The long crossing. Two elderly Ukrainian women travel thousands of miles to make it to the other side of the Dnipro River — Novaya Gazeta Europe
StoriesSociety

The long crossing

Two elderly Ukrainian women travel thousands of miles to make it to the other side of the Dnipro River

The long crossing

Image: Nastia Pokotinska / Novaya Gazeta Europe

As the crow flies, the village of Kardashynka on the left bank of the Dnipro River is a mere 11 kilometres away from the city of Kherson. The road is 37 kilometres long, making it about a half-hour drive between the two.

At least that’s how it was until 24 February 2022. Today, if locals wish to cross from the Russian-occupied left bank to the Ukrainian-controlled right bank, they’ll be required to devote at least five days to the task, and travel over 4,000 kilometres.

Getting from Russian-occupied parts of the Kherson region to free Ukraine requires taking a circuitous route through Crimea, Russia and Belarus. Novaya Europe joined two elderly women from Kardashynka on their arduous journey, which they undertook in order to once again be able to embrace their children.

Kardashynka to Crimea

“What’s in your bags?” barks a border guard who’s seemingly in her forties, her dark-dyed hair pulled into a tight ponytail. The two women in their eighties spend too long fiddling with the locks of their bulky and heavy wheeled bags, which keep falling over.

The 83-year-old Nadya is worried — the lock on her bag won’t budge. This is her first time crossing the improvised line between the towns of Armyansk and Chaplynka that divides occupied Kherson and annexed Crimea. Her younger companion Raya, who has just turned 81, feels more confident: her children have been living abroad for years, and before the war she used to fly to Thailand and the United Arab Emirates twice a year.

Raya is slim and upright, easily mistaken for a young woman from the back. She has faintly tattooed eyebrows and freshly manicured nails with scarlet polish. “Raya, you should at least remove your nail polish or you’ll draw unnecessary attention to us,” Nadya sometimes says softly. Nadya is the opposite of Raya — small, plump and sluggish, she can barely stand without a cane. She suffered a severe stroke just a month before the war started, but managed to get back on her feet through daily exercise.

Armyansk to Simferopol

Ruslan, our cab driver, is waiting in the parking lot next to the border crossing to take Nadya and Raya to the railway station in Simferopol. Soon, the two ladies appear on the path leading to the parking lot. Nadya is leaning heavily on her cane. Her bags are carried by Seryoga, an acquaintance from Kardashynka, who nowadays earns money driving people from the Kherson region to the Crimean border. Raya is wearing a backpack that is clearly too heavy for her to carry comfortably, but she does not complain.

The road from Armyansk to Simferopol is almost 150 kilometres, and road works make the going slow. We drive past noisy steam rollers and rumbling tractors. Workers in bright orange vests are shovelling smoking black tarmac; the foreman, cigarette in hand, is animated in explanation, cursing like a sailor and gesturing wildly.

“They’re getting ready for the summer,” Ruslan points out. “Probably expecting tourists.”

Northern Crimea, with its military bases and ammunition depots, a constant target of Ukrainian missiles and drones, hardly sounds like an enticing destination.

“Tourists, sure,” Raya mumbles sarcastically.

The phone signal here, provided by a mysterious company that’s been operating in Kherson since the early days of the Russian occupation, drops as we get further away from the region. Shortly before exiting Crimea, I go to a mobile phone shop to ask what to do with these Kherson SIM-cards.

“Ah, those things,” the salesman scoffed, “the further you are from Kherson, the worse they work. In Russia they’ll stop working altogether. And you can’t switch your number to another provider. That can be done with any other SIM card, but not with the ones bought in the Kherson region.”

Simferopol railway station

Our cab driver places our bags on the pavement, says goodbye, and drives off. However, the station entrance is another 100 metres away, and just reaching it from where the cab left us is its own adventure. Leaving one of my companions to guard our luggage, I help the other to walk half the way before returning to escort her friend and carry the luggage. I repeat this sequence until all three of us and our bags are at the station entrance, ready to go through security.

“Put your bags on the belt, remove watches and belts, and put any phones, lighters, and change into the tray”, the security staff repeat on a loop.

