There is a joke going around Lviv, the provincial capital of western Ukraine serving as a major training base for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, that an Englishman has been telling local people that the Ukrainians can run a railway service better in wartime than the British can in peacetime. Boarding the strictly on-time 26-hour direct railway service from Lviv to Zaporizhzhia, the city in southeast Ukraine on the front line where Ukrainian troops are pushing back the Russian occupation, one is inclined to agree. The air raid sirens were wailing while the train was boarding, but nevertheless preparation for the voyage took place in a calm and orderly way and nobody panicked.
Ukraine is an enormous country, something often forgotten, and this is the longest direct rail route still operating in Ukraine in the war. Because there is a no-fly zone imposed over the entirety of Ukraine, in order to prevent the Russian invasion of Ukraine from escalating into an air war between Russia and the West, train is now the principal means of long-distance travel in this very large land. Trains are used to ferry troops and civilians to and from the battlefields and front-lines of the conflict, and this author joined them on his way to work in the field of humanitarian assistance to civilians in the Zaporizhzhia region. The train, at some 32 carriages pulled by an enormous pair of electrical multiple unit engines, must be one of the longest passenger services in existence. Nevertheless for the most part this colossus of the railways licked across the length of free Ukraine at speeds of 100 kilometres per hour or more, and arrived at its destination likewise crisply on time.
Sharing a small four-berth cabin with three soldiers travelling to the front line, this author had extended and fascinating conversations with his travelling companions in the absence of much else to do. Large amounts of Ukraine are without cellular coverage, simply because the country is so vast; and Ukrainian Railways has not yet graduated to the level of luxuries such as onboard WiFi. One of the soldiers showed me his scars from shrapnel wounds. He had recently been released from Lviv military hospital and was returning to the front line. It seemed he was being returned to fight too early; his wounds had not yet fully healed and he was suffering from the noticeable symptoms of battlefield trauma, drunk on vodka, sighing and crying interminably, and repeating his stories to anyone who would listen. Alas it seemed he had not obtained psychiatric treatment for his injuries but only physical repair. The gruelling ongoing war in Ukraine requires men at the front, and insufficient funding may be available for medical treatment given the high level of injuries suffered at the active fronts including Zaporizhzhia.
There was a grim but calm mood aboard the train. Everyone understood the consequences of going (back) to Zaporizhzhia, which is potentially to place oneself in harm’s way. Nevertheless life must go on for civilians, and the war must go on for the military personnel. And those members of the international community who can help should do whatever they can to support the Ukrainians in this grim war of attrition with their larger enemy that threatens the political and economic stability of Europe. People on the train were for the most part absorbed in their own thoughts, including me. Nevertheless it is important, when visiting and working in a country afflicted by war, to remember always that you are perceived as an Emissary of the West to Ukrainians in a desperate situation. You are a sign of hope to Ukrainians, and your very presence in the country, travelling to a front line city with other Ukrainians on board their trains, is a demonstration of support for Ukraine and the Ukrainians in their darkest hour. Hence it is essential always to maintain a smile and to keep spirits high, cracking jokes, laughing and listening patiently to people’s stories when they want to relay them. Take extra food and drink (there is no buffet car on board so substantial shopping is necessary in advance), and be generous with your provisions. This sort of warmth gives people the courage to keep going amidst the daily grind of hardship and danger.
The journey is calm if somewhat dull until Dnipro, the city in eastern Ukraine that has been the subject of extended aerial bombardment by Russian-backed forces. Dnipro is an important railhead in the Ukrainian system of railways, and it sits between two parts of the network of rivers and reservoirs that traverse Ukraine. Zaporizhzhia is about two hours by train to the south, and that is where the front line really begins; armies are engaged in street fighting in villages just a few kilometres outside Zaporizhzhia. At Dnipro, one sees for the first time widespread open carry of firearms by troops, indicating that they are prepared for imminent conflict. The curfew in Dnipro begins earlier than in other parts of Ukraine, and one has a sense that this is where the hot war really begins.
It beggars belief that after two World Wars in European theatre in the twentieth century we are now going through the same regimen of brutal land war again, with a large European aggressor country invading her neighbour, for purely political reasons and without colour of international law. Ukraine was never a threat to her larger neighbour Russia. This is Vladimir Putin’s personal political agenda to stay in power in the face of prior mounting unpopularity, it is causing the loss and ruination of tens of thousands or still more lives and the emptying of the treasures of the Great Powers of the European continent and of the United States, and it is entirely without justification. There is no choice facing the West at this juncture but to gird its loins and to join the fight until the aggressor power is comprehensively defeated or her political structures devour their own leader that has brought ignominy and hardship upon Russia as well as damaged the political stability of a continent.
Eventually the train wends its way through countless cornfields and industrial facilities to Zaporizhzhia-1 railway station, a gargantuan structure currently accommodating the flows of soldiers and civilians alike. The city seems at peace if uneasy; one never knows when the next Russian aerial bombardment may be coming. The city still apparently functions; shops are open and people go about their business, notwithstanding the lingering danger. But the streets are eerily quiet, and mobile telephony seems disrupted. A military security checkpoint precedes departure from the station; they may be looking for infiltrators. Many of the vehicles driving through town are riddled with bullet holes. This is how it feels for a country to be at war.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.