her testimony. Many survivors are ready to remember and describe the worst things that ever happened to them for journalists and investigators in the hope that the perpetrators are held responsible.
“I don’t need someone to suffer because I suffered. Even if they destroyed my family,” Olena said. “But a criminal should be caught and sent to prison, not to be punished but so that it doesn’t happen again. I need this, not for revenge. This won’t change my life; it won’t bring my husband back. But this should not happen to others.”
This story is published in partnership with The Reckoning Project, which brings together the power of storytelling and legal accountability to fight disinformation and impunity in Ukraine. It will be published in the Summer 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.
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