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Train of Love: When Ukrainian soldiers get a break, loved ones travel to see them

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ukrainian soldiers often spend weeks, even months, separated from their partners. So whenever they get a day or two off from the trenches, many of their loved ones rush to eastern cities near the front line on what Ukrainians call the Train of Love. NPR's Joanna Kakissis sends us this wartime lovers' postcard.

INNA YERMOLOVYCH: No, I shouldn't say that. No, no.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: We meet Inna Yermolovych (ph) and Yulya Dmytrieva (ph) a week before Valentine's Day. They've booked their train tickets from Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, to the east, where they will meet their husbands, soldiers who serve in the same unit.

YERMOLOVYCH: I enjoy even looking how he drinking tea or how he's putting his shoes on. I like to see how he is moving, just to see he's breathing.

KAKISSIS: That's Inna, a 30-something import manager, talking about her husband, Dyma (ph). They're newlyweds.

YERMOLOVYCH: After one month, don't see each other, we're losing mind. So if the situation gives us this possibility to see each other, I catch this chance.

KAKISSIS: This is Yulya. She's 49, works in IT, and has red-tinted dreadlocks.

YULYA DMYTRIEVA: Yeah. I'm actually a spontaneous person. So I can today decide and go tomorrow because sometimes he doesn't know in advance that he will be out.

KAKISSIS: Yulya and her husband, Vadym, have been together for nearly 14 years.

DMYTRIEVA: He's incredible. Yeah. He's very creative, and he makes people around him happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN MOVING)

KAKISSIS: The women board a train headed to the Donetsk region, where the war's fiercest fighting is going on. The train is filled with the partners of soldiers fighting there.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: And here we are at the city of Sloviansk, the train's second-to-last stop. Inna's husband, Dyma, is there, too.

DYMA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "She's the best thing in my life," he says. "She's what I'm fighting for and what I live for." Then Yulya's husband, Vadim, arrives, running to the Train of Love to meet her. Like Yulya, he also has dreadlocks, but his are dyed blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Vadim's face lights up when he sees his wife.

VADIM: (Speaking Ukrainian).

YERMOLOVYCH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: They kiss, and Inna and Dyma embrace. There are reunions all day at the Sloviansk train station - and at the train's final stop, the city of Kramatorsk.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Every day at these two stations is Valentine's Day. Shops that sell flowers and chocolates are always busy, making as much money as they did before the war. In a cafe with their wives, Vadim and Dyma say wartime separation has ended too many marriages.

DYMA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Dyma says some wives go abroad and build new lives, and Vadim brings up a soldier in their unit who divorced his wife.

VADIM: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "She made us all these bracelets," Vadim says, holding up his wrist. "After we returned from a difficult combat mission, something snapped in him, and he said he could no longer talk to her." Then they change the subject. Dyma and Inna talk about having kids. Vadim and Yulya planned to adopt, but two years of war have also lowered expectations for the future.

VADIM: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "The main thing now is just to stay alive," Vadim says. "And that's what we plan to do."

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN ARRIVING)

KAKISSIS: At the station, the next Train of Love arrives. Soldiers holding flowers line the platform, waiting for the doors to open.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Sloviansk, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.