Shattered rails and downed catenaries in Balakliia, the liberated territory in eastern Ukraine | International
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Smoke from the controlled detonation of a device floods the 70-kilometre train track that leads from the city of Kharkov to Balakliia, one of the towns that the Ukrainian army has just liberated from Russian occupation. Remains of all kinds of ammunition appear on the pebbles and sleepers, from Grad missile casings to bullets of different calibers or mortar shells. There are craters of different sizes that mark the places of the explosions. In some points, the double layout of the track has been affected and the rails appear to be bursting. Also the towers that support the catenaries, lying down in some cases. For hundreds of meters the track appears covered by cables. The bridge that crosses over the river has also been subject to attacks.
The panorama does not invite one to think that the repairs will be quick on a route through which, until February 24, when the Russian invasion began, a dozen convoys passed every day. That day, the trains no longer ran. The invaders soon took control of this area and these tracks have been without machines and wagons for more than six months. Not of another type of activity, however, because some sections have been the scene of intense combat. Damaged trees, dozens of shell casings, destroyed farms and some destroyed halt keep the memory of the battle.
Now, having regained ground in the midst of the Russian disarray, the kyiv authorities want to restore normality as soon as possible, as they did in April once the surroundings of the capital were liberated. “We have this fixed in a few hours,” says Oleksander Kamyshin, the general director of the railway company, Ukrzaliznytsia, overflowing with optimism this Monday. He is the largest employer in the country, with more than 230,000 workers, and one of the constant targets of attacks by Russian troops, aware that rail transport is essential in this war for both people and goods.
Accustomed to moving quickly when the conflict requires it, Kamyshin wanted to be the first to enter the tracks and see the damage firsthand. He is part of an expedition, in which EL PAÍS has been integrated, which throughout Monday has closely analyzed what needs to be repaired so that communication is restored as soon as possible. “Immediately,” emphasizes the head of the railways. But, he clarifies, the first thing is safety and, for this, the demining work must be completed.
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A train engine with a platform for repairing catenaries carries the group of a dozen people, including the driver, two of Kamyshin’s bodyguards, and the reporter. The journey is not without surprises. In one of the small level crossings, despite the fact that the operator from the control panel sounds the horn non-stop, an armored car loaded with troops crosses a few meters away. They pull forward without realizing that they almost cause an accident.
“We do everything possible and impossible to recover the mobility of citizens as soon as possible, the distribution of humanitarian aid, cargo to boost the economy… in short, recover our rhythm of life,” explains Kamyshin. He is aware of the great counter-offensive that has unleashed almost the entire Kharkov region these days. It is important not only for Ukrzaliznytsia to resume its activity. The area from which they are expelling the Russians is essential for supplies to reach them from their country, fifty kilometers away. But the head of the railways clarifies that, beyond Balakliia, the cities of Kupiansk and Izium are still home to some pockets of resistance and he does not have on the agenda these days to restore communications by train.
He is accompanied, among others, by two of his most trusted men, those responsible for infrastructure and passengers, as well as the head of the Kharkov region. They take their time moving along a path where the machine goes very slowly. Outside, the landscape runs between plains and small undulations dotted with country houses and the light rain. They watch motionless some stations that have been at the foot of the tracks for more than a century. Others are small disused halts. Until it reaches a point, near Balakliia, where the expedition cannot continue until the necessary repairs are made. Then Kamyshin descends, drops to the ground and begins to walk, walk and walk forward with the group. Before, those in charge of security warn that, due to the danger of mines, there are no movements beyond one meter from the tracks. The director of the trains, 37 years old, accompanies and asks several members of the body that these days is in charge of demining the liberated zones. Sometimes, when a device appears, he jokes with the employees, equipped with bulletproof vests and helmets, and walks away as if expecting an imminent explosion. Andrii Stepanect, one of those workers, stays behind and waits for the group to move away before directing the controlled detonation.
Kamyshin observes every detail. All questions and photography. “Look at the rusty rails…they’re like that because they haven’t been used for six months.” And he bends down to take the reddish color as a souvenir. Later, he pockets some souvenir bullets. The director general of the railways is a lizard tail who has to be warned that it is dangerous for him to climb on the platform of the moving machine because he can be knocked down by the cables. During the journey he also holds meetings and impromptu talks in the small space available on the future of the conflict or on how to speed up the opening of new routes. He is shocked to accompany him on the ground a few days after he received US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Kiev. He did it within the iron diplomacy program, which is the one that allows authorities from all over the world to travel by train in a country whose space is closed to non-war aviation.
Already back, with the night falling over Kharkov, the cabin of the machine is the scene of an impromptu picnic with bread, sausage and tomato. Someone manages to nod off in the middle of the rattle and Kamishin, one of the most decisive men in this war, pulls out his cell phone and rushes to capture the moment with a mischievous smile.
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