A group of teenagers rush to the tracks and hastily film the newcomer, who smoothly crosses their village in Ukraine. It’s a small blue and white diesel train, zigzagging on the slopes of the Carpathians. These teenagers were probably not born when he disappeared in 2006, after connecting the village of Valea Viseului, in the far north of Romania, to the city of Rakhiv in Ukraine, twenty kilometers away. Here he is back since January 18.
On board, a few Ukrainian passengers: an elderly couple, and three refugee women, including one with two children who comes to find her husband for a week. Everyone welcomes the arrival of the train: “It’s really practical, you no longer need to cross the border on foot and take a bus. There are direct connections to the big cities”, rejoices Olena (1). This 34-year-old woman, who has found refuge in Romania with her family, is returning to Kherson via kyiv. She has not seen her hometown since the invasion began. She goes there to collect belongings and change her windows, which have been shattered by bombardments.
The presence of war is palpable
Upon arrival in Rakhiv, a town of 15,000 inhabitants, life seems peaceful. But suddenly, Olena freezes. A warning siren sounds. Even if the region is spared, the presence of the war is palpable: armed forces in the street, power cuts… Before collecting the correspondence for kyiv, she says: “I dread seeing Kherson. I hope to stay a week, not more. Afterwards, I take this train back to Romania. »
On the Romanian side, at Valea Viseului station, switchman Lucian is delighted to have been able to go to lunch with his friends in Rakhiv: “Before, it took more than two hours by car to get there, not counting the waiting at the border. Yet the hills of Ukraine seem within reach. “We hear the warning sirens from here”, underlines the fifty-year-old. Except that, below, the Tisza River forms a natural border and imposes a detour of thirty kilometers to Sighetu Marmatiei to cross it. From now on, even if you have to arrive an hour before the departure of the train for passport controls, the journey only lasts about thirty minutes, for two daily round trips.
In 2007 the borders are reinforced
Lucian proudly shows off his switch box to the train’s Ukrainian engineer. He speaks with him in his mother tongue, Ukrainian, like the majority of the 1,500 inhabitants of the village. Because this territory straddling the border – “geographical center of Europe”, as a stone stele from the end of the 19th century states – is made up of the Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia and that of Maramures on the Romanian side. It is populated by Ukrainians, Romanians, Roma, Jews and Hungarians.
Following the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, entire families were separated. It was not until Ukraine’s independence in 1991 that connections resumed. The passenger train is then launched. Alas, in 2006, the line was removed, in favor of the car. And in 2007, the 650 kilometers of border were reinforced thanks to Romania’s entry into the EU. Not a single plane provides a link. There remains only one weekly train linking kyiv to Bucharest.
But the influx of refugees and the disruption of trade routes again force them to reconnect. Direct connections are now provided to kyiv or Lviv, and to Bucharest and Cluj on the Romanian side. And Valea Viseului should soon welcome trains carrying Ukrainian grain for transport to the Black Sea or other destinations in Europe. “There are not many people on board the train yet,” admits Vlad Nicolae, the station master. “But, he hopes, that should change when the war ends, because these are tourist areas. »
Ukrainians in Romania
Romania is an important transit country. The High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has counted nearly 1.9 million people who have crossed the border in the Ukraine-Romania direction and 1.5 million in the opposite direction since the start of the war.
Nearly 110,000 Ukrainians have applied for temporary protected status in Romania, since its implementation in March 2022 within the EU.
In total, the UNHCR lists nearly 8 million Ukrainian refugees in the various European countries, including nearly 5 million who have requested protection. And 85% of adults are women, according to a survey of 43,500 adults.
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