Fragments from a War Diary, Part #40
I woke today after a troubled night’s sleep; the air raid sirens had started again, as the conflict in Kherson, just down the road, intensifies. I had arranged to take the day train to Kyiv, because the night train was unusually full. I was not going to complain; the day train has a first class carriage with only two people in a berth. The environment is calm and even relaxing, a welcome respite from the perennial intensity of working on the front line. The man opposite me in the compartment was young and I would say relatively affluent, or he would not be travelling first class. He appeared to be on leave from military duties. He spent the day sleeping, or fiddling with a fairly expensive mobile telephone, while I spent the day writing on my laptop, looking out of the window, and thinking of home.
I had enjoyed a pleasant trolleybus ride to the railway station. My rucksack has a large American flag stitched into it, and I suppose I looked like a military man although really I am not. Understanding that I was on the front line of the Ukrainian conflict to help them, elderly pensioners on the trolleybus stood up to make room for me to sit down. I could not accept their generosity on such a hot day, of course. Nevertheless when I tried to buy a ticket, the trolleybus driver refused to take my money; when the inspector boarded and asked me for my ticket, the other passengers berated her for demanding a ticket from a foreign worker here to help them. I found these small gestures particularly touching.
The receptionist in the hotel had wished me goodbye, and asked when I would be coming back. I also found this touching. She bid me good luck in my endeavours, knowing that foreigners do not come to such a southern Ukrainian backwater without some compelling good reason. Once again I felt as though an Emissary of the West, someone whose presence reassures the Ukrainians in these their darkest hours that they are not forgotten and that the West remains committed to their cause of escaping the Russian yoke that now so unites them.
Mykolaïv railway station was once a grand affair, situated at the end of a pompous Soviet avenue and decorated in Soviet kitsch. An old art deco sign advertises “Nikolaev” as the centre of the Soviet shipping industry, inside the cavernous main hall of the station. However this part of town was the epicentre of the Russian invasion of Mykolaïv, and the station shows all the signs of war. At one point it was a centre for people fleeing occupied Kherson and other regions to the east; trains would pull in from Russian-occupied territory full of people with whatever belongings they could carry. An abandoned UNICEF reception centre, with a selection of children’s soft toys, remains in one corner of the station. An old station hotel or dormitory has been converted into an air raid shelter. Many of the windows of the station have been boarded up or bombed out or both. The small shops and kiosks that used to be housed inside the station stand deserted.
After the chaotic events in Kherson of the last two days, the trains from Kherson seem to have restarted although it is not yet clear whether the road between the two cities has reopened. While I was waiting for my train, a filthy ugly diesel train pulling a handful of exhausted carriages rolled into the station from Kherson and a handful of people clambered off with their luggage onto the tracks. Even during the Russian occupation of Kherson it was allegedly possible to travel between Mykolaïv, in free Ukraine, and the Russian occupied territories, by this train and even amidst the daily current regime of shelling in Kherson the train continues to operate. I have promised a colleague that I will return to Kherson during my tour in Ukraine, to help with humanitarian causes and in particular the supply of heating materials to the residents of Kherson. The city has a forthcoming fuel crisis as the winter emerges, and we are wondering how to help residents heat their homes using wood. The prospect of participating in humanitarian assistance in downtown Kherson carries risks, of course. At the current time those risks are probably too significant; but they may subside in time as the winter season sets in. Then it would be a matter of helping while keeping oneself warm.
The train ride itself, slightly more than eight hours, began dull and end proceeded into nauseating tedium. The choice between day trains and nighttime ones is not an exhilarating one; daytime trains are tedious while nighttime ones involve getting very little if any sleep. Nevertheless the carriage attendant, who told me she is from Kherson, was friendly and accommodating with ceaseless cups of tea throughout the course of the journey. The voyage from Mykolaïv to Kyiv does not go through any very exciting towns; it is mostly hour upon hour of rolling farmland in every direction, and there is very little mobile telephone coverage.
The train is slow, and I realise that there is a limit to my tolerance of Ukrainian Railways, even in First Class. An eight hour journey could be undertaken in three if the trains were upgraded. The engines and rolling stock remain from the Soviet era, but they are extremely reliable. While long-distance travel driving on Ukrainian roads is exceptionally gruelling, the trains remain reliable if humdrum.
It is pleasant, if just for a little bit, to escape the constant noises involved in warfare: the projectiles, whistles, humming sounds, bangs, dull thuds, sirens, klaxons, people shouting, the roar of aircraft and the rattle of dilapidated vehicles on bumpy roads. Kyiv, Ukraine’s metropolis with a population of several million (although as with all Ukrainian cities, the current population is really unknown after the exodus of refugees and the movement of internally displaced people around the country), is refreshingly normal. Kyiv has enjoyed something of a renaissance since the abortive Russian attempt early in the war to seize the city with a massive column of armour. The hotels have remained open, the nightlife is flourishing consistent with the curfew, and foreigners of all hues, whether diplomats, visiting politicians, aid workers, military volunteers or a variety of the other unusual types of people one meets in war zones, are around every corner.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.