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Among the hundreds of trains criss-crossing Ukraine’s elaborate railway network every day, the Kyiv-Kramatorsk train stands apart, shrouded in solemn silence as passengers anticipate their destination.
Every day, around seven in the morning, passengers of this route leave the relative safety of the capital and head east to frontline areas where battles between Ukrainian forces and Russian troops rage and Russian strikes are frequent with imprecise missiles that slam into residential areas.
The passengers are a mix of men and women that offer up a slice of Ukrainian society these days. They include soldiers returning to the front after a brief leave, women making the trip to reunite for a few days with husbands and boyfriends serving on the battlefields, and residents returning to check on homes in the Donetsk region.
They are all lost in thought and rarely converse with each other.
Nineteen-year-old Marta Banakh anxiously awaits the train’s next brief stop at one of its nine intermediate stations on the way to Kramatorsk. She disembarks at the station for a quick cigarette break, shifting her weight back and forth from one foot to the other.
Her family doesn’t know she has made this journey from western Ukraine, crossing the entire country, to meet her boyfriend, who has been serving in the infantry since the onset of Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. He rarely gets a break, and Marta has decided to surprise him with a visit.
“I worry that every day could be his last, and we may never see each other again,” she said wearing her hair down, crowned with a pearl-studded headband.
It’s the only high-speed day train that drives to Kramatorsk. The city is about 30 kilometers (less than 20 miles) from the front line, which makes it susceptible to Russian strikes. And just a few kilometers away from the city, battles near the Russian-held city of Bakhmut rage for the second year.
The war has become an integral part of the lives of millions of Ukrainians, and the country’s vast railway system has remained operational despite the war. Night trains that rattle across the country still welcome customers with hot tea and clean sheets in the sleeping compartments. The trains also carry cargo, aid and gear.
The popularity of the Kyiv-Kramatorsk route highlights the reality of war.
Around 126,000 passengers used this route during the summer months this year, according to national railway operator Ukrzaliznytsia. It holds the fourth position for passenger volume among all intercity high-speed trains and maintains one of the highest occupancy rates — 94% — among all Ukrainian trains.
The connection was suspended for six months early in the war. The halt in April last year followed a Russian missile strike on the Kramatorsk railway station while passengers were waiting for evacuation. The strike killed 53 people and wounded 135 others in one of the deadliest Russian attacks.
Alla Makieieva, 49, used to regularly travel on this route even before the war. Returning from a business trip to the capital back to Dobropillia, a town not far from Kramatorsk, she reflects on the changes between then and now.
“People have changed, now they seem more somber,” she says. “We’ve already learned to live with these missiles. We’ve become friends,” she joked. “In Kyiv, the atmosphere is completely different; people smile more often.”
Kyiv is regularly attacked by Russian missiles and drones. But unlike Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region, the capital has powerful air defense protection, which gives residents an illusion of safety.
As the morning light gradually gives way to the midday sun, it fills the spacious train carriages in warm radiance. The train shelves are mostly filled with military backpacks and small bags. Occasionally, a waiter breaks the silence in the aisle, offering coffee, tea, and snacks. Along the way, one can order dishes like bolognese pasta or a cappuccino.
The high-speed train ride from Kyiv to Kramatorsk costs approximately $14. In nearly seven hours, passengers cover a distance of around 700 kilometers (400 miles).
Twenty-six-year-old Oleksandr Kyrylenko sits in the train’s lobby with a coffee in hand, gazing thoughtfully out of the window as the landscapes change rapidly.
It’s his first time heading to the front line, and he admits he didn’t expect to travel to the epicenter of the grinding war with such comfort.
He had been working as a warehouse manager in Poland when Russia invaded Ukraine. “I helped as much as I could,” he said. “Then I decided I needed to go myself.”
“There is no fear. I simply want it to end sooner,” he says of the war, dressed in military attire.
His parents were not thrilled about this idea, but this summer the young man returned to Ukraine and immediately went to the military enlistment office.
“It even feels lighter on my conscience,” he said, adding that this decision came naturally to him. “Human resources are running out. Something needs to be done about it.”
The train arrives at its final destination on time, and the platform quickly fills with people.
Some, wearing military-colored backpacks slung over their shoulders, stride forward swiftly, while others linger on the platform in long-awaited embraces.
Twenty-year-old Sofiia Sidorchuk embraces her boyfriend, who has been serving since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. The 20-year-old soldier refrains from disclosing his name for security reasons.
He holds Sofiia tightly, as if trying to make up for all the lost time during their longest separation in seven years of the relationship.
“We missed each other,” Sofiia explains her decision to come from the northwestern Rivne region to Kramatorsk.
“It’s love,” added her partner, wearing military fatigues.
His commander granted him a few days alone with his beloved to recharge. In five days, he will embark on an assault.
Volodymyr Yurchuk contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine