On Tuesday, I land at Kraków airport at 21:00, hop into a taxi and head to the hotel in the old town centre. It is close to the train station and not too expensive, so it works perfectly for my 7-hour stay. A quick shop at Żabka (the local grocery store) for dinner and breakfast, and I’m off to bed.
At 6:00 on Wednesday morning, I’m already on the train heading to Przemyśl. I eat my yoghurt while staring at the dark Polish countryside. The small sitting compartments are dark and stuffy, and I am relieved as a gentlemanly stranger helps me to put my suitcase on the top shelf – a task that normally gives me the worst back pains. I play a game with myself and attempt to guess who out of the five other passengers is also Ukrainian. We are usually the majority on this train, and so I guess correctly every single time. I see it in their faces, their eyes, in the elderly who don’t look like avid travellers, in the people who don’t look like they belong on this train at all. I see it in the little plastic bags with food which they prepare for the long train journey into Ukraine from Przemyśl. Locals never have food with them. The man who lifted my suitcase looks empty inside, with his dead eyes that have almost a glisten of a tear. He hands me a caramel sweet as I wonder if he is from Mariupol – Mariupolians now all look like a part of them has been stolen away, or even has ceased to exist. I recognise this in many Ukrainians, but none so intense as in the survivors from this eastern city. They lived through hell. I also wonder if the man has anyone close to him who is still alive…
Mariupolians now look like a part of them has been stolen way, or even ceased to exist. I recognise this in many Ukrainians, but none so intense as in the survivors from this Eastern city. They lived through hell.
Przemyśl, a small city on the Polish border is now one of the few ways to get into Ukraine. Airports were closed on the day when Russia began its full-scale invasion, leaving buses, cars and trains as the only means of transportation. The usual four-hour flight turns into a two-day journey. Przemyśl’s train station is always full of Ukrainians. It is an old building with no elevators, so everyone has to drag their bags up and down the many flights of stairs to get to the toilets, trains, and ticket desks. I see a young woman carrying a pram and a huge suitcase while her elderly mother holds an infant in her arms. I walk past this very common scene carrying my own bag and realise I’m now much calmer than I was when I first came here. I no longer react with tears or wonder if the infant’s father is alive, and yet, for me, this train station will always be one of the saddest places on Earth. I cannot imagine the amount of pain this place absorbed over the last year.
The usual four-hour flight turns into a two-day journey.
The queue to the 10:00 train to Kyiv looks the same as it did last time – children, women, elderly people and the few men who had obtained government permission to travel abroad are returning back. All of us are queuing in front of a small building, with the Polish border guards ready to stamp our passports and guide us out of the safety of peaceful Poland into Ukraine and the war. I feel relieved when I get on the train because I can finally relax as there will be no more taxis, hotels, trains and plans for the next 12 hours of my journey to Kyiv. I am also relieved that no one sits beside me (this is usually the case on the way into Ukraine and the opposite on the way out) and think about the beef burger and the sea buckthorn tea I will buy as soon as the cafeteria cart opens. I listen to music while staring at the Ukrainian fields, read my book until I get bored, and switch to some random Harry Potter fanfiction on my phone. This pretty much continues for the entire train ride with occasional breaks to read the news (mostly to see if Russia hasn’t attacked Kyiv with missiles today).
I’m used to seeing soldiers on this train, we are in an active war after all, but seeing the wounded always shatters my heart.
The air is stuffy, the people, although not as sorrowful as on the Kraków – Przemyśl train, are quiet, and the TVs attached to the ceilings show the same Paw Patrol cartoons over and over again. I see a guy my age dressed in military uniform as I walk to the toilets. He holds his phone in one hand while leaning on crutches with the other. His left leg is amputated up to the knee. I’m used to seeing soldiers on this train, we are in an active war after all, but seeing the wounded always shatters my heart. I recall my last trip home and a guy with an Ilizarov frame around his arm in the cafeteria queue. How a sliding door accidentally hit that arm and he cried in pain. I remember how, on one of the previous trips, I found out about the death of my friend’s boyfriend and how, since the start of the invasion, he was the first person to die out of those whom I knew. I walk past the boy who lost his leg and finally break down in tears after shutting the toilet door.
I step out of the car as the air raid siren begins to blare. I’m back. I’m home.
At 22:00, I arrive at the Kyiv central train station. My dad picks me up and I once again try to get used to the atmosphere. Wartime Kyiv has this air of inevitability surrounding it that stuns you each time you arrive from a ‘safe’ country. Whatever is meant to happen will happen and you have to accept it if you want to be here at this time. I adapt quickly, it only takes a day or two. I step out of the car as the air raid siren begins to blare. I’m back. I’m home.