12 Days in Ukraine

Estimated Read Time: 12 minutes

After a couple of days visiting my daughter in Munich, I flew to Warsaw, Poland, where I had pre- purchased (very wisely looking back) a train ticket to Kyiv, via Chelm, the train known as the night train to Kyiv. I have traveled more than most, but this was my first time where I was nervous, apprehensive and anxious for what awaited me. I knew the numbers, 40 million in the country at the start of the full-scale invasion, but only 10 non- military dead on an average day. I was also not going near the front lines, but, just in case, had purchased repatriate the body insurance. As I arrived at the Warsaw train station, and the time to board approached, the platform was filling up quickly. I did not notice at the time, but, thinking back, there were lots of large bags and suitcases, but no smiles. Even when I smiled at people, as I paced the platform knowing I was on a train for the next 16 hours, no one smiled back. I then realized that it was all women children and the occasional older man, I was the outsider, the odd ball, smiling, below 60, and Male.

The Train was full! I helped other passengers with their luggage even though I had my large osprey on my back and my 30l daypack on the front: you helped pass the suitcases up to the people around you. I had a seat but others were sitting on suitcases, on window frames, in the baggage areas (where they had created room). When the Polish train attendant asked for documentation I was surprised to see one Ukraine passport after another, I then realized, they were ALL Ukrainian., These women and children were refugees coming back for family visits, Orthodox Easter, or just returning from being a refugee sick of living without family in the care of another country.

At Chelm, the end of the train ride in Poland, the train empties and people dragged their bags over the tracks to the town, to get lunch? Dinner? Or just sustenance? I decided to follow their lead. I was hungry, it was 3 PM and I last ate about 10 AM. The next train left at 4:30 PM and did not arrive until 6:50 AM and I had no idea if food would be available. It was a good thing that I ate in Chelm as very little food was available. The carriage attendant did offer mash potatoes (add water), tea, and coffee, with the strongest grounds I have ever seen. When booking the ticket, I was asked my age and sex, so I presumed they would put us in a sleeper cabin (4 people to each) all of the same sex, no! I was lucky I had an odd number, as I soon found out that odd numbers were lower bunks, something that I was blessed to receive on every train I took for the next two weeks. I had the same older gentleman, in the lower bunk opposite me, as on the train from Warsaw; we nodded and greeted each other as best we could, he spoke no English, and while we both struggled to speak Spanish to each other, it was a struggle as he was actually speaking Portuguese, not Spanish! He was returning to see his two Grand Daughters for Easter and was very excited to do so. He lives on the coast of Portugal, enjoying the seaside life, and showed me pictures of seashells, sea birds, and beautiful beaches. Above my bunk was Marsha, a 20 year old refugee living in Bognor Regis in the south of England. She had worked as a care aid, but the town is full of old people while she was young and vibrant; she did not speak to me until later in the train ride, very skeptical of this foreigner coming to her country. On the other bunk, above, was Valeria, she was a former Actress in her late 20’s and has a business in Kyiv selling older fashion pieces. She was returning from Milan, after visiting with her Mother, she was quick to help me navigate the nuance of the train. She warned me of a night with no sleep, of a hot cabin (with door closed) or lights from hallway (if door open). This cabin was small, with 30 inch wide bunks and about 24 inches between the bunks. As the evening went on, Marsha started to open up and ask questions, which I answered with the best candid ness one can. Once trust was gained, I was able to ask questions of her: what it was like to leave her country? Live aboard away from her family? What was needed to win the war? Was there any place in the country that I should visit that would help me learn about the Ukrainian people, their struggle, their fight? She shared that her boyfriend is in the Army, that he paid for her trip home, and that she was very excited to see him. How to win the war was up to the politicians and generals, and that she donated every month to her boyfriends Battalion (this was a recurring theme of donating to a specific battalion, either from the town they came from or the place a loved one served). Marsha and Valeria were both sceptical of the political process, of the amount of funds that were siphoned off by Generals or Politicians to purchase goods but know no other way. They were both the same in the fact that were not going to lose to Russia and that, even if they did lose, they would not succumb to Russian rule or the rule of any person chosen by Russia, if they did lose.

