War zones offer up experiences that you don’t get anywhere else. Sensory experiences that will stay with you. I have spent six months in total in Ukraine since the start of the full invasion in 2022 but certain episodes are well-remembered. Like last night.
After a 1500 km roadtrip all over Ukraine with my NGO Bikes4Ukraine.org in 30 degree heat, I boarded a train to Kyiv. A fifteen hour journey lay ahead. I was alone in the four-person sleeping compartment. At first.
At a stop farther along, three soldiers boarded. They were fresh from the front lines — with all the intense odor you would expect from young men fighting Russian aggression in trenches in blazing heat — and then squeezing into a small train compartment without A/C.
They were drunk on vodka and high on some other substance and they were borderline aggressive until they learned I was foreign. They kept napping fitfully and then waking up and talking loudly. Internal disputes kept rising to the surface but they dissipated like morning fog each time. They spoke in the simple, distorted grammar of inebriation. About Bakhmut and the counter-offensive but I heard the name Bakhmut countless times. The booze and drugs were medication after that experience — and fair enough.
One of them wanted so badly to speak to me — it was mutual — but he was sadly unintelligible in his state. He used a crutch and his right leg was injured. The muscles in his calf had already shrunk to a third of the size of his good leg. He kept his military backpack on for most of the journey and he had a fanny pack that was clearly important to him. He counted his cash over and over and over. He didn’t have much. He also kept pulling out a gold chain and fondling it. All night long he was obsessive about checking whether his fanny pack was closed. His two bags were very important to him.
Finally they slept, as did I. Windows wide open and curtains flapping as the old soviet-era train rumbled dutifully towards the capital. In the morning, they were quiet and humble. The drugs and booze had worn off. We smiled at each other. Checked our phones since the signal was back as we approached Kyiv. Looked out the window at the dawn.
As we pulled into the station, I showed them my phone. I had translated a text into Ukrainian:
“Please stay safe. Thank you for protecting Europe. Victory!”
They both read it quietly. They both nodded. They felt awkward about it and perhaps embarrassed about the night before, but I didn’t care. ‘
Then handshakes and hugs and quiet “Heroem slava” replies to my “Slava Ukraini”.
We parted ways.
Bikes4Ukraine is changing lives — including my own. But war zones, man. Fucking war zones created by invasive dictators. These young men shouldn’t have to go through what they go through. Nobody should. But they stand up and defend their nation. Despite the risk of injury or death — or the ticking time bomb of PTSD that this country is simply not equipped to handle.
I can still hear their voices. They won’t fade. Nor will the incessant stench of battle-weary soldiers fresh from the fight. I am grateful for that stench of a thousand locker rooms. I want that stench in my nose and to taste it in my mouth. I want to remember.
Those boys. Their innocent, hopeful past. Their brutal present. Their uncertain future. I hope they were all heading home for a time. To eat mama’s borscht, sleep properly in a familiar bed, hear birdsong instead of the deafening drums of war, help in the family garden. Hope. That’s all I fucking have. Let alone every Ukrainian.
I continue to stand with Ukraine.
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