The line of passengers forms a small jam in front of the metal detector. I glance at the screen of the bag scanner and see Nadya’s bag with the outline of pans inside. A kitchen hatchet she’s packed hides behind one of the pans, and its threatening silhouette thankfully remains invisible. I sigh with relief.

“Nadya, why are you dragging these pans along?” Raya asks. “They’re so heavy, can’t you just buy new ones in Kherson?”

“What if they don’t have any?” Nadya replies. “I used to have ones just like these, with a thick bottom. They were very handy. But then the [Russian] soldiers stole them.”

I put a finger to my lips to shush her — best not mention soldiers around here.

There are a lot of military personnel scurrying around. Most of them are brooding men in their thirties and forties, wearing backpacks with flip-flops hanging from them. Some have badges displaying the pro-war Z or V symbols. A few others have black patches with a skull, the insignia of the notorious Wagner Group. Staring into their smartphones, they smoke while standing underneath the “No smoking” sign.

Nadya and Raya are fervently discussing their various health issues.

Boarding is announced over the loudspeakers, and it’s a long way to the train. Raya rushes along in a determined fashion, whereas Nadya trudges behind, leaning heavily on her cane. As we proceed along the platform, we see a man in military uniform walking towards us. He reeks of cigarettes, alcohol, and old sweat, and keeps shouting angry profanities at nobody in particular. I tense up, dreading a real-life encounter with a “hero of the special military operation”. Despair trembles behind the anger in his voice, and it sounds like he might burst into tears.

“Damn bastards, I hate you! I’ll kill you!” he continues as he walks past us.

Nadya shudders and tries to walk faster to get away from the bellowing soldier, using every last ounce of strength to drag herself to our carriage.

The Crimean Bridge

It’s stuffy in the communal sleeping carriage where we try to finally catch our breath after our bag-laden hike across the platform. Our fellow passengers are already preparing their bunks for bedtime, suggesting an unspoken understanding that there won’t be the usual late-night get-togethers over tea. Nobody talks to each other, names are not exchanged. The only sound to be heard is the clatter of the wheels as the train picks up speed. An hour later, nearly every top bunk has a pair of male feet, clad in old socks, sticking out into the aisle. The heat is merciless.

A young man in his twenties comes up to us. He is thin, with greasy dark-blond hair and freckles on his tanned face.

“Are you going to lie down?” he meekly asks the ladies, who are sitting on the lower bunk.

“No, no, do sit down,” Raya replies hastily.

The man introduces himself as Vanya and explains that he’s due to get off the train once we’ve crossed the Crimean Bridge, which connects annexed Crimea to Russia’s Krasnodar region. After that he says he’ll take a car to the city of Slavyansk-on-Kuban. He tells us he’s excited to be going back home, he can’t wait to play his guitar and meet up with his friends.

“Are you a contract soldier?” I ask him.

“Yes,” he answers, looking sheepish, and hides his hands under the table. The skin on them is chapped, black dirt stuck beneath the nails.

For a while, everyone is silent. Nadya rustles through her bag of medication.

“Have a look, does that say 200 milligrams or 100?” she asks me. “My eyesight’s horrible.”

“They’ve built an excellent civilian hospital in Mariupol,” Vanya suddenly says out of nowhere, and there is so much pride in his voice that Nadya and Raya look up at him curiously.

Once again, everyone is silent, save for the clickety-clack of the wheels.

Raya looks at me, tears swelling in her eyes, and mouths: “I wish they hadn’t bombed it in the first place.” Hush, Raya, hush…

“Do you often go on leave?” I ask Vanya.

“Second time in two years.”

“Lucky you. Then why are the wives of mobilised men complaining that their husbands aren’t allowed to go on leave? Are they lying?”

“Probably not,” Vanya replies after considering the question for a moment. “It depends on the commander. Ours is a reasonable guy, very understanding. But some commanders won’t give you leave for years.”

“I heard that money can arrange that.”

“Well, that does happen,” Vanya concedes, avoiding eye contact.

As we approach Kerch, everyone who hadn’t yet gone to bed gets into their bunks as police, soldiers, and railroad security personnel start going through the carriages.

