KYIV (NYTIMES) - The crowds of exhausted, frightened women and children at Kyiv's central train station on Friday (March 4) suddenly surged in a near-stampede to a station platform where a train heading to safety in western Ukraine was rumoured to be arriving soon.
"Hurry! Hurry!" a mother shouted at her children. One couple ran along holding a small boy by the hands between them, so that his feet touched the ground only every few steps.
An employee in a train company uniform hurried the crowd along. "Go, go!" the woman said. "Follow the other people."
But no train turned up. A few minutes later, the people were on the move again, clambering over the tracks, dragging suitcases and holding babies, trying to reach another platform before the others did.
As Russian troops mass outside the city, there is a growing sense of a slowly tightening vice and, in some quarters, rising panic.
Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million before the war, is slowly being encircled by Russian troops and armour. Most of the fighting so far has been in towns outside the city, where a kilometres-long column of Russian armoured and military vehicles remains stalled to the northwest.
The fear is that the Russian forces will follow the same script as in their assaults on Kharkiv and Mariupol, encircling the city, cutting its inhabitants off from supplies of food and medicine, depriving them of water, electricity and heat, and shelling neighbourhoods.
Since the war began on Feb 24, tens of thousands of people have fled Kyiv, heading west to Lviv and then on to Poland and other destinations in Europe. But tens of thousands more had remained behind, and as the avenues of escape have inexorably narrowed, they are growing increasingly desperate to get out.
Roads and rail lines remain open to the city's southwest. But trains for evacuees, so packed that only children get seats, have not nearly been able to take everybody.
In time, a train did finally pull into the station and open its doors. The people were quite calm and civil, and there was little shoving, as a couple of thousand women and children packed in tightly.
Yet, even as the train pulled away, bound for Lviv, the platform remained thronged.
"It's not the first day we tried," said Oksana Gorbula, a Kyiv resident who was travelling with her sister and two nieces. "Look at this crowd. We will never get on, you can see it clearly." She said they would probably give up on escaping the city and instead seek shelter in the city's subway system.
In one worrying sign, even as swarms of people sought to travel west, a new flow of displaced persons was surging into the city from the northwest. The trains came from Irpin, an outlying town where the Ukrainian army has mounted a fierce defence against the Russian forces. The cars are filled entirely with women and children, as all men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been ordered to stay behind and aid the war effort.
A train conductor said the Russian military was now in combat on the railway tracks out of Irpin, to the west, forcing the evacuees back into the city of Kyiv. The development suggested Russian military encirclement of the capital was tightening.
With displaced people arriving from embattled areas to the west and thousands of others desperately trying to depart, chaotic scenes unfolded.
"I want to go to Lviv," one woman pleaded, as the crowds surged around her. "Where is the train to Lviv?" A couple stood watching. "Why are they running?" the woman said. "Let's go back to the station and look for the right platform for the Kyiv-Lviv train." But the trains were departing haphazardly, and the time for any announced schedule was long past.
"Look, people are panicking," said Elizaveta, 45, who didn't want to offer her last name. "People see it's getting worse and worse. We waited. But now what is there to wait for? Now we see this is not going to get better." Tatyana Yanuk, who was hoping to leave with her year-and-a-half-old son, Roman, said she was trying to get to the western city of Khmelnitsky, to stay with relatives. She had packed only one small bag, leaving behind almost all of Roman's toys, save for two illustrated books about backhoes, one of his fascinations. "He saw one once and was really interested in how it digs," she said.
On one of the platforms, an older woman, apparently alone, stood crying, clearly confused and distressed.
After spending days in a basement in Irpin to escape the pounding of artillery shells outside, Viktoria Grudenko, and her daughter, Valeria, 6, betrayed no signs of relief, standing stony-faced on the platform after arriving in Kyiv and seeing the chaos at the station. Grudenko's husband was not allowed on the train out, which was reserved for women and children.
She said she had no idea how she would get out of Kyiv, but said her plan was to make it to Europe. "We want to get out of Ukraine." Thousands of others found themselves in the same predicament.
When it became clear that every inch of the train to Lviv was packed with people, those remaining on the platform stood, watching, unsure what to do or where to go.
Then the train, just a commuter train pressed into emergency service, jerked into motion and pulled away with a hissing noise and the clacking of wheels on the track, leaving hundreds of people behind.