How Ukraine's ‘iron people’ keep the country on track
Photographs and video by Jelle Krings
Story by Kyle Almond, CNN
Published May 19, 2023
The evacuation trains began in the morning, just hours after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Overnight, railway workers became rescue workers. Tens of thousands of refugees were pouring into train stations from Ukraine’s east.
Photojournalist Jelle Krings spent about a week at one station in Lviv, watching those first trains come in.
“That’s when it hit me how courageous these men and women were for going back into the war zone and sacrificing their safety and their opportunity to leave the country in order to help others,” he said.
Since the Russian invasion began, Krings has been documenting these unsung heroes in a photo series he calls Iron People.
“It’s what railway workers have been generally referred to before the war, because it refers to their strength and iron will and, of course, the iron that you recognize on a railway track,” he said. “But it’s also a certain characteristic that people see in these railway workers. After the war, it has become a way to also refer to their courage and stepping up and keeping intact this incredibly important institution.”
“It’s hard, but you have to do your job to get all these people out,” said Viacheslav Anatoliiovych Chumak, a train driver who has been working for the railways since 1996. “It’s our duty.”
Krings explained that there are two basic ways that the railways have been indispensable for Ukraine in this war.
The first is, of course, the evacuation effort. At least 10 million Ukrainians — almost a quarter of the population — have been forced to flee their homes, the head of the United Nations’ refugee agency said in March. Most of them have been internally displaced; others have found refuge in nearby countries such as Georgia, Poland and Romania.
But the railway system has also made a huge impact on the battlefield, and in different ways, Krings said.
There’s the logistical value, transporting massive military equipment to help in the war effort. And then there’s a more subtle benefit.
“Ukraine’s a huge country, and (the railway) is being used for military personnel to be able to travel around and go back to their families between their trips to the front lines,” Krings said. “This has been a huge morale booster.
“I’ve been to weddings of all these soldiers who are fighting on the front line. The railway gives them the opportunity to go back, de-stress, reload and then get back into the fight.”
There are an estimated 230,000 workers in the Ukrainian railway system, and they serve many types of roles.
Larysa Anatoliivna Zenchenko works on an evacuation train. She described to Krings what it’s like when refugees first come aboard.
“They see us as some kind of, you know, rescuers. Some kind of protection,” she said. “They come in, and in the next 15-20 minutes we start talking to them. They begin to realize that they are somehow escaping from there, and they have food here, have water.
“They calm down a little bit and understand that they are escaping. … I say it’s going to be OK. I have to calm them down somehow.”
There is also important work being done behind the scenes. Factory workers keep the network operational by producing and repairing trains, wagons and other critical parts. There are also the workers who go into cities and fix things immediately after an attack or a liberation.
“When the Kherson region was just being liberated, I was there the day after and we were driving on a totally bashed road to the city,” Krings said. “And we met railway repair workers who had just driven over a mine with their team, and a few of them had lost their legs.
“The guys that were still left, they were talking to us. And one of them was washing up the blood on his legs. They were basically on a mission to quickly restore railway connections again to Kherson, which is what they did. … Everyone understands that the railway connection is just really important to get back into the fight after a liberation of a region.”
A sense of duty is a common theme among those Krings spoke with. It’s something you would expect from people in the military, but these civilian workers have it, too.
“You can’t show your fear,” Zenchenko told Krings. “If you show it, everyone else will be afraid, too. I try to think calmly. And who will do it, if not us?”
These workers have witnessed a lot of trauma over the past year, and Krings said it is not always easy to capture the psychological impact. But it is definitely there — stories about bombings, stories about death.
Tetiana Vysloguzova, the head of a train that travels from Pokrovsk to Lviv, recalled how a young boy told her about a friend who was killed by shelling.
“This 6-year-old child tells me how his friend was torn in two pieces right in front of him,” she said. “He managed to get to the basement in time, but his friend ran the other way to his mother. …
“This kid tells me this story. Do you understand, a 6-year-old is telling me this? He should have a childhood, he should be playing, I don’t know, soccer, toys. … Honestly I am still shocked. I can’t talk about it calmly.”
Vysloguzova also remembers an 11-year-old girl in Kramatorsk who was receiving medical care on one of the evacuation trains. She had lost both of her legs in a missile strike.
“It was very painful to look at,” she said. “Even the doctors … they were going out into the vestibules. They were all crying. All of that touches me.”
Krings has been inspired by the workers’ resiliency, especially when the Russians have specifically targeted the railways and other key parts of the nation’s infrastructure. The workers tell him they’re just doing what they must do.
“Everyone is more than happy to just give what they have and take the risk,” he said.
Vysloguzova told Krings that the fear kicks in more when she’s at home.
“Honestly, when you’re on the road, it’s like you don’t think about it, that you’re scared,” she said. “You just know that you’re at work. But when you’re on break and you’re sitting at home, and when you read the news reports, where there are air raids, when missiles are flying in — it’s kind of scary.”
Chumak, the train driver, says it’s impossible not to be feel emotional when he looks into the eyes of scared children and their mothers.
“It breaks my heart, shatters the soul of any person who sees it,” he said. “It is impossible to look at it calmly. But we do our job. That is our job.”