28th Feb 2024


The night train to Odesa — a journey into the abnormal

  • Zhmerynka is a small town in the central-western part of Ukraine (Photo: EUobserver)
Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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.


Why concessions to Orbán will come back to bite EU

As the EU hopes to agree on further financial aid for Ukraine, fears are emerging over offering concessions to Hungary, which risk setting a dangerous precedent and the threats of legal challenges.


In Novohryhorivka — everything is gone except hope

Andreii Sydor places two Russian tank shells onto a concrete slab of what is left of his two-floor house at the very end of Druzhby street in the village of Novohryhorivka, some 35km from the frontline.


After two years of war, time to hit Putin's LNG exports

Two years of tragedies, with well over 100,000 Russian war crimes now registered, underscore the urgent need to stop international LNG investments in Russia that continue to fund Vladimir Putin's war chest.


Creating the conditions for just peace in Ukraine

What would 'just peace' look like for Ukraine? How could we get there? And what does 'just peace' actually mean? Brussels Dispatches on how to get to long-term peace in Ukraine.

Latest News

  1. Macron on Western boots in Ukraine: What he really meant
  2. Amazon lobbyists banned from EU Parliament
  3. MEPs adopt new transparency rules for political ads
  4. EU nature restoration law approved after massive backlash
  5. Memo from Munich — EU needs to reinvent democracy support
  6. For Ukraine's sake, pass the EU due diligence directive
  7. All of Orbán's MPs back Sweden's Nato entry
  8. India makes first objection to EU carbon levy at WTO summit

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us