By Ada Wordsworth
I have only cried at the station once, but I can’t remember which story broke me. Maybe it was the old woman with dementia who had missed the train to Lviv and, when I tried to direct her elsewhere, shouted ‘fuck off!’ and hit me with her bag. Perhaps it was the countless young women who, having come of age in the hopeful Maidan era of the mid-2010s never imagined they would one day be homeless and broken, leaving their boyfriends behind to fight in a war. Or was it Sergei, the deaf man who arrived alone from Bucha, days before the March massacre that made international news? He gestured to himself and made the sign for a house with his hands, then showed me a video of his apartment block being blown up.
Before Putin invaded Ukraine and began what we can accurately term a genocide, I was halfway through the first year of my master’s in Slavic Studies. I had planned to spend the Easter holidays in the Russian Arctic, researching Josef Brodsky’s exile there. Exile now has new meaning to me. For seven weeks, I volunteered as a translator in Przemyśl, on the Polish-Ukrainian border. As of this piece’s writing, at the end of May, this war has been going on for 14 weeks and has forced an estimated 14 million people to abandon their homes. Over six million of those displaced became exiles to their own country, one million of whom returned to their broken homeland, having found their displacement so painful. I have spoken to thousands of these people, helping them obtain train tickets, find a place to sleep, or figure out where to go next. I have spent thousands of pounds on coffees and buses, suitcases and portable chargers.
When I first started helping at this station, there were 120,000 people crossing the Ukrainian border daily, mostly with an idea of where to go and often with at least some disposable income. Now, although the number of people crossing the border has fallen, the demographics have shifted and the situation feels worse. Currently entering Poland are those who couldn’t flee in the first wave – the disabled, the poor, the elderly or those who had sworn to themselves that they would never leave their country – but whom circumstances had forced away. They have lost homes and loved ones. They bring with them stories, and I listen. The abstracted, romanticised way I once understood the term ‘exile’ has now solidified into concrete horror. As the people I meet share what they’ve seen – things most of us can’t begin to imagine – I try to keep myself open to the full pain of their experiences whilst holding myself together, attempting to both embrace emotion and exile myself from it.
Days at the station are long. I arrive sometime in the late morning to meet lingering passengers off the first train from Ukraine. I rarely leave before 2am. The back of my high-vis vest reads ‘Russian and English’; as a rare Russian speaker, I am quickly swamped by people. Babushkas from Mariupol and mothers from Kharkiv with screaming children crowd around me, some quiet and subdued, others shouting and pushing. Sometimes, they know where they want to go, a place where they could stay; most of the time, they don’t. A large number want to go to Germany, but I’ve learnt that this isn’t a good idea. Recently, I was called by two women whom I had put on a train to Germany three weeks prior. They were still in a camp without a pension. Very occasionally, people want to go to the UK. These cases are easy – I tell them not to bother. The visa process is too long, and they will need to stay in a camp until it is complete. I break the news: of course, they can try Germany or the UK, but they should probably look elsewhere if they want better support – places further afield like Scandinavia, the Baltics, Ireland. I usually end up booking their flights a few hours later.
The last train from Kyiv is scheduled to arrive at 7.37pm, but it is always held up at the border for at least an hour, sometimes as many as seven – large-scale attacks on railway infrastructure lead to severe delays. Timetables leave these delayed trains behind; by the time they finally arrive, their passengers find all trains and buses departing from our station have already left. I send some of these inevitable, stranded latecomers to the local hotel where I’ve managed to reserve any available rooms. At least they’ll have beds to sleep in before I return to my own. There will never be enough availability for more than a few families, but it’s better than nothing. I try to persuade local authorities to organise a special bus to Warsaw, to ensure that some people can keep moving and won’t have to sleep here. On the days when they oblige – when we manage to wade through the bureaucracy and get everyone where they want to be, when I spend hours booking flights with donated money through my makeshift travel agency in the station café – joy does not feel completely exiled from this place. Babushka Nino is in Georgia now and sends me videos of Ukrainian solidarity protests there every day. Masha and her children are in Ireland, safe, settling in Limerick. Vika and her mother have been welcomed by friends outside Leipzig.
But even when the authorities agree to an extra bus, it will always leave someone behind. A grandfather from Donetsk sits in his own urine in the waiting room, unable to communicate to the Polish volunteers what has happened.
ADA WORDSWORTH sometimes reads for an MSt in Slavonic Studies at Univ, but mostely is the co-director of the Kharki and Przemyśl Project.
Art by Jemima Storey