Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof is at the heart of Europe’s sleek 21st-century rail network. Trains slide and out on several levels, connected by long elevators and glassy lifts. It is a monument to progress – now filled with present-day echoes from a past we thought we had left behind.
When I passed through it yesterday, I stopped for a while to chat to some of those arriving from Ukraine and to the volunteers offering a warm welcome and support. Many new arrivals seemed to be students – perhaps they were among the first to flee. They seemed to be largely of Indian origin, with a contingent of Africans. I spoke to one man who walked most of the way from Kiev to the Polish border, covering 50km a day.
A long balcony overlooking the terminal has been cordoned off and is lined with trestle tables manned by volunteers in high vis jackets, offering food and other essentials and arranging accommodation and onward travel. There are racks of coats, bags of travel supplies and crayons and paper for the children.
Eyes crinkling in a smile despite her mask, holding a cardboard sign alerting new arrivals to the food stall was Annita. She grew up in East Berlin and studied Russian for a year in school, enough to write her nametag in careful Cyrrillic capitals. Like most of us, Annita is bewildered and shocked that war has come to Europe once more. She prays for peace. But meantime, she is part of an effort by this city of tremendous spirit, as it pulls together to welcome the refugees.
“People are bringing food all the time. I was here yesterday and there was a constant stream of people, from the restaurants as well as homes, bringing soup and sandwiches for the refugees.”
Ukrainian volunteer Katharin was clearly exhausted after days and nights of coordinating refugee support. When the bio-resource student I was talking to, Satin from Gujerat, wanted to speak in English, she seemed flustered and dropped the sheaf of forms she was carrying. We scrabbled to pick them up as she asked if he wanted to go to Parish. After a couple of tries, they communicated that a coach to Paris, France, was leaving from outside the station in 30 minutes.
Satin walked most of the way from Kiev to the border, setting off on foot, alone, with a bag of snacks on his back after hearing bomb blasts and seeing destruction in the city. On arriving in Lviv, he met Laurence from New Delhi in a shelter. Along with two others they paid hundreds of dollars to a taxi driver to take them the remaining 100km to the Polish border – but the traffic was bad and the driver swindled them, dropping them with 28km still to walk.
Satin’s worried parents want him to return to India but at the moment it seems too difficult so his instructions are to make his way to a cousin’s place in Portugal.
Nadhi, from the Punjab, was studying Ukrainan at the University of Eastern Europe in Cherkasy. She left town with a group of friends who decided to get out after hearing sirens. Nadhi’s parents also want her to return to India, but she figues she will stay in Berlin for two weeks to see if the situation calms down enough for her to return to her studies. Like the others, Nadhi made her way to the Polish border where there were coaches to Warsaw. At Warsaw, they were put on trains to Berlin.
Berlin is calm but there is a sense of tension. The conflict is close. A demonstrator at Sunday’s demo carrried a placard saying it was 670km to the frontline – that might be as the crow flies – according to Google maps it is about 1,000 km by road – but it is a wide road and there is nothing in the way.
In the introduction to the later edition of her 1995 travelogue ‘From East to West’ Anne Applebaum wrote:
“The borderlands lie in a flat plane crushed between the civilisations of Europe – and those of Asia. East of Poland, West of Russia. Their lack of mountains, seas, deserts and canyons has always made the borderlands easy to conquer. Five centuries ago, an army on horseback could march from a castle on the Baltic to a fort on the Black Sea without meeting a physical obstacle greater than a fast-running river or a wide forest. Even now, a spy running straight from Warsaw to Kyiv would find nothing natural to obstruct him. Distances are great but messages to the King or the Khan or the Grand Duke or the Czar have always been easier to send here than in the more mountainous parts of Europe, because so little stands in the way of the messenger.”
Applebaum writes that this has made the area tempting to invaders, but the invasions have always failed eventually. The great borderlands of Europe are basically a natural melting pot of cultures, languages and nationalities which have been in flux for centuries. “It could even be said that there were until recently no nations in the borderlands – or at least no nation-states in the sense that we know them now.”
The current conflict seems one from an anachronous, imperial past. There is little to separate a Ukrainian and a Russian – this is not an ethnic conflict but one over territory. Like the other former satellite states that border Russia on all sides, Ukraine has turned away from the failing kleptocracy of the Kremlin. Putin’s attack seems unlikely to change that in the long term.
First published on the author’s Substack A Letter from Scotland blog
Images by the author