Fragments from a War Diary, Part #66
As I rode the Kharkiv metro to Kharkiv central railway station this afternoon, to board my train to Dnipro, the eastern Ukrainian metropolis about which hitherto I have known very little, a lady stopped me once more to thank me for my support and she blessed me with the sign of the cross. As always when these small notes of gratitude take place, I was touched, and not a little proud, to be present in Ukraine to help the people of this benighted country and also to serve as an envoy from the West to show solidarity and support with the Ukrainian people. Particularly in the eastern parts of the country, near the front line, I fear that the Ukrainians think the world has forgot them as they suffer the daily fears, cruelties and indignities of indiscriminate shelling, missile strikes, economic contraction and impoverishment.
The winter weather is setting in. Although today ended up being bright, it is chilly and the bright yellow Ukrainian wooly hat I bought in Lviv in August in an act of patriotic fervour from a souvenir stall suddenly seems like it might be coming in use very shortly. So do the camouflage gloves I bought proudly to help deliver food aid but that then sat forlornly hanging from my rucksack as I was told they were unhygienic. Ukrainian weather changes from summer to winter conditions over the course of only a few days; whereas just earlier this week it was t-shirt weather during daylight hours, now I am struggling to wear enough layers to keep me warm. I hope my commitment to the Ukrainian cause does not diminish as I start to feel cold at night and the nights get ever longer. I must remember always to keep my spirits up.
Kharkiv railway station itself is a far cry from the chaotic scenes seen at the beginning of the war and captured in the photo that prefaces this diary entry. In the early days of the invasion, everyone was scrambling to escape from Kharkiv as the city came under intense aerial bombardment and there was a real fear that the Russian Armed Forces might invade and occupy the city using Blitzkrieg methods. In the end this never happened; but it was sufficiently frightening and realistic a prospect to cause hundreds of thousands of people to seek to flee the city by train. The crowds and the chaos by all accounts were insufferable. Now Kharkiv station, although it has suffered extensive damage with many of its windows blown out, has returned to the grandiose classical Stalinist spectacle that it was originally conceived to be. Gigantic socialist realist murals adorn the walls and ceiling of the main hall and the ticket office; huge towers abut the platforms. The station has signs to every conceivable facility, and it was obviously intended to represent a mark of Soviet success in building design. It is truly awe-inspiring, notwithstanding the bomb damage it has suffered, and the current Russian campaign has not successfully eradicated all of Kharkiv’s symbols of the city’s former glory.
Nevertheless there was a disruption, as is commonplace. As I emerged from the metro platform up the huge wooden escalators to ascend to the surface, an air raid siren was sounding and I saw many dozens of people being shunted down stairs from the station into hallways of the metro station underground around giant plastic and metal bollards. Ordinarily people just ignore the air raid sirens, but it seems that the authorities and the civilians in Kharkiv are particularly spooked after the double cruise missile attack that struck the centre of the city on Friday morning. I decided to walk in the opposite direction around the bollards, up the stairs and into the station concourse. Special police armed with assault rifles gravely indicated to me that I was walking very much in the wrong direction, and that I should re-descend the staircase up from which I had emerged. I duly complied with their grunts.
I am not sure exactly what was happening; you never are when these incidents take place. A group of people were huddling beneath the station in the metro’s hallways, waiting for something but I figured that they could be waiting for anything or nothing and for an indefinite period. I certainly wasn’t going to do that. So instead I went searching for another exit from the labyrinth of metro hallways. I found some other stairs emerging up to various platforms, and I noticed the number of my train marked by one of the platform numbers. I went up those stairs to breathe the fresh air, and lo and behold my train was waiting there for me. There were no Police, no strictures to go beneath ground - just my bright blue train, which appeared to have enjoyed a new lick of paint.
I am headed to Lviv to meet some friendly and kind-sounding people I might be working with in the near future, before I return to Kharkiv to continue my current duties. I have decided to go via Dnipro not just to see the city - the only major city in free Ukraine that I have never visited - but also to try to understand what if anything the international community is doing in Dnipro. Dnipro, like Kharkiv, is a feeder city for Ukrainian war efforts on the front line against Russian-occupied Donetsk. Whereas Kharkiv lies to the north of that front line, Dnipro lies to the west. Both cities are vitally important in supplying that front line and in emboldening the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ efforts to retake Russian-occupied Donbas and thereby reclaim their illegally taken territory. I fear from the contacts I have made so far that the international community presence in Dnipro is less than it should be. One interlocutor described it to me as “dead”. If that is right, then it is concerning. I will explore and find out for myself.
In my first class compartment on my freshly painted train, which seems to have been recently renovated because it even contains an electricity socket (albeit placed so close to the ceiling to be of little practical use), the gentleman with whom I am sharing the compartment is changing his underpants in front of me as I write these words, with the compartment door wide open. Perhaps it’s already time to crack open the vodka.