Rail - a pillar of Ukraine. Correspondence from Paweł Pieniążek


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April 21, 2023

Rail – a pillar of Ukraine. Correspondence from Paweł Pieniążek

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

During the war, the Ukrainian railway has become one of the pillars on which the state rests. It evacuates civilians, transports weapons and brings hope.

Photo by Wladoff

Only two letters remain from the inscription at the station: “BA”. Beside it there is a haunting hole, probably made by the shock wave. The platforms are empty. There are wagons, probably stuck here for a long time. At least for half a year, when in the first days of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops entered Balakliya. Nearly 27,000 people lived in this city in Kharkiv Oblast until February 24—now only a small portion of the population remains.

“I don’t know how many people are left in the city, but very few in this area. There are forty-two apartments in my building, and there are five or seven of us left, including one couple. We are like mammoths that have not died out,”laughs 69-year-old Mykola. A retired officer, for years he supplemented his modest pension by repairing television sets.

For months, Balakliya was without electricity, water, and in most of the city also gas. The inhabitants were completely cut off from information. During the occupation, Mykola felt as if he lived in a wilderness where the only rule was chaos. “I still don’t understand who was here and what they did,” he recalls. “I felt like I was in a pass-through room. Whoever wanted to, came in, and whoever wanted, left. And if it was possible, they also climbed through the window.”


That day Mykola was walking home through the station grounds when he came across an unusual sight. A new train, single car only, with Ukrainian flags and blue and yellow colors. Previously, it operated between the capital city of Kyiv and Boryspil airport. Since air traffic has stopped, representatives of Ukrzaliznytsia–the state railways–decided to send it on more demanding routes.

It was the first passenger train to arrive in Balakliya. The leadership of Ukrzaliznytsia was on board. They tried for three days to get to the city. After checking the route, they launched regular service. The next day, trains started running twice a day on the Kharkiv-Balakliya route.

Despite the damaged infrastructure, this first train reached the city just a week after it was recaptured by the Ukrainian army. Faster than running water or communication in the city was restored, and even before it was possible to determine who runs the city. Because the mayor, although he swore that he would not do it, cooperated with the Russians, and the prosecutor’s office initiated a treason case against him.

And so Ukrzaliznytsia became the second institution–after the police–to appear in Balakliya. “It is important that the return of Ukraine to these territories is not just a formality, sticking a flag in and that’s it. We want to take care of people, show that we care about their fate, and provide them with a good connection,” says Oleksandr Pertsovskyi, Passenger Transport Manager.

Three attempts

Broken catenary, a destroyed bridge, tracks riddled with holes, ubiquitous mines–these are the main problems that prevented the resumption of rail traffic between Kharkiv and the regained territories in this region.

When the small train set off for Balakliya on the first day, it stopped far from its destination. Sappers were still working on the route. They had to clear not only the tracks, but also an area up to a meter wide from the tracks, so that there was no doubt that the road was safe.

The sappers were followed by a repair crew, which immediately repaired the problems. They took out the damaged parts of the tracks and replaced them with new ones. This is mostly makeshift so that repairs are carried out without delay and residents can see trains at their town stations as soon as possible.

On the second day, they came across sappers again. Oleksandr Kamyshyn, head of Ukrzaliznytsia, oversaw the whole process on the spot. He heard more explosions of charges being neutralized. Three or four in an hour. The last one turned out to be fatal: two sappers were killed.

Kamyshyn says that the mines on this route were very bad. Some reacted to pressure, others to vibrations, and others exploded when someone tripped a wire. On the road to Balakliya, there were times when the wire was on one track and the mine on the other.

Along the way, they came across a variety of troves. Like the abandoned Russian position right next to the tracks. There were blinds where Russian soldiers had slept, with food scattered around. There was also a shooting position with Lego bricks scattered around. What were they doing there? We will probably never know, because the Russians disappeared in early September, when the Ukrainian army broke through their defenses and occupied most of the Kharkiv region within a few days, forcing the enemy soldiers to flee in a hurry.

And that’s why the train arrived in the city without advance notice.

“We don’t like to announce things that we haven’t done yet,” says Kamyshyn.

Only after they arrived themselves and became convinced that the trip was possible, did they officially enter the train on the timetables.

Trains to the Rescue

Ukrzaliznytsia from the first hours of the Russian invasion became crucial in many respects. When towns and villages across Ukraine were shelled and many people decided to flee at the last minute, they could count on free evacuation trains.

This was the case, for example, on February 24 in Kharkiv. When the Russians were already on the outskirts of the city, and its fate hung in the balance with every minute, an express train to Kyiv was expected at the station. The people waiting for it watched anxiously as the tanks crossed the overpass, not yet fully understanding that their country was facing a deadly threat.

The train was several hours late, but finally arrived at Kharkiv Railway station, ready to take everyone far from danger. Railway workers lined waiting passengers up at each entrance so that no one was pushing, nor would people unnecessarily cram into a couple of cars. Passengers calmly took their seats. That day, most of those fleeing the city chose cars, so the evacuation by train took place in—if you can call it that—in luxurious conditions.

In the following months, people were transported in this way from places that the war visited, such as Bucha, Irpin, Kharkiv, Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Lyman, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. It rescued people for as long as possible.

Ukrzaliznytsia workers often risked their lives to save those in need. Infrastructure and rail yards were often shelled, bringing a bloody harvest. The April [2022] shelling of the Kramatorsk station was the most tragic: two rockets fell on people waiting for the evacuation train, killing 60 people, including 7 children, and injuring over 110.

