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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #381

I decided to take the plunge and pay my 35 Gryvnas for the first class waiting room at Lviv railway station. The regular second class railway station had some loitering drunks in there and the Police had been called to clear them up. A bunch of old ladies pointed me towards a spare seat amidst a pile of sick. The lights didn’t seem to work there and there were a lot of soldiers waiting for trains brandishing assault rifles. The atmosphere was grim and grimly and rather damp and I didn’t like the feel of any of it at all. The weather has gone back to freezing in the frozen Saigon and the second class waiting room didn’t have any heating. All in all it was a messy morass of humanity in there, with large pools of unidentifiable liquid on the floor and people sloshing around all over the place. By contrast for less than 1 Euro and without the need to hold a first class ticket, you get all the luxuries of a turn-of-the-century grandiose exclusive waiting room, no doubt once reserved for the communist elites. This includes a special area to stash your guns; desks where you can charge your laptop and your mobile telephone; and a woman who pretends to smile as she makes you a cup of coffee. The seats are of brown polished wood with brown leather head rests, and there is a beautiful flickering screen above that periodically reveals more or less accurate pieces of information about departing and arriving train times.

Opposite me, sitting at this desk, a man intensely stares into a military laptop with special padding around its frame. Perhaps he’s directing drones against Russian soldiers or some other relaxing late afternoon activities. I rested my heavy rucksack full of body armour and other lethally heavy items - I never really managed to get the weight down - against someone’s assault rifle who aggressively pulled it out from under my bag as he went off to his own wartime destination. My friend has joined me in this palace of luxury in readiness for our 20-hour paradise trip to Kramatorsk, that delightful wonder-city of the Donbas, with an alarmingly small quantity of luggage. He has brought just two small rucksacks, from one of which dangles his steel helmet and we are both plugged into desks with full internet access as I write these words. The first class waiting room even has WiFi.

My stomach’s rumbling and I’m getting rather hungry. It’s another hour or so before the train departs and I’m wondering about my own motivations in doing all these crazy things. The miserable weather outside adds to my ponderous mood and I reflect that I really find satisfaction in tramping off to the world’s longest front line to try to understand what’s going on out there. I am prepared to endure these relentless train rides across huge distances to develop my new career as a reporter, because I know that nobody else is going there. My contact in the Ukrainian military who has promised to show us around is still not appearing and this gives me cause for concern. Nevertheless there’s a story to be told and that’s what motivates me to do it.

There’s a man in military fatigues yelling into a mobile phone, sitting next to me. I hope he’s not in my carriage. He rather reeks of liquor and this may be his last chance for a drink before heading to the front line. The intense man I imagine to be directing drones over Russian lines is still squinting sharply into his military laptop screen. A lady sitting next to me with tired, cold eyes pounds relentlessly into her mobile telephone and I wonder what she can be writing about. The first class waiting room is filling up with soldiers and I hear a loud crash and bang as some lights flicker. Someone else is watching videos loudly on their mobile telephone here and I’m starting to have my sense of calm punctured.

The board with the cancelled trains that serves as a solemn reminder to the partial Russian occupation of Lviv, positioned prominently in the centre of the hall of Lviv central railway station, has been turned into a series of t-shirts and other tourist paraphernalia. A tourist gift shop of a kind has emerged in the middle of the railway station selling unlikely items such as Ukrainian Railways hoody tops and scarves with blue and yellow images of Ukrainian trains imprinted upon them. There are also engraved crystal tea cups with golden awnings and mounting, in beautifully framed boxes. By Ukrainian standards, all these frivolities seem rather expensive and therefore I decline this purveyor of tourist tattle in the middle of a war zone railway station beneath whose cavernous, vaulted ceilings all human life seems to pass. I’m focusing on letting my mind go, and wondering what adventures will come to pass in the next days as we toil over our Donbas adventure.

I certainly hope the Russians don’t choose to invade while we’re sitting there. Maybe the mud caused by today’s bad weather will slow them down for a week or two, so we can undertake our investigations relatively unimpeded by shells and mortar or the rattle of small arms fire. Who’s to know. I’m feeling rather empty at the prospect of Russian attempts to occupy the whole of the Donbas, but that’s because the West isn’t supplying the Ukrainian Armed Forces with enough ammunition. By all accounts the Russians are producing artillery and mortar rounds at three times the pace of the Ukrainians, and with statistics like that it’s very difficult to persuade the Ukrainians that they should fight down to every last man and bullet. We have to do more to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces to prevent the Russians from prevailing with even the smallest territorial gains, as that will only encourage them.

The sonorous tones of the lady announcing train departures has degenerated into a screech. An injured soldier with his arm in a sling is chatting up a lady next to him, and a young child is eyeballing me. I start to feel like I’m in the movie L’année dernière à Marienbad, and a deep sense of discomfort and unease is rolling through me. I’m going to try to persuade my friend to move to the platform, so we can pace up and down the long train looking for our ageing carriage and surveying the cramped conditions that will become our home for the next 20 hours.


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