From book editor to warming people up with tea and sandwiches
I speak to Bohdana via Skype. I sit in a small utility room where my husband's aunt usually sews. It’s the only quiet room in this big house where no one will interrupt the interview. Eleven of us live in a five-bedroom house. It's noisy, but friendly. And most importantly, there are no military facilities.
The Lviv apartment where Bohdana moved in with her friend is in a more dangerous area.
“Behind the wall of the apartment is where Stepan Bandera once lived – Russia's main enemy,” laughs Bohdan, “so we are seriously waiting for a Russian missile to strike.”
Russian missiles can hit anywhere. The day before our conversation, the murderous Caliber (a Russian missile) was taken to a service station in Lviv. Several people died.
Bohdana and I are friends. Before the war, we would meet in Kyiv, have coffee or a beer, talk carefree about new books, and discuss favourite authors. Now we are both internally displaced persons, a technical term that means people who left their homes because of the war but stayed in the country. We are both lucky enough to keep our jobs. I still work as a television editor, and Bohdana edits books and gives lectures. I also write articles, and Bohdana volunteers at the Lviv railway station. She cuts sandwiches, makes coffee and cleans the tent where people fleeing the war stay.
“We left Kyiv on 25 February, the day after the beginning of the active phase of the war,” she tells me.
“Then, a downed Russian plane crashed near our house. My husband and I decided that it was dangerous to stay.”
There were two families in their car –and Bohdana's cat and friend goldfish in a jar of pickles. The fish did not survive the five kilometres to Lviv; it died of stress.
Bohdana, like me, was lucky. We did not run away without documents from the Russian shelling, like residents of Mariupol, Kharkiv, Kherson. Our cars did not escort the barrels of Russian tanks, as did residents of Bucha and Hostomel.
“I immediately went to look for where I could help,” says Bohdana. “Help was needed the most at the station. Here the Red Cross of Ukraine arranged a reception point for migrants who arrive by train from all over Ukraine to the West.”
I remember photos of those trains: the crowded platforms and the four-seat compartments holding ten to fifteen passengers. People, mostly women, children and the elderly, slept in the aisles. Trains drove by in complete darkness with their lights out, so as not to attract predatory Russian planes. Sometimes they stopped and remained in the field for hours, waiting for the shelling.
I just read about it on the internet. Bohdana met these passengers – exhausted, confused and hungry. She was the first person to feed and pour them sweet tea or coffee. She told them where to go next.
“I've never seen so much sugar added to hot drinks,” says Bohdana, “During the day we have 25 kilograms of sugar only for tea and coffee. But I understand why.”
In the first days of the war, chaos reigned at the station.
“No one knew what to do. There were no rules or procedures. We were told that people should get on buses going to the border, and to put them on board. But there were few buses and more and more people coming,” she remembers.
“We had to decide who to put on the bus and who to leave at the station. And none of us knew if the next bus would go to the border. When you have to choose between two women with babies in their arms, it's very scary.”
Volunteers didn’t have any information. “What borders were open? Do Poles pass without a passport? Where can you stay if you do not want to leave Ukraine? What areas are still free, where there are no Russian soldiers yet?”
During the day Bodhana put people on buses and cut sandwiches, and at night she googled for answers. “We collected information on our own, made plaques, created documents, which were then used by all volunteers of the Red Cross of Ukraine who worked with us at the station,” she says.
But the sandwiches still took away a lot of Bohdan's time at the station.
“It was very difficult at first. I came home and lay on the couch for an hour and a half, not moving at all. Because it is very hard physical work, when in the cold you pull large jars of soups, constantly cut bread, cheese or sausage, and make a lot of very fast movements. My back just refused,” she says.
With time, these tasks became easier. Less people are arriving and the volunteers are better organised.
“We know when more food will be brought. We already have regular suppliers. There is a woman who brings three big pies every day. There is Diana, who brings two huge pots of porridge every day. Thanks to her we have something to feed small children.”
The team at the station is international.
“There are a lot of Poles. They come and go, the lineup is constantly changing. There are any Britons. There is even a Japanese man who can only say ‘I don't speak English’ in English. I can't imagine how he got to Lviv,” Bohdana laughs.
When I ask Bohdana what is the hardest thing for her in volunteering, her face changes.
“Very often for people getting off trains, our tent is the first place where they can relax. And they start talking to us, they need to speak out. Many start crying right away,” she says.
The arrivees tell Bohdana how they haven’t had anything to drink for days or how they’ve had to leave their families behind. They ask her how they can find them but Bohdana doesn’t have an answer.
“The hardest thing is the feeling of helplessness and anger,” she says.
Bohdana pauses, and then says:
“There was so much cruelty, so much hatred brought by the Russians. I'm sorry I can't shoot. If I could, I don't know what I would do to them.”
I feel Bohdana’s anger as my own. From both ends of the video call, we feel hatred. But I don't want to end our conversation with hatred.
“Can you read now?” I ask, changing the topic.
My attempts to return to my favorite pre-war occupation have failed every time. Books – once my best friends – seem empty, excessive, and false.
“The first days I could not read at all,” Bohdana admits. “The conventionality of the literary world, which has always seemed attractive to me, has become hostile. It had nothing to do with my reality.”
“What is the point of the art world if thousands of people are dying around. But gradually I’m returning to reading. Not just for work. But also for pleasure.”
I listen to Bohdana, and it becomes easier for me. Despite war and death, and the fact that we cannot return home yet and talk about books somewhere in a cafe in Kyiv, we have not lost ourselves. The fear and numbness of the first days has turned into determination and a desire to win. Bohdana continues to get up at dawn every morning and go to Lviv railway station to meet the migrants, offer them sweet tea and sandwiches. And I can listen to Bohdana and tell her story as well as those of other Ukrainian women whose lives were changed by the war.