The beginnings of my journey across Ukraine on the Donbas Express from Lviv to Kramatorsk have not been particularly auspicious. My travelling companion, despite having even gone so far as to equip herself with relevant body armour, pulled out abruptly at the last minute without even having the courtesy to inform me, instead just blocking me on her mobile telephone. That was a little disappointing. As my good Mum observed to me, some people just imagine that they are braver than they really are; and I suppose she falls into that category. War and wartime conditions and the people you meet in war are something entirely out of her category of experiences and indeed her comfort zone; but she might have had the courtesy just to tell me after enthusiastically confirming yesterday that she did indeed want to go and having me arrange various events to help her celebrate her birthday in a remote place far from home. Nevertheless it is just one of those things, although I am a little irritated that she caused me to waste about 70 Euros of my own money in train ticket cancellation fees, opera tickets and other such things. That may not sound like a lot of money but when you’re in the middle of a war zone trying to run a charitable trust and a full medical kit that may save many lives costs 100 Euros, I assure you that it is.
I hauled myself to the railway station with my giant military rucksack, on the hammered old tram. My rucksack is packed with everything from small bottles of vodka to give away to the soldiers, to medical kits and pharmaceutical supplies, warm clothes, bits of food: everything to sustain me on this extended journey to Kramatorsk and whatever awaits me at the other end. The temperatures have risen during the day but drop below freezing at night; I hope whatever unusual accommodation I am staying in (apparently it’s all below ground) has some sort of heating. I sit down in the railway room of the station; a middle-aged man behind me is slumped on a wooden chair, reeking of vodka, sobbing uncontrollably and asking for his Mummy. I dishevelled older soldier with a long beard and an unkempt collection of bags sits gloomily on the floor opposite me. Everyone is sitting in the near darkness. The main train out of town this evening is a long one, and everyone is getting on it. It starts in Lviv and then half away along the country it splits in two, half going to the northeastern city of Kharkiv that has been in the news recently as being relentlessly blown to bits by Russian missiles; the other going to the Donbas heartland frontline city of Kramatorsk, which used to be nothing but by all accounts now is the party town of free Donetsk, with coffee shops and pizza restaurants that are occasionally struck by Russian artillery. I can’t wait to get a glimpse of all the Las Vegas glamour of Kramatorsk myself, the dry party city in easy shelling range of the Russian Armed Forces but by all accounts currently relatively peaceful and calm.
I tramp down the gargantuan platform of Lviv railway station. This humungous long train is unlit and doesn’t seem to have an engine attached to it; but a dark brooding guard on my carriage opens the door and lets me and the unkempt elderly soldier on board. It seems as usual that there are very few passengers in “de luxe” class, perhaps unsurprising given the carriage’s destination on the front line about 2 kilometres from Russian positions but inconsistent with the near-total unavailability of tickets for this class available on the Ukrainian Railway website or mobile phone App. The mysteries of Ukrainian Railways’ operations are endless but here I am, one of only three or four passengers in this entire carriage, living a luxury life of rail travel like some antiquated image of Stalin or Tito.
I lean into my rucksack to look for some bread and butter to nourish me, but all I find is yet more bottles of vodka. The butter has started to smear over the vodka bottles, and I anticipate that by the end of this journey everything around me is going to be a terrible mess. Nevertheless the electricity works and the carriage attendant has given me a little pack of wet-wipe sachets and serviettes, which I thought was rather considerate. I’m feeling wide awake and I don’t quite know what I’m going to do with myself, but this solid iron monster of a train is due shortly to begin rumbling across the enormous length of this country and I should consider myself lucky that I’m in de luxe class, taking it easy, rather than some other horror. Twenty and a half hours is nothing, I reflect to myself, when I consider the decades of harsh imprisonment of Vladimir Putin’s political opponents in Arctic Circle maximum security prisons, or the atrocious conditions in which Ukrainian prisoners of war are held by the Russians. I should consider myself lucky in this peculiarly luxurious mobile isolation unit for the best part of the next day.
The wheels of the train start turning, and there are some unusual grinding noises as the carriages bump and clunk together. I supposer we’re on our way. I wave Lviv goodbye through the window, staring off dimly into the night in an unfocused kind of a way, wondering what I am doing here and having one of those occasional moments of existential crisis that hits everyone living through war from time to time. Then I realise a major problem: the only thing I have to drink right now is vodka. The guard hasn’t come round with any tea or water, as is usual practice. After a few hours of this, I may no longer be able to stand up. If my next diary entry seems rather incoherent, you may be able to guess as to the reason why.