I spent one more day in Mariupol before deciding it was time to leave. The Poseidon Hotel, which for a week had been a beehive of foreign journalists, had emptied and the place seemed oddly abandoned. I felt that same sense of abandonment as I walked through town and along the Sea of Azov’s beaches the day after the cease-fire. I slowly realized that abandoned is probably how this place usually felt.
The train left at six and I had the day. I had lunch at a café by the water, and it was only about two by the time I finished eating. With nothing left to do I started to order beers and write.
I slowly felt the inner tension of the past few days unwinding within me. But the coils would tighten again at the slightest imagined muffled thud. Even the rising sound of the wind blowing through the leaves piqued my senses.
Was that a rocket, a mortar, a tank firing? Was it happening again?
I was still very much in that state of mind.
Later I walked to the train station. It was sunny but cool with the breeze coming off the Sea of Azov. Despite my less-than-stellar Russian, I successfully fumbled my way through the ticket counter and found my train car and my way to the two-person sleeper berth that would be home for the 22-hour journey back to Kyiv.
I settled in and began to read.
The door opened and a tall man burst in the compartment. He was solidly built and sweating and two women helped carry his many bags.
“I hope I’m in the right seat,” I said.
“Oh good, you speak English,” one of the women said with a thick Russian accent. “My brother is from Canada.”
“Nice to meet you,” the tall man said in a huff and with a much lighter accent. “My name is Andrey.” He was slightly breathless and had an out of sorts, disheveled air about him. He stuck out his hand.
“You too.” I shook his hand. “My name is Nolan.”
Andrey finished storing his bags in his half of the sleeper and gave me a nod and a half smile and left with one of the women. The other stayed for a moment longer.
“I feel better knowing my brother will have someone to talk to,” she said, smiling, and then she spun out of the compartment.
I went back to reading and put in my headphones. Some time later, right before the train left the station, Andrey came back in and plopped down on the bench defeatedly. Out of the corner of my eye as I read I could sense him making half glances at me, like he wanted to say something. As a writer I should have been more interested, but I was tired and empty after days in a warzone and I felt content to read and listen to my music and be completely within myself for a while.
Andrey moved over to the window and pressed up against the glass. Out on the platform were the two women who had brought him in the train. He alternated between waving and pressing his hand up against the glass as the train began to pull away. I saw his lips moving, silently mouthing words in a language I didn’t know.
Soon the two women were out of sight and the train was on its way. Andrey plopped down again on the bench, his limbs loose with defeatism. Not out of despair, it seemed from my furtive glances, but from just being tired.
I took out my headphones.
“So you’re from Canada?”
His chest was still moving quickly, but he seemed to be coming down from something.
“Yes, I’m Ukrainian but I lived in Canada for eight years and had a business there,” he said. “And you?”
“I’m from Ameri… from the United States,” I said, mindful of Canadian sensibilities about the word “American.”
“What city are you from in Ukraine?” I asked.
I put down my book.
“How is it there?”
“Very, very bad,” he said, folding one leg up onto the knee. He pushed both palms down into the bench. He spoke to me in side-glances. Now he was the one who was reluctant to talk.
“I fled to Mariupol with my wife, and we’ve been staying there with my sister. And then, well everything started to go bad. I was going to leave last night but the fighting was too close. I thought I should leave today before it began again.”
“What about your wife?”
“She’s going back to Donetsk tomorrow,” he said, becoming very sullen. He turned to look right at me. “She owns a business there and that’s where our apartment and all of our things are. We want to move to Kyiv, but she’s going back to get our winter clothes and some other things.”
He exhaled and looked away.
“But I’m scared for her. It is a dangerous place.”
“That’s what I’ve heard.”
“They stole my car you know,” he said before telling me the story.
He was with his wife and another couple in Donetsk, driving somewhere, he couldn’t remember where, when a gang of separatists pulled him over. They made the four of them get out and demanded he hand over his car.
“This is DNR property now,” one of the separatists proudly proclaimed. “We need it for the revolution.”
“It wasn’t even a very nice car, it was just an old Audi,” he told me. “But it didn’t have tinted windows and had no bullet holes in it. It looked normal, which is what they wanted so they could get through the army checkpoints more easily.”
Andrey thought about putting up a protest but decided it wasn’t worth dying for a car. While all this was happening, a separatist commander, a woman, arrived with some others. She pressed Andrey to explain why he hadn’t volunteered to join the separatist army.
“Are you an American spy?” she asked seriously.
He fumbled for an excuse, he explained to me. He knew if he said the wrong thing or if they discovered he had been living in Canada for eight years, they would either shoot him on the spot or take him to the separatists’ headquarters in downtown Donetsk and torture him.
But before he could say anything, his wife spoke.
“He can’t fight because I’m pregnant,” she lied, patting her belly. “And I need him to take care of me.”
“Ah, I understand,” the woman said.
Andrey looked at me solemnly.
“You understand how dangerous it is in Donetsk?”
“I think so,” I ventured. “I’ve also heard some bad stories about how they use civilians as human shields.”
“Oh, let me tell you about that.”
He explained how the separatists fired mortars and rockets from the tops of apartment buildings and schools and then fled, hoping to draw Ukrainian return fire that would kill civilians and make a good news clip for Russian propaganda.
