Gratitude and guilt on an odyssey in Ukraine

A Queen’s alum ventures to Kyiv as a journalist by ‘declaration’

Image by: Nicholas Gakena
The Irpin Palace of Culture was the center of the city’s cultural life.

Faced with the grim spectacle of the Przemyśl Główny train station, I nervously checked my watch. It was nearly 1 a.m., and I was the lone holdout for the 11:30 p.m. train to Kyiv, which was heavily delayed, in true Eastern European fashion. 

Boarding the train, I basked in alternating waves of exhilaration and relief. A journalist by declaration, but not credentials, I battled the feeling I wasn’t supposed to be there, and felt I was getting away with something.

The car was packed, mostly with women and children, their exhaustion evident. I hadn’t expected the trains into Ukraine to sell out. Several American volunteers helped direct passengers and refugees at the station, they told me this had been the norm for several months. With the intensity of aerial assaults easing, many were returning home, though this calm wouldn’t last long.

Across the aisle, a band of seven men seemed out of place. Laden with duffels and MultiCam MOLLE bags studded with tourniquets, I gathered they weren’t heading home. They slept with the intensity of the damned, their young faces hardened either by the heat of battle or the anticipation of it. My buzz proved short-lived as I rapidly sobered to the fact that I was entering a warzone. 


When I arrived in Kyiv, my guide awaited me outside my rental apartment in an SUV. Surveying his vehicle, I saw a bounty of medical supplies and body armour—reassuring oddities in a war-torn country. Our plan was to visit several liberated cities around Kyiv and the northeastern provinces.

My guide was seasoned, having spent years before the invasion working in Chernobyl, and briefly as a police officer. During the Battle of Kyiv, he joined his friends from the police force to assist with civilian evacuations. Now, he works for a humanitarian mine-clearing crew and runs press tours in his limited free time. 

Our first stop was the site of a tank battle that occurred days into the invasion. Treading through the ghostly graveyard of Russian tanks, I stopped to look at one particularly twisted metallic tomb. I tried to imagine the crew’s final moments of panic and terror. Straining to commune with the spirits of the dead, I came up short. The scene felt spiritually inert.

Several hours later, we arrived in Borodyanka, where we pulled into a parking lot behind several apartment buildings. This area was the target of severe shelling during the war’s early days. While surveying the rubble, my attention was pulled in several directions. Staring at the relics of the previous occupants’ lives, I felt ashamed, like I was violating their privacy. I began questioning my motives for this journey.


By my last full day in Ukraine, I’d barely explored Kyiv. I set out to find the Dnipro River but found myself walking the narrow shoulder on the wrong side of the highway. Tired of sucking in diesel fumes, I welcomed the sight of a clearing in the forest to my right. Google Maps confirmed there was a landmark ahead, and it wasn’t long until my detour led me into a clearing to meet a piece of the Kyiv Fortress.

The formidable structure, sitting on a steep hill, is part of an old fortification built to protect the city in the 17th to 19th centuries. Without a soul in sight, it appeared both majestic and haunted. 

I found a doorway and went inside. The fortress was dark, musty, and creepy as hell. A pentagram was spray painted to my left, so I went right, whispering the Lord’s Prayer. I began scaling the dicey slope of dirt, bricks, and empty beer cans. I eventually exited through a small hole, only to find two figures struggling to hop a fence into another mysterious structure. Buzzing from my adventure in the lower wall, I introduced myself, hoping to join them. 

As the two young men scrambled up the muddy gulley to greet me, one slipped. A spurt from his large beer can splashed across his black trench coat and face, soaking the unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. While he composed himself, the other offered me a beer. If anything, this trip had taught me to go with the flow, so I obliged.

The pair met at university. At 18 and 19, they’re young, and I’m the first foreigner they’d met. They invited me on a beer run, after which they planned to meet the drummer in their death metal band. 

Having hardly eaten, the beer melted my inhibitions, and a day bender with complete strangers seemed like an appropriate way to descend deeper into the madness of this trip. Performing this universal ritual of youth bonded us as our ravings veered to and from the war. At one point, one of my companions mocked Putin’s deranged justification of the war as a “denazification” of Ukraine. Though I’d heard this before, hearing it then sent me into a fit of laughter, as I imagined the prospect of three Nazis welcoming me, a black man, to liquor up with them.

As curfew approached, the trio walked me home. Outside my rental, the conversation took a sombre turn as they recounted their experiences during the invasion and how the war continues to impact their lives and outlook. 

I asked about the war’s lingering effects on their lives in Kyiv, which have returned to a surprising normalcy. One recounted his worst memory, a low-flying Russian jet passing over his family’s home and his futile attempts to convince his mother, who didn’t want to leave his bedridden father, to seek shelter. 

“I want to cry,” he said.

The others agreed. They said they share the feeling that their future is bleak, and their experiences have forged a profound resilience and awareness of the human condition at the cost of their youthful innocence.

The once-distant awareness of our very different realities began to set in. This had been an extraordinary encounter for each of us, yet our bittersweet goodbye contained the familiar awkwardness that concludes every one-night stand, platonic or otherwise. 

The next day, on my train back to Poland, I pondered the fate of these young men and Ukraine itself. As I returned to a world without the immediate threat of war, I couldn’t extricate myself from their story.

Returning to the UK, my head in a whirl, it took several weeks to sift through my confusion and post-trip hangover. While I went to Ukraine to see the reality of the conflict for myself, I left with more questions than answers.

Gratitude and guilt rarely coincide, but they did in the aftermath of my journey. Going to Kyiv offered me profound gratitude for the banality of life, but gave me guilt for leaving behind people and stories that left a deep impact on my soul. Take this as a reminder to cherish every heartbeat and to stand in solidarity with those who bear the weight of the tumultuous dance of history. 


photojournalism, Ukraine, war

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