On the Night Bus to Kyiv

On the Night Bus to Kyiv

Scenes on the way to a war.


Kyiv, Ukraine—After Russian attacks targeted infrastructure all across Ukraine earlier this week, damaging critical rail lines in the western part of the country, a bus bound for Kyiv was full when it departed from Warsaw an hour before midnight on Wednesday.

With the more popular trains suffering cancellations and delays as long as 11 hours, and fuel shortages making personal car travel dicey, the bus emerged as perhaps the best way to get to Ukraine from the west.

A crowd of about a hundred people formed at the platforms at Warsaw West station late Wednesday night, many destined for Lviv, Kyiv, or further east. An employee who was assisting the driver frantically checked passengers off of a list and assigned seats as we boarded. Three soldiers—one Polish and two Canadian—helped load our luggage, including a few strollers, into the storage compartment in the back of the bus, which was completely full. I asked one of the Canadian soldiers if these passengers were mostly people who had fled Ukraine during the recent invasion and were now returning, or if they were heading back to Ukraine after a longer time away. He told me it was a mix. I asked him where he was from, and he said Ontario. What was he doing here, in Warsaw? “Just trying to help,” he said.

I carried my three large bags up the steps and found there was no room in the overhead compartments. So I set two of my bags beneath my feet and stacked the other one on my lap. I had no room to move and a long trip ahead of me.

An older woman with close-cropped gray hair and gold earrings was sitting in the seat next to mine. Frigid air flowed in 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, maybe 4 or 5 years old, smiled and reached up to grab a coat from the overhead compartment, handing it to the older woman, who laid it atop herself like 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. The war had seemed so far away from me that night in Warsaw, but now there it was in the palm of her hand.

Another woman boarded, and brought with her a small dog in a carrier. I watched as she sat down and paid for her ticket in cash. There were more people waiting outside, but the bus was full. I wondered if I had taken a seat from someone who was desperately trying to return to their home.

Other than the driver and his assistant, I was one of the only adult males on the bus. The rest were women, children, and teenagers. One mother sat next to her disabled son. The elderly woman next to me slept softly, occasionally snoring. I saw a stuffed animal, some sort of red lion with big blue googly eyes, dangling from the rearview mirror.

It was 3 in the morning when we first approached the border at Dorohusk, and suddenly the empty highway turned into a line of cars and trucks that seemed to never end. Woods lined the road. It was dark and hard to see from my seat, but this is what I could make out. Some cars had their red brake lights on, more had their engines off, and other cars sat dead on the flatbeds of tow trucks. Eighteen-wheelers hauling who knows what idled in line. I saw a woman at the wheel of 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 inched a few yards forward before coming to a stop again, returning to her restful position.

The cabin lights of the bus turned 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 swerved around the line of cars and trucks. Headlights illuminated in passing the weary faces of the drivers of minivans, SUVs, and sedans.

No one on the bus spoke. Some sat forward in their seats, peering out the window or craning their necks to see up the aisle and through the front windshield. Despite the late hour, no one seemed to be sleeping.

The bus turned off the main road leading to the border crossing, the driver possibly attempting to circumvent the worst of the gridlock. We returned to the main road after about a quarter-mile, passing another line of flatbed trucks carrying cars and tractors. There was a market and a restaurant advertising beer, pizza, and kabobs. We were less than a mile from the border now.

We passed through a gate and stopped, and the driver’s assistant told us to have our passports ready. A Polish border guard stepped on the bus and collected our passports one by one, saying each passenger’s full name as he looked at the documents, to confirm we’d given him the right book. Then he left, along with the driver and his colleague, and we waited. It was 3:40 in the morning.

We waited there for nearly an hour, watching the sun rise overhead, filling the sky with faded stripes of orange and blue. At 4:30, the driver and his assistant returned to the bus with an armful of passports. He handed them back to each passenger as we inched our way into Ukraine.

After leaving Polish territory, the bus crossed a bridge and stopped at the Ukrainian border station on the other side. We got off and approached a stern-faced Ukrainian guard, who stamped our passports and waved us on. We crossed into Ukraine at 4:58, just as the sun appeared above the horizon. We stopped at a store close to the border to get food and coffee, to smoke cigarettes, and to pet a stray dog that limped along with a bad front paw. A man swept the parking lot with a broom and a dustpan. The mood seemed lighter than before we had crossed; there were smiles, even some laughter. A teenage girl answered a phone call from her mom, with a heart emoji next to her mother’s name on the screen. Once back on board, the woman who had brought her dog finally released it from its carrier, and it sat calmly underneath its owners’ legs, settling into a soft blanket.

On the road to Kyiv, we passed small villages of one-story homes, clumps of tall, barren pines, and fields of what looked like wheat, glowing gold in the soft morning light. Every now and then we’d pass a bright-blue-painted church with ornate gold steeples. But the signs of war were immediate and clear. Most of the roads leading into the smaller villages were partially blocked by sandbags and makeshift barriers. We passed through more than a dozen checkpoints marked by more sandbags, stacks of black tires, concrete slabs, and camouflage netting. As we slowly maneuvered through one roadblock, a young girl stood in the aisle of the bus holding a baby, its blue pacifier hanging loose around its neck, unbothered by the surrounding scenes.

We made stops throughout Western Ukraine, and the bus thinned out, with a few passengers at a time descending the stairs and hopping into cars bound for their next destination. At Sarny, the bus filled up again, and this time it was standing room only. Three passengers crowded into the stairwell of the side exit. Two teenage girls stood in the aisle, sharing a pair of headphones.

At one checkpoint near Korosten, a soldier wearing a helmet boarded the bus and politely asked everyone to hold up 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 increasingly littered with the detritus of war: the collapsed skeletal remains of bombed buildings, the charred husk of what appeared to have once been a tank.

When I finally arrived in Kyiv late Thursday afternoon—nearly 16 hours after departing from Poland—I again thought of those who might still be waiting at Warsaw West for a seat on a bus headed east, and of those who might still be huddled under blankets in their cars waiting in line at the border, of the people who might have taken my seat, trying to return to whatever might remain after the past 10 weeks of this bloody and unprovoked war.

As I stepped off the bus, I noticed for the first time that the stuffed animal hanging from the rearview mirror was framed by two holy cards, surely for good luck. The driver handed me my bags and said, in broken English, “Welcome to Ukraine.”

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