“Dear passengers, you may not leave your seats or move around the carriage during the crossing of the Crimean Bridge,” the train attendant announces. “The restrooms will also be closed. They will be in operation for the rest of the journey, including during stops.”

The train crosses the Crimean Bridge at night. Raya and Nadya lie on their bunks, gazing into the darkness. Occasionally, they see lights, reinforced concrete fences, barbed wire, and even waves crashing against the concrete. Unimpressed, the ladies go to sleep.

Image: Nastia Pokotinska / Novaya Gazeta Europe

Image: Nastia Pokotinska / Novaya Gazeta Europe

Rostov-on-Don railway station

The train has a long stop at the busy hub of Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia’s largest city. We disembark into the bustle of the platform, enveloped by hot dusty air and the bickering of porters. Taking advantage of the long stop, passengers pour out of the carriages to take some exercise, smoke a cigarette or two, or make a phone call while the connection is good.

We, on the other hand, unload our bags onto the platform as we have to change trains. Around us, porters are carrying disabled people out of the carriages on stretchers. I find a wheelchair for Nadya, who is still exhausted from her ordeal in Simferopol, while porters assist me with our luggage.

“The Russians would shell Kherson from my vegetable garden at least four times every day,” Nadya recalls.

There is a disabled waiting room on the first floor of the railway station, equipped with comfortable seating and enlivened by a variety of potted plants. Right next to it is another waiting area for participants in the “special military operation”, the official euphemism for the war in Ukraine employed in Russia. There, a few soldiers are sleeping, stretched across a row of seats. Others are awake, eyes glued to their smartphones. When the train to Crimea is announced, all of them get up simultaneously, take their backpacks, and leave. The coast is clear — we can finally talk.

“The Russians would shell Kherson from my vegetable garden at least four times every day,” Nadya recalls. “First at 4am, then at 10am, then at 6pm, and finally around midnight. They’d come over, fire off their shells, and leave. Others were stationed nearby in Oleshky. Sound travels well across water, and I could feel the walls tremble from the shelling there. I would lie in bed, counting the flashes. There were usually 22 of them. It was the drones that frightened me the most though, since they were so unpredictable. I remember looking at the wall and counting when suddenly there was a loud bang right next to me, and it felt like the wall in front of me moved and then returned to its usual place. The chandelier swayed, as if there had just been an earthquake.”

Nadya and Raya recall that for them the war started back in 2014. While Ukrainians were fighting for their rights on the Maidan in Kyiv — Raya attended the rallies with her children — Putin took advantage of the turmoil, seized Crimea, and engineered fighting in Donbas. However, both Nadya and Raya agree that the one thing they never expected from Russia was a full-scale war.

Remembering the flood

In the spring of 2023, all the rats in Kardashynka disappeared. This worried the locals — it seemed like a dark omen. Two months later, Russian forces blew up the Kakhovka dam.

“My dog started crying 10 days before the flooding started”, Nadya recalls. “He disappeared after the flood. The neighbours later told me that he drowned — he’d climbed on top of a shed, but the water ultimately carried him away.”

Russian troops stationed in Kardashynka left shortly before the water reached the village. Nadya went over to the neighbours, who had a working TV. On the news, they said water levels would rise by no more than 1.5 metres. It was decided that the neighbours would wait out the flooding at Nadya’s house since it was built of stone on a high foundation. As they were hurriedly eating breakfast, the water arrived.

“It rushed into the house so quickly that we barely had any time to climb up to the attic. The waves were so strong they swept away everything in their path,” Nadya says.

By nightfall, the water had nearly reached the attic. Several neighbours whose wooden houses had collapsed managed to reach Nadya’s attic — some were in rubber boats, others simply swam.

By the next day, Nadya’s house began creaking dangerously. People grew scared of staying there any longer, took the two rubber boats they had, and went to search for dry land.

Raya was living alone when the flood hit — her children left Ukraine in the first days of the Russian invasion. They’d asked her to come with them, but she hadn’t wanted to leave her home.

“The night they blew up the dam, I saw my dead husband in a dream. It was a scary dream,” Raya recalls.