All the best

A total of 238 Ukrzaliznytsia workers have died since February 24, though mostly while on military service. Although the majority of employees in the state railways are not subject to mobilization due to the strategic importance of this institution, as many as 8,000 Ukrzaliznytsia workers have joined the army.

Any damage to infrastructure was immediately repaired and it was rare for a connection to be interrupted for more than a few hours. Kamyshyn says that since February 24, Ukrzaliznytsia has temporarily rebuilt more than 30 bridges and more than a thousand track segments.

“We are not a perfect organization, but during the war we managed to mobilize all the best in us. It means discipline, efficient management, people treating their role not as work, but their life,” says Pertsovskyi.

As a result, millions of people could travel inland or abroad, mainly to Poland, by train.

Passenger trains were also run on detours along old, long-disused tracks. They dragged on, rattled, but reached their destination, although often with hours of delay. At the stations, people sometimes had to camp for long hours. Therefore, efforts were made to provide them with a minimum of comfort—water, light, heat and internet access. Almost everywhere there were stands of volunteers and aid organizations offering a hot meal or information.

Ukrzaliznytsia dealt not only with rescuing civilians. It also transported humanitarian aid for territories closer to the front, and above all—although none of the representatives of this company or the Ukrainian authorities will comment on it—military cargo. Usually under cover of night, echelons of tanks, artillery and infantry fighting vehicles headed for the eastern and southern frontiers. They were crucial to the smooth movement of arms across the vast country.

The railway was also a strategic goal for the Russians. Therefore, their loss of most of Kharkiv Oblast is now a painful blow. “Through these territories, the Russians carried not only support to the Luhansk region but also through the Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts to the Kherson oblast. Now this supply chain has been interrupted, Kamyshyn explains.

Strike upon strike

A couple rides bicycles up to the station in Balakliya. This is 70-year-old Valery and his wife Halyna. They are surprised that the train has reached their city. Pertsovskyi explains to them that they fixed the bridge. The pair is emotional. They are sincerely happy to see people from Ukrzaliznytsia. The couple blurt out more sentences, shouting over each other as if they were afraid that they wouldn’t have time to say everything.

“Ukraine is back!” shouts Valery.

“They were scumbags,” adds Halyna.

“Terrible things happened here. A relative of mine died. Then another friend.”

“The town was struck after the Ukrainians came. And my friend was hit.”

“My relative came out of a stairwell and that was the end of him.”

They came to the station to talk on the phone with their daughter. In this area, only the bridge stretching over the tracks gets a cell phone signal. Before that, the Russians also came here to make calls.

Valery and Halyna’s daughter is in Poltava, where she fled before the war. She is with her granddaughter, who is studying at the academy of the Security Service of Ukraine. Halyna deleted all photos of her in uniform from her phone so that the Russians would not see them. She was afraid they would hurt them.

“They placed five self-propelled howitzers not far from our house. They’ve been firing at our boys for six months. Night and day. We ran to cook food on the fire, and after it was cooked, we quickly took cover,” recalls Valery.

He adds that initially the Russians were aggressive towards them. They told Valery and Halyna that Ukraine would soon be gone. They didn’t have access to information, so they didn’t know if it was true. They didn’t reply to the soldiers.

“I saw with my own eyes how they bound a woman with duct tape, put a bag over her head and took her somewhere,” says Valery.

“Apparently, she had a family member in the army,” adds Hałyna.

An annoying checkpoint

When the situation in Balakliya was not so tense, Valery engaged in conversations with the Russians stationed in the city, as well as with Ukrainian citizens fighting on their side from the unrecognized republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

“The normal ones admitted that they were fed up with this war,” says Valery.

A fighter from Luhansk who was looking for moonshine allegedly complained to him that he had not seen his family for seven months. Valeri only said: “Drop that rifle and run to them. What are you hanging around here for?” He didn’t answer.

The inhabitants also learned to ignore the occupying forces. A checkpoint was set up on the road leading to Valery and Haylna’s house. The soldiers standing there asked an awful lot of questions. Residents were tired of this questioning and always answering the same way. So they laid planks across the tracks and made a crossing for bicycles, which in tough times became the most effective means of transport.

This is why every now and then someone appears at the station, although the station is no longer there. One such person is 71-year-old Volodymyr, who is dragging a bicycle across the planks.

“Did you travel by train before?” Pertsovskyi asks.

“Yes, to Kharkiv. I used to go to the Barabashov market there. And where will it go now?”

“To Kharkiv, actually, and on the way through other towns, Pertsovskyi explains and asks: “Is the city coming back to life?”

“A bit.”

“Is there anything to eat?”

“Now there is some bread, but before there was nothing. For the last two months, whatever I caught on a fishing rod or found, I ate and shared with the cat. Somehow we lived.”

A train full of life

Oleksandr Pertsovskyi explains that they want to show that with the return of Ukraine everything is returning to its place. “What did the occupier bring them? And when Ukraine returned, they were immediately given the opportunity to go to Kharkiv,” he claims. There they have access to health care, shopping, a bank or ATM, and relatives whom they have not seen for many months.

From February 24, Pertsovskyi observed people torn by various emotions. First he saw those who were fleeing war, leaving their homes suddenly and often seeking refuge abroad. You could see their fear and uncertainty for what tomorrow would bring. When the situation calmed down in central Ukraine, passengers returned home. Then hope and joy prevailed. Now, in the case of the Kharkiv region, the train is coming to people who remained at home and gives them hope that a peaceful life is returning to them.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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