That is the first order we receive from the two inspectors and those in charge of the train car that is going to take us to kyiv. A train that rides through the dark Ukrainian night, almost the only way in and out of the country. Lower the blinds to protect our lives and not be seen running. As I doze off, I even think about being hit by a missile.
We entered a country attacked from the Przemysl station after two and a half hours by car from Krakow. We accommodated ourselves in our car, with two single beds, in which an Austrian Christian Democratic deputy traveled – the one who was in charge, among many other things, of the organization of the European Championship won in Austria – and I, as a Social Democrat representative.
We have just passed through passport control with the American actor Sean Penn, who is going to the capital for the third time for his documentary on the situation in the country. I can’t resist and ask you to please do another film with Terrence Malick. I adored The thin red line Y The Tree of Life. The brief conversation – he tells me that Malick is a fantastic director – makes me forget to ask him for a picture with him. Too late. We are in separate cars and we leave very late – almost two and a half hours over the scheduled time – from the Polish city that receives us with many women who seem to return to their country.
In the queue to pass passport control, an older Ukrainian man asks us in English if we have lost our minds. Let them come back, okay, he tells us. But, “you foreigners, do not risk your life, do not travel, have you lost your mind?” We do not answer, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security in Europe (OSCE), Margareta Cederfeld, simply nods and watches. We know that there has been shelling on the same day of the trip in kyiv, but the security services will decide on our arrival at the Ukrainian border whether to continue or stay on the road.
Leaving the train station at dusk, we crossed a Polish cemetery lit by hundreds of candles. Upon arrival at the Ukrainian border, various military personnel board to escort us throughout the trip, until our return to Poland. After passport control, they expect about 20 hours of overnight train between the round trip.
kyiv welcomes us punctually at 09:21 in the morning, despite the late departure. During the night we have recovered time and upon arrival a second escort joins us with two vans, an ambulance and various soldiers who accompany us. kyiv looks like a normal city, but with little traffic and no commercial aircraft flying over the city. There are bars with hammocks chill out, open kebab stalls and speeding yellow taxis and buses. There are check points in some areas of the city, which we have been asked not to publish if we photograph, and the Rada (Ukrainian parliament) and the prime minister’s offices are totally isolated and armored.
It’s funny: I pay for a cappuccino with a card at Cao Cao, very close to Parliament, and I’ve also been able to leave the hotel and drive around a country that’s at war. A country with millions of people who have had to leave it behind, in an aggression during which violations of international law and breaches of human rights and the Geneva Conventions have been committed. The authorities accuse Russia of genocide.
In Bucha and Irpin we visited the horror of the massacres against the innocent population last spring and we saw with our own eyes the capacity for indiscriminate destruction of civilian homes. Their political representatives express their desolation for the intention to end the lives of hundreds of innocent people, and they warn that in both towns only 40 or 50% of the former residents have returned.
It is extremely hot, more than 30 degrees, and back in kyiv we prepare for official meetings with the president of the Rada, the Ukrainian prime minister and various high-ranking representatives of Foreign Affairs and Defense. They receive us separately, in military clothing, in bunkered buildings. They have just been accepted this weekend as candidates for accession to the European Union together with Moldova, and they are aware that they need more help from Europe: international help in the face of Russian attacks, the exodus of their population and the crimes committed against her. They call for the expulsion of Russia from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a body that I represent on this trip and in which 57 countries and 323 parliamentarians coexist, and to which the Russians continue to belong, although they will not be able to participate in the Assembly that begins this Friday in Birmingham.
The President of the Rada, Stefanchuck, makes us visit the Parliament. He is relaxed, smiles and makes jokes. I guess the rest goes inside. He explains to us that they have voted more than once with one eye on the button and the other in the sky before the noise of the sirens. He asks us for courage in the sanctions and that we recognize the crimes of genocide that the Russian Federation is committing, according to them. Putin’s name is not mentioned even once. Nor in the meeting we have with the Prime Minister, Shmyhal, and senior officials from different Ukrainian ministries.
We leave the meetings with the sun escaping Ukraine and kissing the golden domes of its wonderful Orthodox churches. We passed the Maidan and entered a small central supermarket to buy some things for the return trip. We have bought, for the twelve hours back, some food boxes provided by the hotel where we have been. The capital seems to escape from the war. We have Wifi at the hotel and on the return train we ate salmon and salad that they have prepared for us.
I realize that only women, adolescent girls and boys and other very young people travel with us, who are glued to their screens. The men remained on the platforms of kyiv. That could be one of the stories of If one winter night a travelerby Italo Calvino. However, it is the reality of our damn 21st century. In the middle of 2022 we experience a paradoxical normality, which in reality is not such. Today no bombs fall, but there is a tense calm; there are few people on the street and a lot of silence. We have not heard sirens in this cordoned off downtown area where we have stayed. At the end of the day we leave the capital by train and they ask us again to close the windows and lower the blinds.
While we were in the capital, a shopping center was bombed. kyiv today is a symbol of Europe, a Europe whose values are under threat. It is not only the Ukrainians who are threatened. It is us and our democracies.
We have taken a train that will take us to Poland and then to our homes, if we built some imaginary tracks. Because we carry a bit of those wars on our backs. It is also our war. The threat, the strongest feeling I have felt on this trip is in front of us. And that makes it even more important to remember that if we want to preserve our values and our democracy, even in the most complex moments, we must remember that, as Europeans, we have to be guarantors of freedom and democracy as universal values. And that, for this reason, defending those values in kyiv also means defending them on the borders that border the south, with our sister Africa, anywhere. If we do not achieve this, if we give in to barbarism, we will not have achieved what we seek by giving support to Ukraine either.