Updated January 6, 2022 | 5:10PM MST


Pictured Above: Stefan Huijboom in Ukraine

KYIV, UKRAINE – As the first snow of the year has slowly started to fall down on Ukraine´s capital just one day before the celebrations of Orthodox Christmas, the blasting sirens of the air raid alarm echoed throughout the city center. Walking on Kyiv´s main street – Khreshchatyk – the Ukrainian people are unbothered, however. Though the air alarm is blasting through the sky, a warning of potential missiles reaching the city, people just go on about their daily lives.


As a former student of New Mexico Highlands University – I studied there one year in 2009 – I quickly became a news correspondent in 2014 for several European publications. It was when the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas (eastern Ukraine) happened that I moved to Kyiv. Roughly three years later I moved back to the Netherlands. Now, as the war in Ukraine has intensified and Russia invades this sovereign European country, I decided to travel back to Ukraine to explore the country again amidst one of the biggest wars fought in Europe since the end of the Second World War.


Usually, it will take roughly three hours to fly directly from most European capitals to Kyiv. As war is raging through the country and the air space is closed there are no commercial flights anymore. In order to reach Kyiv, I took the train from Przemysl, a small town in the south of Poland, some 10 miles away from the Ukrainian border. In the first weeks after 24 February 2022 – when the war started – hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees passed through this sleepy border town and still many organizations and volunteers are located there to help Ukrainians in need. Sometimes children as young as the age of 5 or 6 would travel all alone on a train to a foreign country as long as their parents know that their child would reach safety. 

As I am sitting on the train there is nothing that indicates I´m traveling to a war-ravaged country. The people on the train are laughing, three young teenagers in my train compartment are joking with me, and the atmosphere is just good, not what you would expect traveling to a warzone with the images in mind you see on television and social media. Even the border checks are quite normal. There are no questions asked about why I´m traveling to Ukraine. This does make you think though that it would be very easy for people to travel to Ukraine who have bad intentions. This is only my experience currently though. The only thing that shows me the danger of this trip is the tape that´s been attached to all the windows. In case of a missile falling near the train, the tape would make sure that the glass of the window will only be limitedly flying around. At least, that´s what the train conductor tells me. Sarcastically, I´m thinking to myself that that will indeed make me feel safe on a fifteen-hour trip on a train to the heart of Ukraine.


With nearly no sleep at all during this 15-hour train journey – the sleeping benches are hell to sleep on – I arrive in a pitch-dark Kyiv around 05:30 am. A city of millions, but with no light. Because of missile attacks on electricity infrastructure, the city has limited electricity. I stroll around this ghost town in search of my hotel. I pass by a metro station, deep underground, where some Ukrainians look for warmth. Luckily the hotel has a power generator but imagine all the millions of Ukrainians that don´t have light, electricity, and heat. I feel guilty and too privileged at the same time.

Russia has proposed a ceasefire on Orthodox Christmas starting on 6 January 2023, but Ukraine rejected the proposal, claiming that Russia is not to be trusted and never do what they say. A few weeks into the war Kyiv was surrounded by Russian tanks, occupying some of the nearby villages on the outskirts of Kyiv. The plan of the Russians was to capture Kyiv in just a few days, but the Ukrainian army massively defended the country´s capital. In the city center, some of the destroyed Russian tanks are exhibited to show people and the world with their own eyes what is happening on Ukrainian soil.

Standing in front of some of the Russian tanks feels odd and special at the same time. Families gather in front of the St. Michael Cathedral – where the tanks are exhibited. Young children pose with their dads in front of it. Some children even climb on the tanks. Some thoughts pop up in my mind: these children grow up with the images of war, day in and day out, but still, they smile. I believe it´s the knowledge that Ukraine is on the winning hand in this war that makes the ambiance in the capital so upbeat.

However, just a drive of roughly twenty minutes outside the city center, the war is never so close to the damaged apartment complexes, completely burnt-out cars, roads, and bridges damaged, and people, mostly elderly, staring at their damaged houses not knowing if they´ll ever be able to return where they had lived most of their lives. The city of Irpin was occupied by Russia in March 2022 and became the site of the battlefield engagement during the attempted offensive to occupy Kyiv. Irpin was shelled by Russian artillery while the Ukrainians were able to repel and destroy multiple Russian forces by moving into the town. On 6 March 2022, Russians destroyed the main highway cutting the road off for civilians fleeing the town. By the end of March, the Ukrainians took full control of Irpin again, though many innocent civilians were killed and actually even mass graves were found in the nearby area.

Processing the destruction of Irpin, I head back to Kyiv, and once safely returned to the hotel and drinking a beer at the bar seeing people laughing and unbothered, I ask myself if I just stepped outside a film set or if it´s reality. The war is not over, nor will it soon be, that´s for sure.


Written by Stefan Huijboom, January 6, 2023.

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