In one instance, he told me, there was an artillery attack, which he suspected was actually the separatists shooting at buildings in Donetsk in a ruse to make it look like the Ukrainians were targeting civilians.
“You know what was funny,” he told me. “The Russian TV crews were there within a couple minutes. They were there a long time before the fire trucks or ambulances, a long time. But tell me, how would they know? How could they possibly get there so fast?”
He shrugged his shoulders put his upturned hands out and raised his eyebrows.
“You understand what I’m saying? They just do these things for the cameras.”
He told me more. He told me about the checkpoints, and I said I knew about that. He said in Donetsk if you have a foreign passport or don’t speak Russian, they consider you a spy.
He was very adamant that I, as an American veteran, should not try to go to Donetsk.
“It would end badly for you,” he said.
The constant artillery fire was terrifying, he continued. When it gets really bad, shaking the ground like an earthquake, all he could do is curl up on the floor and hope for the best.
I asked why, if it was so dangerous there, did he and his wife stay for so long? I also asked why she had to go back.
“It’s different in Ukraine than in the U.S.,” he said. “Most of us don’t have mortgages or car loans. We own our apartments and cars outright and we save up our whole lives for them. They are all we have. If I leave my apartment and my other things, I can never get them back. I worked my whole life and now I’m 40 years old and I have nothing.”
He told me his wife owned an outdoor sporting goods store in Donetsk, and she had to lock it up before they fled to Mariupol. They were just going to abandon the store and their home, he said.
She only had to make this one last trip and then she would meet him in Kyiv. He wanted go with her, but she convinced him it was too dangerous for a man to get back in and out through the checkpoints, especially hiding a Canadian passport. It was safer for a woman, she said. He knew his wife and her conviction and that he couldn’t change her mind.
“This fucking war,” he said disgustedly.
As the train moved north from Mariupol we watched on a map on my iPhone as we passed through the front lines of the battle that had raged outside Mariupol the day before and then as the train skirted within just a few dozen kilometers of Donetsk.
We talked about a lot of things. About life in America and his many trips there. He told me about a road trip from Seattle to Chicago, and how amazed he was at the way different parts of America contrasted with each other.
He offered me some of the food he had with him, taking great pride in explaining to me how Ukrainians make cheese and the special spices used in preparing their version of jerky. And then he opened a bottle of cognac and he told me about his first wife and why that marriage failed and how the woman to whom he was now married had changed everything for him.
“We get sad sometimes,” he said, swirling the cognac in one of the ceramic mugs the train attendant had left us. “We ask, ‘Why did we have to meet so late in life?’”
As the train went farther into the night, we went deeper into the bottle of cognac until it was gone. Andrey went to look for another.
“I should ask the stewardess if she has any,” he said before he left, his words stumbling over the cognac. “Is that how you say it? Stewardess?”
“I think they prefer to be called to be flight attendants nowadays,” I said, having had a good bit myself.
“From the flight attendant,” he proudly said to me as he returned a while later with another bottle.
I spread out on the bench on my side of the sleeper and rested my head up against the wall next to the window. He poured me another glass of cognac and left it on the small plastic table that was between us. I could reach the cup with my left hand without sitting up or looking for it.
“A good woman is a very, very rare thing,” he said to me, speaking more slowly and with a thicker accent than before. “What do you think of Ukrainian women?”
“Very beautiful,” I said.
“And my wife?”
“She’s very Ukrainian.”
“Yes, she certainly is,” Andrey said as he sprawled out on his bench to stare at the ceiling. “I’m sorry, I think I’m getting a bit drunk.”
We said a few more unimportant things before falling asleep.
The next morning I woke up to the high-pitched whistle of train brakes and the sun on my face through the window. Andrey was not in the cabin.
I got up and found the train attendant and asked for a coffee. After she brought it I sat by the window and watched the rolling fields of yellow sunflowers that spread over Ukraine like a quilt. After a while like this, the door slid open and Andrey came back. He was wearing a different shirt than the day before, a yellow one. He didn’t say anything but sat down on the bench carefully and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and with his cellphone in one hand.
He talked without looking at me.
“They attacked Mariupol again last night.”
“What, are you sure? What about the cease-fire? How do you know?”
“It started in the middle of the night. My wife called to tell me.”
“So she didn’t go to Donetsk then?”
A pause. He spun the cellphone in his hand.
“No. She still went. She said she had to.”
It was my turn to talk but I didn’t know what to say.
“This fucking war,” he said for me.
A little while later we cleared the empty bottle of cognac from the small plastic table, threw away the cheese and jerky wrappers and returned the ceramic mugs.
For the rest of the train ride Andrey stood in the narrow hallway outside the door to our cabin, both hands grasped on the handrail that ran beneath the window out of which he silently stared.
After the train pulled into the Kyiv station, I helped him unload some of his bags and then we shook hands and exchanged phone numbers and emails. He said someone was coming to pick him up.
“Let’s get a beer soon,” I said.
“Yes, we should.” His mind was somewhere else.
“Good luck, Andrey,” I said. “I’ll keep you and your wife in my thoughts.”
“Thank you,” he said, smiling with his lips only. His eyes were expressionless and gone.
I walked away and looked back one time before I turned the corner off the platform. Andrey was still standing where I had left him, talking on his cellphone as the crowd swirled around him.