An hour later, the explosion happened. By early morning, the water had reached Raya’s back yard and then the first floor of her house. She scurried around frantically, carrying things up to the second floor. She had recently repaired the second-floor bathroom and filled the brand-new bath with potable water. Thanks to that, she and the neighbours she’d given refuge to had a supply of water.

The following day, they managed to reach a small patch of dry land, where other locals had gathered.

“Those whose phones still worked kept calling the Russian emergency services, but nobody came to save us. There were about 50 of us, and for two days we slept on the ground. There were no infants, but there were school aged children, as well as several dogs and cows. I know that some other people who were stranded on another patch of dry land got food and water delivered to them by Ukrainian drones, but we didn’t get anything like that,” Nadya says.

On the third day, boats manned by local volunteers arrived. They took some of the group away in the direction of Kherson and reassured Nadya that she’d be taken on the next available boat.

“I know that not everyone from our little island made it to Kherson — the Russians shot at the boats,” Nadya remembers. “I really wanted to get to Kherson to see my children, but nobody from the far shore of the river ever came back for us.”

Still, there were no emergency services. More volunteers came, and this time they took the remaining residents of Kardashynka to an unflooded part of Hola Prystan, from where people were bussed to shelters in different settlements. Nadya and Raya ended up in the coastal village of Lazurne.

“I cried a lot because I couldn’t call my children and tell them how I was,” Nadya says. “A woman in the shelter took pity on me and let me call my daughter through Telegram — that’s the only way to call a Ukrainian number from a Russian one. Only after speaking to my daughter did I manage to calm down a bit.”

Boarding the Minsk train

Once boarding is announced, Raya and Nadya begin hurrying along, visibly worried. Again, a porter comes to aid us. He pushes a trolley with our bags while I push Nadya in a wheelchair. The relatively nimble Raya rushes ahead.

As we approach the train, we see two gurneys being brought up next to us. On them are a man and a woman, both elderly, so thin that they look practically weightless, with their stick-like limbs and stringy white hair. The porters begin arguing among themselves.

“Where are you from?” I ask the woman accompanying the elderly couple.

“Hornostaivka.”

It turns out that they are also travelling to Ukraine to see their children. Hornostaivka is not far from Kakhovka and is also a regular target of shelling.

Finally, we manage to board the train only a few minutes before departure. Somebody throws our bags into the carriage just moments before the train moves off.

Rostov-on-Don to Millerovo

Nadya and Raya are fidgeting in their seats and shifting their bags around. Nadya is preparing her documents for a second check by the train attendant, taking out assorted papers from her purse and squinting at them in an attempt to figure out what it is she has found. At some point, she puts her Ukrainian passport on the table and continues rummaging through her purse.

“Hey, lady, you should put your Ukrainian passport away before someone notices,” says a man in his fifties from the neighbouring compartment. “Otherwise we’ll all get into trouble. The border guards will start checking us. Only Russian passports are allowed on this train.”

Nadya glances at him, blushes, and hurriedly stuffs the blue passport back deep into her backpack to make sure she won’t accidentally pull it out next time.

There are a lot of soldiers on the train. Most of them disembark when we reach the border with Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.

“Look, Raisa,” Nadya says, nodding towards the window when we pass the town of Millerovo.

Raisa looks out the window, and her face becomes even more wrinkled as she tries to hold back her tears. There is a freight train outside with tanks, cannons, and other lethal equipment on its open platforms.

Illustration: Nastia Pokotinska / Novaya Gazeta Europe

Illustration: Nastia Pokotinska / Novaya Gazeta Europe

“How many more of our boys will die? And how many civilians?” Raya asks in a barely audible whisper. Her wrinkles catch a tear that rolls down her face.

In the next compartment, there is a married couple travelling to Bryansk. They are in their late fifties, and they spend the journey absorbed in a lively discussion of how great life in the Soviet Union was: free housing, the world’s best education and healthcare, and stability. However, there is still stability today. All that we have to do is restore the Soviet Union and then we’ll all be happy.

