As I sat on my train to Kramatorsk this morning, pulling out after an hour’s long delay at Poltava where there was lots of banging and clanging and shouting of soldiers and workmen as the two parts of the train were decoupled - one to go to Kharkiv and the other to Kramatorsk - I enjoyed my breakfast coffee made by the carriage attendant and that has become even more expensive by reason of my nationality. Now it’s up from 10 Gryvnas to 25 Gryvnas. Never mind, I cheerily think: he probably could do with the extra money and it’s not much. Then I wolf down a piece of three days old chicken, and I realise it’s rancid, so I decide tot take my coffee with 500mg ciprofloxacin, a broad spectrum antibiotic. That should keep the salmonella at bay. What an excellent start to yet another front line experience.
It’s capped off, furthermore, by the fact that as I write these words while the remarkably warm winter sun is blazing in from outside, I am faced with the appalling presentation of the fat man opposite me displaying to me his large hairy bottom while he sleeps. It is such an appalling presentation that I find it hard to divert my eyes from its omnipresent hideousness.
The Donbas countryside to the east of Poltava, where Napoleon fought a famous battle in his attempt to conquer Russia, is unremittingly bleak, flat, icy and peppered with Soviet infrastructure as befits the region’s reputation as a centre for iron, steel and coal. There are electricity pylons that strafe the countryside, concrete factories and steelyards that run adjacent to the railway line. Aged, croaking rail cars for coal lie rusting in forgotten sidings as war has enveloped the region. The window of the carriage has become so dirty with some sludgy muck that I am having trouble seeing out of it; I think it is sand or brick dust or something blown up from the ground by the icy winds outside. The whole region is relentlessly grim. Why are people fighting so hard over this region? The answer is obvious, apart from the natural resources: Vladimir Putin simply wants a war about anything, and Donbas is the closest thing to have a war about that makes some approximate sort of sense.
Now we’re but a couple of hours from our destination, and time drags on seemingly interminably at a stop called Lotava where we’re waiting for something but it’s not clear what. The internet has cut out completely and all I can hear are military officials exchanging some gossip or other and the relentless grinding of wheels and breaks on this train. I’m getting hungry and impatient and I’m regretting not bringing enough to eat. I keep telling myself what a place this is to take a train to; it must be one of the most obscure and unusual railway journeys in the world, from a capital of culture straight into the front line of a war zone in the biggest ground conflict since World War II. I doubt the people who laid these railway lines ever imagined that they would be used to transport Ukrainian soldiers to the front to defend Ukrainian territory against the Russians; rather the supposition was always that they would be used to carry Russian and Ukrainian soldiers westwards towards the front to fight the West. How times have changed, as Ukrainian aspirations for true independence from Russia have flowered.
The train rumbles off again, this seething sea of humanity on the way to war. I’m pretty convinced there’s some sort of mobile ‘phone blockage; neither SIM card is working on my phone as we rumble off past countless icy paths and through deserted semi-industrial areas. My phone has seized up completely as we enter within reasonable range of Russian reconnaissance drones, that might be used to target precision strikes. This is the sort of perplexing confusion you have to get used to as you get ever closer to the front line. It’s disorientating, bewildering and alarming, all rolled into one. We’re so used to living with and relying on mobile devices, but now we’re heading to the real deal we may just have to accept that mobile phones can become useless in an instant because the Russians may be using signals from them for some ulterior purpose such as navigation of drones or missiles.
After a while my companion’s and my mobile phones have seized up completely. I resort to using my laptop lid as an ad hoc plate to butter some crusts of old bread with some melting butter using a spoon from the carriage attendant’s coffee service of earlier this morning. The whole thing is so intensely undignified; but war is like that. It really does suck. Then I revive my laptop back to life with a courtesy ViP class alcoholic wipe-down cloth and the laptop is back to normal, perkier than ever. The phone blocker is off, our mobile phones and internet plans all work again, and we breathe a sigh of relief as we stop briefly at some rudimentary station halt awash with people dressed as train mechanics and then we make our way on the final hurdle of this epic journey all the way across Ukraine from the very heart of the west of the country to the very heart of the east, where all the most terrifying and mindless fighting is taking place over a front line that simply isn’t moving and actually it hasn’t moved much for the best part of the last decade.
That’s the unusual secret of this part of the front line: it’s been like this not since the Russian invasion in February 2022 but since the Russian invasion in March 2014. There’s a whole decade of history we’ve missed in this region, and I suppose I have come to work out why it is like this and why this conflict has become frozen for so long a period. It is in frozen conflicts, particularly those in Europe, that I made myself a specialist, and this is a particularly prolonged one. It all calls for explanation, and I am wondering whether I am going to find any answers.