The night was long, hot and clackety, as the train travelled east to Kyiv; I slept little, full of excitement- both nervous and for discovery. We arrived to a full platform, everyone knowing what train carriage their loved one(s) were on. The sight of joy, love, and hugs and kisses was quite overwhelming ; I am sure that some refugees had not seen their families in two years. I met Marsha’s boyfriend, who held Marhsa’s hand tight as they walked beside each other up the ramp to the station entrance. We spoke for a minute and were soon separated by the crowds, other trains from across the country were disembarking their passengers, and, as I would find out in two days, night trains move the people, day trains are not easy to get for travel between towns of any distance.

I was advised not to take the subway to the independence square because, if an air raid strikes, the subway stops, and you are stuck whereever the train is. So, I looked around and found one of many taxis that took me to Hotel Ukraine where we encountered a check point, Just above the hotel, my first view of them (no photos signs are up about 100m from every checkpoint).

Hotel Ukraine sits above the Lady of Independence, overlooking the Square of Independence (Maidan Means Square). I arrived to what looked like a closed hotel, magnificent building with a commanding view of the square, the city, and landscape of the surrounding country side. I entered the hotel to a darkened lobby, the lobby was comparable to Fairmont Hotels such as the Palliser in Calgary, the Olympic Hotel in Seattle, or the Royal York in Toronto, but here it was darkened, grey, and lifeless at 7 AM. I walked to the front desk, presented my identifcation, and credit card, and was given room 1233. The hotel has 4 elevators, two were out of order, half of the hall lights were lit, and half not, the hallway was ghost- like, but one thing I noticed on the way to my room was that every hotel room had a smaller room beside it, with no number and not room for a hotel room behind it. I then realized that this hotel was a former foreigner hotel during the Soviet era, so these small spaces were probably listening holes. My Room was large, with grandiose furniture, all wooden, with a wooden drink table in the window alcove with water and glasses, a large foyer area, a deep bath tub, but old fashioned faucets, toilets, doors, carpet, it really was from the 1950’s or 60’s. I opened the balcony and read the sign, stating that it is illegal to take photos during an air raid, with punishment of 1 to 3 years in prison. This reminded me of a YouTube video, early in the war, of the Russians claiming to take out a patriot missile a day after a YouTube video showed a patriot missile fire; I had that feeling this was the location from where the video was filmed. You could see for miles, over the still, quiet city.

After a quick shower, I headed out to explore the city and find breakfast. As I walked down to the Independence Square, at the side of the road were pictures of men with their names, and their age portrayed on the wall. I realized these are what are known in Ukraine as the “ heavenly one hundred”. Ten years ago, there was a camp on Independence Square that was called the camp of dignity and freedom, There were strict rules the campers put on them selves: no drugs, alcohol, weapons were the important few. The campers set up a security team, a health team, and a kitchen team, and brought attention to the plight of Ukrainians to the Russian Government. Over the next few months the Russians grew tired of the unrest, and on Feb 19th, 2014, deployed the police to break up the camp. The police used gas, water, and fire, killing over 100 people that day; this is what became the Maidan Revolution of Freedom and Dignity. A few days after the slaughter, the crowds came back and one person stood on stage, and said that if the Russians did not leave by tomorrow morning, they would be forced to leave! The Russians left and moved into Crimea and the Donbas and this war started. Today, in the square, a photo documentary of the days before and after the massacre are on display. This is what started the war 10 years ago, and it was fitting that on this trip of discovery, learning, and understanding for myself, that this is where I was led to start, my WELCOME to the Ukraine.