Raisa remembers the Soviet past with dread. Everybody on her mother’s side of the family died during the Holodomor, when the Soviets came to their home and confiscated all the grain they had. Raya and her brothers spent their childhood walking barefoot on the earthen floor of their home. For years, the whole family had been forced to sleep on the floor as the Soviets had taken away their bed, the bicycle and the rifle that Raya’s father had owned in lieu of the taxes they’d been unable to pay.

So, when Russian soldiers in occupied Kherson began hanging red Soviet banners next to the Russian flags, Raisa was mortified. For her, returning to those “halcyon” Soviet days would be the worst nightmare imaginable.

Passing Bryansk

After the stop in Bryansk, there’s almost nobody left in the carriage, except for a few camouflage-clad men who are fast asleep on the top bunks, reeking of sweat and old socks.

“Olya, could you please text my daughter that we’re currently travelling through Bryansk — it’s where she grew up,” Nadya asks me with endearing glee in her eyes.

We make ourselves comfortable in the compartment which we now have to ourselves and eat lunch. Raya slices vegetables and pork fat and tears the bread into strips with her hands. Steam rises from cups filled with freshly brewed coffee with cream.

“Six months into the war, I was almost out of food and so I tried to ration what I had left, eating very little,” Nadya says. “I would often lie awake in bed and think of my grandmother and how she would take a round loaf of bread out of the oven in the mornings. How big and plump it was, and how good it smelt. I would think of my grandfather. They lived in the Bryansk region. My grandfather really disliked Stalin. He wrote a memoir about life in the Stalin era, but when he died my communist father burnt the manuscript. To be honest, I don’t understand how anybody can long for the return of the Soviet times.”

Russian servicemen stand on the shore of the Black Sea in Skadovsk, Kherson region, Ukraine, 20 May 2022. Photo: Sergey Ilnitsky / EPA-EFE

Russian servicemen stand on the shore of the Black Sea in Skadovsk, Kherson region, Ukraine, 20 May 2022. Photo: Sergey Ilnitsky / EPA-EFE

Smolensk. Minsk. Brest

Once the train leaves Smolensk and crosses the border into Belarus, I insert Ukrainian SIM cards into Nadya and Raya’s phones. They kept their Ukrainian SIM cards despite the fact that they stopped working as soon as the Russian occupation of the Kherson region began in the summer of 2022. Raya’s phone immediately vibrates: her Ukrainian pension has been deposited to her bank card. The ladies grow excited at the imminent prospect of once again being among their own.

Law enforcement officers begin inspecting passengers, though this time they’re wearing Belarusian police uniforms.

Most passengers fall silent upon their approach. It’s a strange feeling: you’re not guilty of anything, but they still look at you like you’re a criminal.

As the train approaches Minsk, people start fussing around with their luggage. We finally get acquainted with the woman who’d been travelling on the top bunk of our compartment. She is very thin and tired-looking and speaks very slowly, as if always thinking about something.

Her name is Irina, she’s 45 years old and lives in Donetsk, but is now travelling to Poland with Ukrainian documents to earn money.

“My flat was shelled for the fourth time,”’ she says quietly. “So while I still have some strength I need to earn some money to repair it, and the job situation at home is bad. Of course, we’re glad that Russia came to us in 2014,” she says louder, with horror in her eyes, and then adds quietly: “But we’ve never lived in such poverty.”

The transfer in Minsk turns out to be the easiest of them all. We don’t have to hurry as the Brest train boards from the same platform where we’ve just disembarked. Nadya and Raya grow sad, knowing that soon we’ll have to say good-bye.

The train to Brest is different from the Russian trains that we’d taken. People look at each other with interest, get acquainted, ask questions. We are still not used to that, still fearing that every question might be a trick one and that any fellow traveller could be an informant.

As night falls, the lights go out and people go to sleep on bare bunks so as not to pay extra for bed linen. I look around me and feel like I’ve time-travelled to our dingy Soviet past.

In Brest, I hand Raya and Nadya over to Ukrainian volunteers because I’m not allowed to travel any further. Raya and Nadya hold my hands and cry. I pray that they will be alright.

…Raya and Nadya reached Kherson a couple days later. Now they are under shelling again, and Kardashynka, their beloved home, is so close — and yet so far.

pdfshareprint
Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.