Joy ride: Kherson cheers as first train rolls in from Kyiv after occupation

The first train to liberated Kherson from Kyiv arrives in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on Saturday. After an interruption of nearly nine months because of the Russian occupation, Ukrainian passenger rail services have been restored on the line. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
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KHERSON, Ukraine — As the overnight train left the Mykolaiv station, a now mostly empty building with its windows blown out, Lyudmyla Desiatnykova could hardly believe her stop was next.

At last, Kherson.

It was the city where she grew up, where she raised her children and where most of the 52-year-old woman’s extended family still lives. But it was a place she had not seen since July, when her family insisted that she flee the Russian-occupied, war-torn city with her 15-year-old daughter.

Desiatnykova evacuated with the teenager to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, leaving behind her husband and elderly mother and not knowing when, or if, she would see them again.

On Saturday morning, a week and a day after Ukrainian soldiers liberated Kherson — the only regional capital captured by Russia since the start of the invasion — Desiatnykova was in the first car on the first train back.

As the sun rose over the fields of rural southern Ukraine, Desiatnykova’s phone rang. It was her husband, letting her know he was already at the train station, waiting for her.

“We’ll be there in an hour,” she said.

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The train to Kherson from Kyiv was part of a campaign by Ukrainian Railways to carry passengers into the recently liberated cities of Ukraine, and to show the country and the world the railroad’s ability to quickly resume services cut off by war.

Throughout the war, Ukrainian Railways has been a symbol of resilience, ferrying hundreds of thousands of displaced people to safety even as it stations and tracks were sometimes bombed. Last week, in a bold display of optimism, the railroad began selling tickets to five cities, all but one of them still occupied by Russians.

“Welcome aboard the first ‘Train to Victory,’ ” said a flier on the table in front of Desiatnykova. On the other side of the flier was an image of a train car carrying a watermelon — the Kherson area’s most famous crop.

During the occupation, Desiatnykova said, “it felt like we were trapped in a cage.” The return of the train meant, at least for now, the end of that isolation. “This means we are open,” she said. “We have freedom.”

Waking up in the cars behind her on the overnight train were other passengers visiting their families for the first time — a man who hadn’t seen his son since March, a son who hadn’t seen his parents since the start of the war.

There was the celebrity chef José Andrés, traveling to Kherson with his team offering meals through his organization World Central Kitchen. And there were people who came along just to be a part of it — to see a place that for months was synonymous with Russian occupation and had now become a symbol of Ukrainian strength.

One of those people was Gromovytsia Berdynk, 49, a writer from Kyiv who had never been to Kherson. She planned simply to wander the city for a few hours, meet its residents and tell them “we had been praying for the people of Kherson the entire time.”

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On Friday, Natalia Polishchuk, 63, stood outside her home on the outskirts of Kherson and gasped when she heard the familiar, long-awaited sound of a train arriving in her neighborhood for the first time in nine months.

It was once a mundane marker of time — a rumbling sound and horn she would hear every 20 minutes of the day. The tracks were so close to her home that the passage of trains felt like part of the residents’ identity, the rhythm of life in Stepanivka, a Kherson suburb. But since March, the tracks had been unused, and the sound of the train became a memory of an era before war, before the Russians took over their small village and moved troops into the factory next door to their home.

Polishchuk had seen the railway workers preparing the tracks the previous day, and now she saw and heard the test run for what would be the first train through the region. Wearing a floral dress and a white scarf over her head, her eyes filled with tears as she watched it pass by.

“It gives us hope,” she said. “It means we’re no longer occupied.”

Desiatnykova looked out the fogged-up window at decrepit buildings outside Kherson. She saw downed electrical wires, empty military trenches, destroyed Russian tanks, abandoned firing positions.

Ukrainian soldiers waved from shelled-out buildings. Families and children rushed out of their homes to greet the passengers from afar. Farmers and electrical workers stopped work to witness the moment. The train’s carriage managers smiled and wiped away tears as they watched.

But Desiatnykova sat solemnly as she looked out the window.

“It’s hard seeing it like this,” she said.

She worried that the Russians might return to recapture Kherson. She knew they still controlled much of the surrounding region on the east side of the Dnieper River.

The last time Desiatnykova saw these fields, she was fleeing on a bus with 16 strangers — mostly women and children. Her plan was to leave her teenage daughter in Kyiv with her oldest daughter and return to Kherson a few days later. But as the fighting intensified, and bridges along the journey were shelled by the Russians, her husband and mother urged her to stay a bit longer, then another bit longer, until four months had passed.

“My husband kept telling me it would be okay, that Kherson would be liberated soon,” she said. He needed to stay behind to take care of his elderly parents. Their youngest daughter needed to stay in Kyiv to safely attend her online classes, with her teacher who fled to Odessa after the Russians took over their school in Kherson.

She spoke with her husband every day using the Telegram messaging app. He would connect using a Russian SIM card — the only functioning phone service in occupied Kherson — but would delete his messages every time he left home, worrying that Russian soldiers would search his phone at checkpoints.

Both Desiatnykova, a pharmacist, and her husband, an electrician, lost work when the Russians moved in. The owner of the pharmacy where Desiatnykova worked opted to close rather than serve the occupiers. Desiatnykova’s husband, Mykola, quit his job when it was clear he would have to work for Russian bosses.

On Nov. 11, Desiatnykova suddenly lost all communication with her husband. But a night earlier, she had learned why: The Telegram channel of a local journalist reported that the Russians had fled Kherson, leaving residents with no power, cellphone service or running water. She knew, even before her husband found out, that the city had been liberated.

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Desiatnykova had been scrolling on her phone the previous week when she saw the news that railroad service would be returning to liberated cities. She bought a ticket, not knowing when she would be able to use it.

Then, during a work shift on Thursday, at her new pharmacist job in Kyiv, she received a call from the railway company letting her know she could use her ticket to take the first train to Kherson two days later. She immediately called her manager and told her she would need to quit. The next day, she called her husband. “I’m coming home,” she told him.

Now, as the train began to slow down, she had finally made it. She changed her glasses — “to see better.” And as she looked out the window at the Kherson station, she began to cry.

Waiting for the train along the tracks were dozens of people, waving Ukrainian flags and holding phones in the air to document the arrival. A Ukrainian soldier played a violin. And as she stepped off the train’s first car, there was her husband, carrying a rose and rushing toward her.

He buried his face in her arms and kissed her, tears filling his eyes.

“I just thought I would bring you a flower and meet you here,” her husband said. “I didn’t expect this many people.”

Driving home, Desiatnykova looked out the window at a changed city — the burned-out shopping center, the empty gas station, the long lines of people waiting for food or SIM cards or humanitarian aid.

They pulled up to an apartment building and she bolted out of the car, rushing up the stairs to knock on a door. She had told her mother a day earlier that she would be coming home, worrying that a surprise arrival would be too emotional for her.

Still, the 84-year-old woman was overwhelmed. She held her daughter in her arms, telling her she could not sleep the night before, lying wide-awake, hearing a thunderstorm and shelling in the distance, and worrying about her daughter’s arrival.

Desiatnykova kissed her mother on the forehead.

“But now I’m here,” she said. “Now we’re here.”