I spent the day exploreing the city, Larva, St. Nicholas Cathderal, and sitting in parks watching people;, how they were all very dressed up in, long dresses, coats, scarfs, and jewellery to finish the ensemble. Everyone was wearing their best clothes out on this fine Saturday afternoon. At some point during the day, my Guide for the next two days, Yan, texted me and gave instructions for our meeting tomorrow, with an additional “do not ignore an air raid! Go to a bunker quickly.”

At about 3 PM, I wanted a little sustenance on this wonderful spring Day, so I spotted a patio near the Golden Gate, and sat at a table awaiting service. I could hear two men a few meters away with American Accents and after a minute or two I asked them if there was table service; I was advised that there was, but it was slow, and at that instance my first air raid siren sounded! I asked with a little panic, what do we do? Where do we go? And they nonchalantly responded well, the question is, will you get a beer or not! No one around us appeared to even notice this wail going on; there was no urgency in their step, no change in their doings, just a Saturday afternoon in Kyiv, a city at war that does not appear to be at war. I sat, ordered a beer, and light lunch, and did what others did, continue my day.

That evening, at about 7 PM, I found a cute little sitting area outside of a bar, sat down, and waited. This bar did not have service outside, so after a bit, I went in and ordered a Negroni, returned with it, and then watched the movement of people around me. As people came and went, a young man sat beside me, I would soon discover that his name was Silas, he was born a Russian-speaking Ukrainian, from Odesa.He was 22 years old, going to computer language school, but worked for a company in the USA doing logistics, which you could tell he loved; he was bright, articulate, full of life, and fully aware of what the future might hold for him. He and his mother moved to Kyiv at the start of the full-scale invasion, his mother soon left for Spain, where she resides today, but being over 18, he is barred from leaving the country. He misses his mom but is able to see her when she returns for the holidays.

I moved on from there and started the walk back to the Hotel at about 9:30 PM, I had yet to feel unsafe in this city, there are few homeless, not a lot of police about, but, you see no crime, only a few people are begging and those have clean hair, clothes, and are always head down with hands praying. As I come close to my hotel, I see a small bar with a few people enjoying themselves. I decide to poke my head in to see, and I like what I see: a massive piece of art on the wall with poker cheats, dogs eye food a plate, flowers, and everywhere on the art is something that helps describe humanity in almost every form. I wait to order a beverage and four young people beside me who entered after me order first. It is their country, they are the ones under the stress of war, I am here to learn and can wait a few minutes more. After I order, one of the four, a young lady whom I found out was Antasia, asked me what I was doing here? Where am I from? Why did I come? I had found it best to always be upfront and answer with as much preciseness as possible. I did so, and she and her boyfriend continued to talk with me and for the next hour. I asked the same questions again about the war:, how does it end? When? What do you need to win? The most interesting part of our conversation was learning about her and her boyfriend’s first few days of the full-scale invasion. They lived in Berdiansk on the Azov Sea, a large port, seaside resort area in those first few days, 2 years ago, they could see the reports of the Russian Army flanking both sides of this city., they had both heard stories from their grandparents of the unjust methods of the Soviet era. They both knew that this generation of Ukrainians were not going to accept that again so they quickly packed what they could and fled north, leaving their families, friends, pets, and schooling behind. Two years later they are living in Kyiv, working part time, unable to receive a hug from their Mothers, or Grandmothers, whom are still alive in occupied Ukraine. They do enjoy video calls, and chats but it is not the same, the parents have been encouraged by the occupying Russians to get Russian passports ; they have nieghbours who did not, and they had to forfeit their homes and are forced to move. The choice is stay with your home, land, and neighbours or not, taking the Russian passport is the easiest solution. It would cost Anastasia and her boyfriend over a $1000 USD to bring them to Kyiv, money neither has, but leaving your land and, your home and moving is not an easy decision, at any time, we exchange contact information and we part ways. How may more Anatasia’s are out there in this country? Walking back to the hotel I think of not seeing my two Daughters (26 and 21) for two years, I am so thankful that I get to see them both on this trip, WOW what a day, and I know tomorrow will be even harder, I almost dread tomorrow.