2022 8 Ukraine Ushgorod Rybnyk Schagen
The war is 6 months old and after long deliberations (with my wife) I finally get a feel for what it is to live in Ukraine now.
Driving from Kosice in Slovakia eastward, nothing indicates I am approaching a country at war. On the border crossing near Ushgorod, the encampment of humanitarian organizations is empty. Not many leave Ukraine now, more return. A mother and daughter wave for a lift as the border cannot be crossed on foot. Sorry, I have no space left.
All seems normal in the city until I hear the air raid alarm. I see no reaction from the people on the street. During the day the wailing sound repeats 3 or 4 times. Sandbagged windows dating from February, when the war started are still visible but sporadically. Some roadblocks, now shoved aside are also there. I am handicapped a bit as taking photographs is a suspicious activity. I have no press accreditation and in a coffee shop, a German tells me he was arrested and taken to a police station for using his camera. “They were quite friendly but it took some hours to get out.” Taking pictures feels awkward too, I do not want to be seen as some war tourist.
The hotel instructs us to be back before 10 p.m. as there is a curfew.
The real war is in our minds, the damage in our hearts
Kalina has come 2 hours by marshrutka to see us. Together with her husband and a group of volunteers, they supply their soldiers with just about anything: tourniquets, bulletproof vests, cars. They make vacuum-dried vegetables for borscht and bought a machine for this purpose. She tells me she is very worried: her brother has enlisted and just texted that he was transferred to the “zero line”, the frontline. Kalina is not to tell their mother.
Mikhal works in IT and tells me some of their work is now transferred to Slovakia for safety and other reasons. The chance is very small on this western border 2000 or more km from the frontline anything will happen but still. Today he received the message a friend had died at the front. “It is just 2 days ago I texted him”.
In conversations invariably the consequences of the war for everyone personally become clear and most end in tears.
It is our war
In a pub, I find a derelict but still playable piano. In this the atmosphere to play and sing some Ukrainian songs. I play “Not your war” by Okean Elsa. A couple listens and the man tells me: “actually Okean does not sing this song anymore. It is our war now.” They are from Kherson, now occupied by the Russians. They have found shelter in Lviv since February but are now having a few days here. They cannot return.
In the music hall, formerly the central synagogue Kristina Solovei will perform on Saturday night, she is well known for her Ukrainian version of “Bella ciao”
National flags on cemeteries, donation boxes in supermarkets
Driving north from Ushgorod the hills are beautiful and I pass concrete bunkers and dugouts from the Hungarian army dating from the second world war. They were never used and are now restored. Passing little villages I see the blue and yellow flags of Ukraine, several mostly. These are the graves of soldiers fallen, the oldest from 2014. In the local supermarket, a special section is reserved for donations to the soldiers from this village now serving at the front.
On a strategic high crossing, I have to identify a checkpoint of the territorial army. Despite the war, the quality of the road has improved tremendously during the last few years.
We live from day to day
Even though it is war people want to relax and the Carpathians are ideal for a break. The holiday park and spa is crowded and at the parking space, I spot many number plates from far away.
In the swimming pool, I am quickly spotted as a foreigner and some young girls speak some German as they hear my Dutch. I learn they live in Germany together with their mother in a very small town and go to school there. Their father tells me he is from Kyiv and an officer in the Army. He had not seen his family for 6 months and had a 6 days leave before has to return to the frontline. He tells me we have to meet in Kyiv after the war.
My friends have come too. Each of them has stories; all have nephews and friends at the frontline. Most are involved in supplying goods to them in all forms: camouflage nets, first aid bags, pickup trucks, and drones.
None of them knows what will happen.
Leaving Ukraine feels like a betrayal. I wanted to show my solidarity but then at the same time feel powerless against the magnitude of the evil done to these people. It is hot driving back over the immaculate Polish and German autostradas. On the road, the UA numberplate regularly appears, and on the crowded stops Ukrainians take a break. All I see are mothers with children. One comment: ” We left Kyiv in February and now live in Bremerhafen. The children go to school there now. We could only take bags with us but we went back to see my husband and pick up our car. We decided we will stay here because the children should continue school. ” She is happy to see my UA T-shirt. It is all I can offer them now. Solidarity.