The Southwestern rail service trundling back and forth between Kyiv and Borodianka, a small town 35 miles north of the Ukrainian capital, has played a number of roles in recent years.
Before 24 February, when Vladimir Putin launched his war, it was a busy commuter route for those who worked in Kyiv but preferred the price and pace of suburbia, bringing people to and from sleepy satellite towns such as Irpin, Bucha and Vorzel.
In early March this year it was spoken of in more ominous terms, as the destruction of the rail bridge over the river between Irpin and Kyiv heralded the terrifying advance of Russian forces.
The names of Borodianka, Bucha, Vorzel and Irpin will long be associated in the public memory with mass graves, torture and suffering. This week, however, as the service resumed its route over the hastily rebuilt bridge, completed in just a month, the train has become a symbol of hope, and even national renaissance.
The president of the European investment bank, Werner Hoyer, predicted earlier in the week that Ukraine would require a “multitrillion-euro” injection to rebuild its shattered cities, towns and villages. For now, the people of the Kyiv oblast, or region, are making do with hammers, wrenches, brooms and a grim determination to move on. But the resumption of this train service adds a sorely needed ray of hope, even as the war rages on in the east and south of Ukraine.
There are only two services up and running as yet: one leaving at 5.20am from Kyiv-Svyatoshin, a small station on the edge of the capital, that goes up and down the line to Borodianka, stopping 11 times, and a second scheduled service at 17.52.
In the early hours of Wednesday, Oleksandr Pylypenko, 68, and his wife, Galyna, 64, were standing in the cold and dark on platform 1 with a small bag of tools. They were going to inspect their home in Borodianka, at the end of the line and one of the most devastated of Kyiv’s satellite towns, from where they had fled four days before the war.
“I am told the roof is damaged and so we are going to clean it up a bit,” Oleksandr said. Galyna added: “We can’t move back yet but the local authority has promised to rebuild Borodianka by the winter and I hope they can.”
Sitting in the first carriage waiting for them as the train pulled into the station were two conductors, Olga Feschenko, 56, and Iryna Lepel, 46. “This is our first time,” said Feschenko. “I have only heard about what happened in these places.” She added: “This route is very important to a lot of people because they can’t get work in their towns. A lot of people don’t have cars, so for those who left this is the way back.”
Valentyna Chayka, 66, and her friend Nina Galaka, 60, had mistimed their arrival at the station and were out of breath as they settled into their seats behind the conductors.
Chayka started work again this week as a concierge in a block of flats in Kyiv, thanks to the resumed service. She was returning to her home in a village near Borodianka after a night shift. Galaka was also making her first step in moving on – but one that was far harder to bear.
The house in which she was born and had lived all her life had been destroyed after she fled in March. She was going to the fire department to get a document to confirm it was uninhabitable – a first step towards hopefully receiving compensation. “That was my life,” she said, unable to control her tears.
After 20 minutes, the train pulled in at Irpin, where Zinaida Maksymets, 64, was getting off. A breeder of prize-winning American cocker spaniels, she was one of those who had clambered across the remains of the blown-up road bridge in March to get out of the town – although her experience was different from most. “I had four dogs on a lead and six puppies in two boxes going over that river”, she said. “Some terrible people had said I should leave the dogs but I would never do that.”
Outside Irpin’s station, Maksymets walked up Alley of the Fallen, a pedestrianised street with shops, pharmacies and cafes, all damaged, on either side of a promenade of statues and monuments to the Soviet Union’s sacrifices in 1941-1945. Her flat, a five-minute walk from the station, had been hit, although a mere graze compared to the damage elsewhere.
According to the mayor of Irpin, nearly three-quarters of the town’s buildings have been damaged by missiles, artillery, machine-gun fire and all manner of explosives during the Russian occupation and battle of Kyiv. The cost of rebuilding is said to be close to £1bn.
It will be a long haul, but the roads are now clean, the water and electricity has returned, and early on Wednesday morning Oleksandr Prabdyvyi, 71, was sweeping the remnants of glass outside the Fora supermarket that had hired him for the job.
Further into town, Valeriy Vitrak, 58, and Anatoliy Masyuk, 59, were making repairs at Irpin’s central hospital which, despite red crosses daubed on its sides, had been hit by missiles and raked with automatic gun fire.
There was also a sign of the revival of enterprise down one leafy residential road. No 38 Pavlenka Street was completely flattened, but a laminated note attached to a tree outside bore a phone number and a message: “We can repair your roof, install your windows, everything can be made new with our materials. We have experience of rebuilding from nothing.”
The next stop on the train’s route, six minutes along, is Bucha, perhaps the most infamous of the towns in the Kyiv region. Close to the 120-year-old railway station, Maryna Bazylyuk, 48, was opening up Olga’s hairdresser for the day. “There are 23 hairdressers in Bucha but there are only two open at the moment,” she said.
The salon clients’ conversations are not what they were. “There are a lot of tears,” she said. “I have had a lady in who said the Russians killed her husband but she can’t find his body.” There were more men than women coming in, she said. “Women looked after themselves during the occupation but men come in with long hair”, she laughed, before adding: “One man who came said his son was killed. He was inconsolable.”
Bazylyuk said the salon, which opened two days ago, was getting busier, roads were being rebuilt and the military detritus was being cleared up. “It will take a long time, but this is our home and we won’t let them ruin it for us, no matter what happened.”
Eight minutes further down the track and the train pulls into the village of Vorzel, which fell to the Russians shortly after the invasion began. Opposite the simple, rural station – nothing more than two platforms – a church is being built and Volodtmyr Holub, 37 a deacon, was helping workmen.
Construction started last year but had to be put on hold when the war came. During the occupation, missiles had hit the front of it but failed to explode. “A miracle,” said Holub, smiling. But there were no miracles for the three men found in a mass grave at the back of the construction site. Two had been shot in the head and the third appeared to have frozen to death. “But we will finish this church in three months,” he said with pride.
The final stop for the train is Borodianka. Here, 1,340 explosive devices have had to be neutralised and nearly two miles of roads cleared of mines. Two of the town’s bridges are barely passable and temporary structures have been built. But the biggest problem is that 90% of the buildings in the centre have been damaged, many beyond repair.
Between some football fields, close to the Church of Archangel Michael, 160 temporary homes were being erected, thanks to funding from the Polish government. By the station, Alla Lytvynenko, 56, was in her newly reopened supermarket opposite some burnt-out shops. Most of her shelves were empty. “How was your occupation?” asked one man, before buying a bottle of vodka.
Another of her customers was Iryna Kozachenko, 41, who, with her 12-year-old daughter, stayed the entire time in the town, spending 40 days and nights in her cellar. “I didn’t let my daughter wash, she was kept dirty because I was scared she would be raped,” Kozachenko said. She was reopening the Soviet-themed restaurant she manages with some apprehension. “I don’t know how people will react,” she said. “But the best of places is our home.”