Something about the night train, how it cradles you and rocks you to sleep – especially through a darkness bristling with menace.
Even before the war, I loved riding across Ukraine in a sleeper car. It reminded me of a bygone Europe. Since the advent of low-cost flights and high-speed rail, the couchettes have virtually disappeared on the rest of the continent.
The night train from Kyiv to Przemysl, just over the Polish border, takes about 11 hours. You share a sleeper compartment with three others: two upper and two lower berths.
One of the first things you notice in this wartime reality is the fact that more than 90 percent of the passengers are women or children.
The men tend to be elderly. With martial law, all males between 18 and 60 have to stay in Ukraine. To leave the country they need special exemption status: either they have three or more children or are doing work that requires them to be abroad – such as artists, performers and athletes.
As a man still in that draftable age group (my American passport exempts me), I invariably wind up spending a lot of energy helping women carry heavy suitcases and baby carriages.
I usually book a lower berth, but almost invariably wind up trading with an elderly woman less nimble than myself.
On my latest journey out, I shared the compartment with a quiet woman who asked if I’d be willing to take the top berth, and a younger woman who was travelling with her toddler, Stefan, a boy right at the age when he’s speaking a language that only his mother can decipher.
Stefan’s mother took the lower berth. Her boy insisted on sleeping alone above her, as if wanting to assert his independence. But just as he was about to fall asleep, he changed his mind and asked to join his mother down below.
At around 3 a.m., the train stopped in Lviv, where the air-raid siren wailed. Later I would read that something in the city’s outskirts was hit.
The train ride would be much shorter if not for the wait at the Polish border.
We went through the now familiar routine. A female soldier came into the wagon and gathered everyone’s passports, checking to make sure the faces matched. Some minutes later there was another knock on the sliding compartment door. Two male border guards this time. One was armed.
The guards have to check for contraband coming into the country and men leaving illegally on outbound trains.
Over the course of my many trips I’ve noticed these men tend to have a pleasant, joking disposition – trying to make light of an obviously trying, if not traumatic situation. One time, as I was coming into Ukraine, the border guard asked: “What’s in your bag? No weapons?”
“No, no weapons,” I said.
“Too bad,” he joked.
Another time a guard actually went through my bags. The cheap quality flak jacket and packages of Italian coffee convinced them that I could only be a journalist.
On this latest trip, the border guard looked up at me lying on my berth and asked: “You got anyone hiding up there?” It was about 4 a.m., and I was still groggy. He pointed his mini-flashlight up into the luggage space above the door, where blankets and pillows are stored.
I smiled back at his attempt to be humorous.
The woman below me was also sleepy, lying with little Stefan ensconced under her arm.
“And you?” the guard said, still trying to maintain the levity. “You aren’t hiding your husband anywhere by chance?”
From above, she looked stunned as she lay on her back, not even glancing at the guard.
“How do you expect me to respond to that?” she said.
He immediately realized he’d overstepped the bounds of propriety, infringed on her dignity. He excused himself and moved along to the next compartment with his colleague.
Within an hour the passengers’ passports were brought back by the same female soldier who took them. I’m always amazed at how there’s never a mix-up.
The last two hours of the journey were spent stuck inside the train standing still at the Przemysl station, our final destination, waiting for Polish customs to set up shop.
Absent husband and father
I couldn’t get the woman out of my mind. Where was her husband? Was he fighting? Was he even alive? I’d just read about Ukrainian prisoners being tortured. Two young men admitted to a psychologist that the Russians had castrated them. Might something similarly appalling have happened to the woman’s husband?
Or maybe she really was hiding something. Maybe her husband was already out of the country. I banished the thought as quickly as it came.
I imagined him on the front somewhere, near Bakhmut, living through hell while his little boy pestered the young girls in the neighboring compartment, who were part of a junior table tennis team on the way to a competition. Stefan was extremely physical – as if to compensate for his still-burgeoning speech. He kept kicking at the compartment door, playing peek-a-boo with the girls.
I could see the boy’s mother thinking about her husband.
Then, as if on cue, her phone rang. It was her man. He was on a video chat, first with his wife, then with Stefan. I was lying on my berth above them and wanted to crane my neck down to see if he was in uniform, but that would have been too indiscreet.
From the conversation, he didn’t seem to be calling from any hotspot. It sounded like he was staying in Ukraine as a matter of course. But I couldn’t see if he was wearing a uniform.
I could have asked her later, struck up a conversation, as I often do on train rides. But after the border guard put his foot in his mouth, I decided silence might be the best way to ensure she maintained her dignity.
After all, that’s what this war is about. It all started with the Revolution of Dignity.
As we got off train, I merely carried her suitcase as she caught Stefan jumping down from the wagon.
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter