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Joy ride: Kherson cheers as first train arrives from Kyiv after occupation

The first train to liberate Kherson from Kyiv arrives in Mykolaiv, Ukraine on Saturday. After an almost nine-month hiatus due to the Russian occupation, Ukrainian passenger rail services have been restored on the line. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
The first train to liberate Kherson from Kyiv arrives in Mykolaiv, Ukraine on Saturday. After an almost nine-month hiatus due to the Russian occupation, Ukrainian passenger rail services have been restored on the line. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)


KHERSON, Ukraine — As the overnight train left Mykolaiv Station, a now nearly empty building with its windows blown out, Lyudmyla Desiatnykova could hardly believe her stop was next.

It’s the town where she grew up, where she raised her children and where most of the 52-year-old’s extended family still lives. But it was a place she hadn’t seen since July, when her family insisted she flee the war-torn, Russian-occupied city with her 15-year-old daughter.

Desiatnykova evacuated with the teenager to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, leaving behind her husband and elderly mother and not knowing when or if she would see them again.

On Saturday morning, a week and a day after Ukrainian soldiers liberated Kherson – the only regional capital captured by Russia since the start of the invasion – Desiatnykova was in the first car of the first train home.

As the sun rose over the fields of rural southern Ukraine, Desiatnykova’s phone rang. It was her husband, letting her know he was already at the station, waiting for her.

“We’ll be there in an hour,” she said.

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The train to Kherson from Kyiv was part of a Ukrainian Railways campaign to transport passengers to recently liberated Ukrainian cities and show the country and the world the railway’s ability to quickly resume cut services. by war.

Throughout the war, Ukraine’s railways have been a symbol of resilience, transporting hundreds of thousands of displaced people to safety even as their stations and tracks were sometimes bombarded. Last week, in a bold show of optimism, the railway began selling tickets to five cities, all but one still occupied by Russians.

“Welcome aboard the first ‘Train to Victory’,” said a flyer on the table in front of Desiatnykova. On the other side of the leaflet was the image of a wagon carrying a watermelon – the most famous culture of the Kherson region.

During the occupation, Desiatnykova said, “it felt like being trapped in a cage.” The return of the train meant, at least for now, the end of this isolation. “That means we’re open,” she said. “We have freedom.”

Waking up in the carriages behind her on the overnight train, fellow passengers were visiting family for the first time – a man who hadn’t seen his son since March, a son who hadn’t seen his parents since the start of the war.

There was celebrity chef José Andrés, traveling to Kherson with his team providing meals through his organization World Central Kitchen. And there were people who came just to be a part of it – to see a place that for months was synonymous with Russian occupation and has now become a symbol of Ukrainian strength.

One such person was Gromovytsia Berdynk, 49, a writer from Kyiv who had never been to Kherson. She was just planning to walk around the city for a few hours, meet its people and tell them “we have been praying for the people of Kherson all the time”.

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On Friday, Natalia Polishchuk, 63, stood outside her home on the outskirts of Kherson and gasped when she heard the familiar and long-awaited sound of a train arriving in her neighborhood for the first time in nine months .

It was once a common marker of time – a rumble and a horn she heard every 20 minutes of the day. The tracks were so close to her home that the passage of trains became part of the identity of the inhabitants, of the rhythm of life in Stepanivka, a suburb of Kherson. But since March the tracks had been unused and the noise of the train has become a memory of a pre-war era, before the Russians took over their small village and sent troops into the nearby factory from their house.

Polishchuk had seen the railroad workers preparing the tracks the day before, and now she saw and heard the test of what would be the first train to cross the area. Dressed in a floral dress and a white scarf over her head, her eyes filled with tears as she watched him pass.

“It gives us hope,” she said. “That means we’re not busy anymore.”

Desiatnykova looked out the steamy window at the decrepit buildings outside Kherson. She saw downed electrical wires, empty military trenches, destroyed Russian tanks, abandoned firing positions.

Ukrainian soldiers waved from shelled buildings. Families and children rushed out of their homes to greet passengers from afar. Farmers and electricians stopped work to witness the moment. The train car managers smiled and wiped away tears as they watched.

But Desiatnykova sat solemnly looking out the window.

“It’s hard to see him like that,” she said.

She feared that the Russians would return to retake Kherson. She knew they still controlled much of the surrounding area on the east side of the Dnieper.

The last time Desiatnykova saw these fields, she was fleeing in a bus with 16 foreigners, mostly women and children. Her plan was to leave her teenage daughter in Kyiv with her eldest daughter and return to Kherson a few days later. But as the fighting intensified and the bridges along the journey were shelled by the Russians, her husband and mother urged her to stay a little longer, then a little longer, until four months have passed.

“My husband kept telling me that everything would be fine, that Kherson would soon be released,” she said. He had to stay to take care of his elderly parents. Their youngest daughter had to stay in Kyiv to take her lessons online safely, with her teacher who fled to Odessa after the Russians took over their school in Kherson.

She spoke with her husband every day using the Telegram messaging app. He logged on using a Russian SIM card – the only working phone service in occupied Kherson – but deleted his messages every time he left his home, fearing Russian soldiers would search his phone at checkpoints.

Desiatnykova, a pharmacist, and her husband, an electrician, lost their jobs when the Russians moved in. The owner of the pharmacy where Desiatnykova worked chose to close rather than serve the occupants. Desiatnykova’s husband Mykola quit his job when it was clear he would have to work for Russian bosses.

On November 11, Desiatnykova suddenly lost all communication with her husband. But a night earlier, she had learned why: a local reporter’s Telegram channel reported that the Russians had fled Kherson, leaving residents without electricity, cell phone service or running water. She knew, even before her husband found out, that the city had been liberated.

Visiting liberated Kherson, Zelensky sees “the beginning of the end of the war”

Desiatnykova had scrolled through her phone the previous week when she heard the news that rail service would return to the liberated towns. She bought a ticket, not knowing when she could use it.

Then, on a Thursday shift at her new job as a pharmacist in Kyiv, she received a call from the railway company letting her know that she could use her ticket to catch the first train to Kherson two days later. She immediately called her manager and told him she had to quit. The next day she called her husband. “I’m going home,” she told him.

Now, as the train began to slow down, she had finally arrived. She changed her glasses — “to see better.” And as she looked out the window of the Kherson station, she began to cry.

Dozens of people waited for the train along the tracks, waving Ukrainian flags and holding phones aloft to document the arrival. A Ukrainian soldier was playing the violin. And as she got off the first carriage of the train, there was her husband, carrying a rose and rushing towards her.

He buried his face in his arms and kissed her, tears in his eyes.

“I just thought I’d bring you a flower and meet you here,” her husband said. “I didn’t expect so many people.

As she walked home, Desiatnykova looked out the window at a changed city – the burned-out mall, the empty gas station, the long lines of people waiting for food, SIM cards or humanitarian aid.

They pulled up in front of a building and she rushed out of the car, rushing up the stairs to knock on a door. She had told her mother a day earlier that she would be coming home, fearing that a surprise arrival would be too emotional for her.

Still, the 84-year-old was upset. She held her daughter in her arms, telling her she hadn’t been able to sleep the night before, lying awake, hearing thunder and shelling in the distance, and worrying about her daughter’s arrival.

Desiatnykova kissed her mother on the forehead.

“But now I’m here,” she said. “Now we are here.”


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