Letters from Ukraine: 23/03/22 – Night Train

In this dispatch from 23 March 2022, George Gittoes recounts his journey, with Hellen Rose, on the night train into Kyiv.

Our Aussie mate and art collector Mike Haly, who runs a mining company in Poland, organised a thirty-six-year-old executive, Mateusz, to pick us up from our Krakow Hotel and drive four hours to the railway station where trains leave for Lviv. We chatted happily with Mateusz and enjoyed seeing the Polish countryside, as we cruised along  at 140 km/h in his luxury Land Rover, never thinking there could be a problem ahead. We made good time and arrived at the station early.

Once inside the station, it seemed we had missed our chance to get to Kyiv by train. There had been no train the previous day as tracks had been destroyed.  No one could give us any sense of hope that our journey to Kyiv would continue.

We saw our first refugees at the station, including a very old lady who was sitting on her bag and crying while an aid worker in a fluro yellow vest comforted her.  I did not need to photo or sketch her – her tears and sobs etched themselves so deeply into my mind I will draw her as soon as I arrive in Kyiv, and she will be my first Ukraine portrait.

Meanwhile, at restraint, alternatives were discussed including heading back to Krakow and home having failed in our mission. Inwardly, my intuition was that we would do it, and I ordered a good meal for the three of us. As I poured my second pot of tea I decided to wait until 7 p.m., the original time we had been advised. Hellen was terminally tired, so we left her in the car and went searching the platforms for a train – no one gave any hope or knew anything.  In a back area away from the other platforms, we saw a small gaggle of new refugees arriving and being processed. They were mainly women, and children with family pets in carry cases, worried eyes peering out. Mateusz talked with them, and we realised there was a chance the train would be going back.

We rushed to the car, grabbed Hellen and our luggage, and jogged to the passport processing room. The train was about to leave with only a small number of passengers. The friendly English-speaking woman officer asked, “But aren’t you afraid?” We made it in with the sympathetic help of her and other female army officers, who loved the idea we were Australian and artists. We had no tickets, but that did not matter. We got a sleeping cabin in the last carriage, and soon we were on the way. Hellen felt it was like being in a World War II black-and-white movie. Once the wheels started turning, we poured vodkas from out kit and toasted that we were on our way.

For a moment as we stepped towards the train, I knew there was no turning back.

The first train ended after a few hours at Lviv. We then had a one-hour wait to 1 a.m. in the freezing platform for the next train to Kyiv. Not many people were with us, but when train arrived late it was full, and we were told we had no tickets of reservation. It seemed there was no space, but some sympathetic train guards worked hard to find an upper and lower bunk in the end cabin where two young men were sleeping – volunteers for the fight ahead. I am typing this from the top bunk – Hellen below. Each bunk has a warm doona and a couple of pillows. Both of us have had some fractured sleep, but little. When we arrive in Kyiv there will be the problem of a total curfew. We do not know how we will get to our hotel, or whether we will have trouble with the police and army, as we have no official accreditation. The two young military recruits who share the cabin have been snoring a lot and woke only to say, “Don’t you realise there is a war going on?”

At the Polish border we were interrogated, nicely, by young intel officer – a woman sergeant. We are not mentioning our cameras or media or press, but just that we are artists coming to support.

She wanted to see our musical instruments even though I had told her I was a painter – the solution was to get Hellen to sing. That convinced her, and she stamped our passports into Ukraine. Like the Polish officer earlier, she asked if we were afraid.

I have decided not to film any of this journey, as it would be a mistake to identify ourselves as press of any kind. We get love, sympathy, and support as artists. Hopefully that will work in Kyiv when we get out at the station. No one we have met on the train understands much English.

The station at Lviv was as huge as the steaming one in the railway painting of Monet. The ornamentation of the station architecture was turn of the nineteenth-century Art Nouveau gone shabby but still beautiful. I began to agree with Hellen that it felt like Nazi-era war movies. During the journey we had passed row after row of windowless freight carriages similar to those used by Eichmann to transport people to the camps and ghettos. The vision was macabre, and put a shiver through us.

While Putin is not calling this a war the West is, also, not calling this what it is – this is World War III,  and it looks little different to World War II.

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