On the night bus to Kyiv
With the most popular trains facing cancellations and delays of up to 11 hours, and fuel shortages making travel by personal car risky, the bus may have emerged as the best way to get to Ukraine from Ukraine. west.
A crowd of around 100 people formed on the platforms of Warsaw West station on Wednesday evening, most of them bound for Lviv, kyiv or further east. An employee assisting the driver frantically checked passengers off a list and assigned them seats as we boarded. Three soldiers, a Pole and two Canadians, helped load our luggage, including some strollers, into the storage compartment in the back of the bus, which was completely full. I asked one of the Canadian soldiers whether these passengers were mostly people who had fled Ukraine during the recent invasion and were now returning, or whether they were returning to Ukraine after a long absence . He told me it was a mixture. I asked him where he was from and he said Ontario. What was he doing here, in Warsaw? “I’m just trying to help,” he said.
I carried my three large bags up the steps and found that there was no room in the overhead compartments. So I placed two of my bags under my feet and stacked the other on my lap. I had no room to move and a long journey awaited me.
An older woman with cropped gray hair and gold earrings sat in the seat next to mine. Freezing air flowed from the open door across the aisle. She said something to me but I didn’t understand her and she didn’t speak English. A woman sitting behind us with her daughter, possibly 4 or 5, smiled and raised her hand to grab a coat from the overhead compartment, handing it to the older woman, who put it on her -even as a blanket.
In the seat in front of me, a woman in her 20s with intricately braided hair scrolled through images of bombed-out buildings on her phone. War had seemed so far away that night in Warsaw, but now it was in the palm of his hand.
Another woman boarded and brought with her a small dog in a carrier. I watched her sit down and pay for her ticket in cash. There were more people waiting outside, but the bus was full. I wondered if I had taken the place of someone desperately trying to get home.
Other than the driver and his assistant, I was one of the only adult men on the bus. The others were women, children and teenagers. A mother sat next to her disabled son. The elderly woman next to me was sleeping soundly, snoring occasionally. I saw a stuffed animal, some sort of red lion with big, googly blue eyes, hanging from the rear view mirror.
It was 3am when we first approached the border at Dorohusk, and suddenly the empty highway turned into a seemingly endless line of cars and trucks. Woods lined the road. It was dark and hard to see from my seat, but that’s what I could make out. Some cars had their red brake lights on, others had their engines turned off, and other cars were sitting dead on the tow truck beds. Eighteen-wheelers carrying who knows what was idling. I saw a woman driving one of the trucks, with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, neck and head, slumped against the steering wheel. She woke up, suddenly alert, and moved forward a few feet before stopping again, resuming her resting position.
The bus cabin lights came on and the driver’s assistant walked down the aisle counting the passengers. He was serious, deliberate and thorough, making sure not to miss anyone. The bus slowly rounded the line of cars and trucks. The headlights lit up the tired faces of the drivers of minivans, SUVs and sedans as they passed.
No one on the bus spoke. Some sat forward in their seats, gazing out the window or craning their necks to see the driveway and through the front windshield. Despite the late hour, no one seemed to be sleeping.
The bus left the main road leading to the border crossing, the driver perhaps trying to circumvent the worst of the traffic jam. We returned to the main road after about a quarter of a mile, passing another line of flatbed trucks carrying cars and tractors. There was a market and a restaurant advertising beer, pizza and kebabs. We were less than a mile from the border now.
We walked through a gate and stopped, and the driver’s assistant told us to have our passports ready. A Polish border guard boarded the bus and collected our passports one by one, saying each passenger’s full name as they looked at the documents, to confirm that we had given them the correct book. Then he left, accompanied by the driver and his colleague, and we waited. It was 3:40 in the morning.
We waited there for almost an hour, watching the sun rise above our heads, filling the sky with faded bands of orange and blue. At 4:30 a.m., the driver and his assistant returned to the bus with an armful of passports. He gave them back to every passenger as we slowly made our way to Ukraine.
After leaving Polish territory, the bus crossed a bridge and stopped at the Ukrainian border crossing on the other side. We got off and approached a stern-faced Ukrainian guard, who stamped our passports and waved us on. We entered Ukraine at 4:58 am, just as the sun appeared above the horizon. We stopped at a store near the border to buy food and coffee, smoke cigarettes and pet a limping stray dog with a bad front paw. A man swept the parking lot with a broom and dustpan. The atmosphere seemed lighter than before our crossing; there were smiles, even laughter. A teenage girl answered a phone call from her mother, with a heart emoji next to her mother’s name onscreen. Once back on board, the woman who had brought her dog finally freed him from his cage, and he sat calmly under his owners’ legs, settling into a soft blanket.
On the road to kyiv, we passed small villages of one-story houses, groves of tall barren pine trees and fields of what looked like wheat, glistening gold in the soft morning light. Occasionally we would pass a church painted bright blue with ornate gold spiers. But the signs of war were immediate and clear. Most of the roads leading to the small villages were partially blocked by sandbags and makeshift barriers. We passed through more than a dozen checkpoints marked by more sandbags, piles of black tires, concrete slabs and camouflage netting. As we slowly maneuvered through a roadblock, a young girl stood in the bus aisle holding a baby, her blue pacifier hanging around her neck, oblivious to the surrounding scenes.
We made stops all over Western Ukraine, and the bus thinned out, with a few passengers both descending the stairs and jumping into cars bound for their next destination. In Sarny, the bus filled up again, and this time there were only standing places. Three passengers piled into the side exit stairwell. Two teenage girls stood in the aisle, sharing a pair of headphones.
At a checkpoint near Korosten, a soldier wearing a helmet boarded the bus and politely asked everyone to show their passports. A crumpled white van sat nearby, appearing to have been damaged by some sort of explosion. As we got closer to kyiv, the road was more and more strewn with the detritus of war: the collapsed skeletal remains of bombed-out buildings, the charred carcass of what appeared to have been a tank.
When I finally arrived in kyiv late Thursday afternoon, nearly 4 p.m. after leaving Poland, I thought again of those who might still be waiting in Warsaw West for a seat on a bus bound for from the east, and to those who might still be huddled under blankets. in their cars queuing at the border, people who might have taken my place, trying to get back to what might be left after the last 10 weeks of this bloody, unprovoked war.
As I got off the bus, I noticed for the first time that the stuffed animal hanging from the rear-view mirror was framed by two holy cards, surely bringing good luck. The driver handed me my luggage and said, in broken English: “Welcome to Ukraine”.