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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #359

The train trip overnight was typically rough and with broken sleep but I found myself as always with an opportunity to work for so long as I could latch onto spotty internet access. The lady who came to share my compartment with me was a friendly soul, lending me her power bank and offering me a cold hot dog wrapped in aluminium foil as a midnight snack which I have to say was absolutely revolting but I accepted it in as good natured a way as possible. She insisted on sleeping all night with the compartment door open and a KGB interrogation style light shining in from the corridor, and the carriage attendant who changed shifts with the young lady turned off the boiler, so when my sleeping pill wore off at 5 O’Clock this morning I woke up like a stone statue, rigid in the cold and I reached for my jacket. At the time of writing my train arrives in about three hours and I feel exhausted, dirty and my limbs ache from the uncomfortable angles my medication induced sleep left me lying in. These are the realities of wartime travel in Europe’s second largest country. I can’t say that the infrastructure in wartime Ukraine is non-existent or horrendous; it’s just wary and exhausting, even for the seasoned veteran of these extended trips. I wonder how much time I’m going to need in bed today in order to recover.

My temporary travelling companion and I have been enjoying a bleary eyed early morning coffee together. She changed out of her pretty pink pyjamas in the compartment while I gave her some modesty, stepping out into the compartment outside. We exchanged a few words in Russian and smiled sweetly at one-another. We showed each other photos of our children. I helped her with her luggage and she helped me with mine. We had our Dr Zhivago moment together. It was a kind and sweet experience as I am soon to disembark into a city I know nothing about and where I know nobody, to spend the next 24 hours doing who knows what. I’m not really looking forward to the prospect of traipsing round some dreary Ukrainian city for the day. Maybe I’ll look for a shopping mall, for some tourist attractions, for something to do; but Kryvyi Rih has a reputation that precedes it as a pretty dire place. It is by all accounts the longest city in Europe, the Los Angeles of Ukraine: a maniacal morass of motorways cutting through the city centre and little in the way of parks or pleasantries. Everything about it is industrial grime, or so its reputation goes. All I know about it really is that as the home of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky it is occasionally hit by Russian missiles in some sort of infantile acts of retribution.

My travelling companion is now listening to hard Russian rock music in our compartment. This is the sort of music I find it impossible for anyone to enjoy while sober; and she has a particularly loud mobile ‘phone with speakers that blares out music in alternation to the news read in Russian. She’s put in headphones but she still has everything on her speaker. She must have woken up the entirety of the carriage. This early hour seems not to deter her; now she is awake, everyone will be woken to her heavy noises. I peer out of the window, and mile after mile of disused industrial rail cars present themselves to me against the backdrop of interminable Ukrainian rural buildings. There are exhausted old half-factories, wrecked little cottages and buildings with missiles put through them; rubbish strewn along the sides of the railway tracks; haggard tree stumps with no leaves after the bitter frost of winter. Everything looks bleak and relentless and I am once again reminded how predominantly rural is this vast country. The railway is everything; it joins up communities and creates arteries of life across the network, as though rivers siphoning through a desert. The roads are so poor in these rural areas that without the trains, life would grind to an absolute halt.

The train shudders to a halt in one nameless, faceless grey-grit station after another. I wonder when this journey is ever going to end. My travelling companion has now gone to the bathroom and returned in some sexy leather trousers. She looks quite beautiful and she smiles at me while she tinkers with social media or something on her mobile ‘phone. In another world, another life, I would give her my number and stay in contact. As it is I am headed off to a death trip within 24 hours and soon I must disembark for a depressing day, searching out some no doubt dreary hotel with an exhaustingly heavy rucksack and wondering why I bothered doing any of this. I can have my existential crisis while I look on at the beautiful girl dressed all in black who smiles sweetly back at me between the blaring bursts of Russian rock music. She’s an artist; I can tell because she’s carrying a plastic tube for rolled up painting. War inspires a lot of art and attempts to express beauty, because war is an ugly thing and it calls for contrasts and inspiration in the face of relentless hardship and misery.

Conflict often brings out the best in those unaccustomed to daily routine and who are looking for variety and excitement. It is an anathema to those who want predictability and certainty, the 9-til-5. War grants a comparative advantage to a certain sort of person who is stable in the face of change or the unusual or bizarre, and who is not easily shocked or disquieted. Perhaps like this lady, who goes about her business carelessly notwithstanding the conflict around her, I am one of those people. I admit being riveted by the excitement and uncertainty of it all. I never quite know what will happen next, and even though a lot of what happens in war is extremely boring at least enough of it is not that it keeps me going, exploring in my mind and elsewhere, what might happen next. I have determined that I shall find something to do today, to explore this unusual city on an unplanned layover. It must have some charm. Everyone and everything does - even the Devil himself. I just have to look for it.


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