Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Feature

The night train to Odesa — a journey into the abnormal

  • Zhmerynka is a small town in the central-western part of Ukraine (Photo: EUobserver)
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They woke up to snow in Zhmerynka, a town in Ukraine some 400km east of the Polish border — where the Ukrainian night train started its 16-hour journey towards Odesa.

By then, the young Ukrainian fashion designer who had restarted her life in Alicante, Spain, had quietly stepped off the train, careful not to wake the small boy and his mother still deep in their slumber.

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  • The night train leaves from Przemyśl in Poland. (Photo: EUobserver)

Earlier that evening, she had shown them in the sleeping cabin they shared, images on her phone of a spectacular sunset over Alicante taken from her high-rise apartment.

"It's quiet there," she said of Alicante, motioning with her hand a rocket to indicate Russia's brutal war that has terrorised Ukraine for almost two years now.

As the train passed by Zhmerynka, a cemetery with blue crosses appeared behind trees, then grain silos and vast snow-covered fields stretching on towards the horizon.

In times of peace, such details are mundane. But in Ukraine, nothing is really normal anymore.

Just before the weekend, Ukrainian railways announced plans to create a drone unit to help monitor and protect its infrastructure.

The following day, Russian troops shelled Chernihiv, Sumy, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Mykolaiv, Odesa, and Kherson regions.

At least one person died, and seven others were killed, in a vicious war that has taken so many lives it is difficult to fully comprehend the scale of suffering.

Russia's three-month siege of Mariupol alone killed an estimated 25,000 people, according to Ukrainian estimates.

The Associated Press, among the last reporters to leave the city, says the figure is likely higher. Their 20 Days in Mariupol documentary film has since been nominated for an Oscar.

Yet Russia's president Vladimir Putin appears increasingly bent on his fantastical crusade to rid Ukraine of imaginary Nazis.

On Saturday (27 January), Putin marked the 80th anniversary of the breaking of the siege of Leningrad.

And in his speech, he claimed that Russia's existential geopolitical conflict against the Nazis now extends beyond the borders of Ukraine.

Russian state Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin echoed the sentiment, claiming that "fascist ideology is becoming the norm...for leaders of Nato states," in comments posted on Telegram.

As leaders in Brussels gather on Thursday (1 February) to discuss unblocking some €50bn in desperately needed aid for Ukraine, the weekend threats issued by Putin and his circle point to a ratcheting up of war rhetoric.

In the streets of Odesa on Sunday (28 January), a forced normalcy continues in the face of indiscriminate shelling from Russia.

A large group of people gather in front of the Odesa Opera House to see Bolero, by French composer Maurice Ravel.

Three boys are performing stunts on scooters near a monument to Alexander Pushkin, the founder of modern Russian poetry. From Pushkin's monument, one can see down onto Odesa's large Black Sea ports.

The port city is seen as a prized possession for Putin, and had figured in his vision for a New Russia that spanned the entire east and south of Ukraine.

In the early days of the war, the Russians had attempted to seize it but were ground to a near halt after succeeding in taking Kherson. To get to Odesa, they needed to first take the city of Mykolaiv, Ukraine's premier ship building capital. They were stopped.

The heavily-armed Russians then proceeded towards Voznesensk, a quiet farming town where outgunned locals along with Ukrainian soldiers fought against incredible odds to snatch a victory from Putin's so-called liberators.

British journalist Andrew Harding documented the extraordinary feat in his book, A Small Stubborn Town.

For the next few days, EUobserver will be reporting from Odesa, Mykolaiv, and Kherson with the help of the International Rescue Committee, which has financed this trip in the hopes of shedding some light onto the faces of those who live this war day-in and day-out.

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