Olya left with her friend Alina

Train to Vinnytsia

Oliya is on the streets, Anya with her, but that’s no surprise. This is the third time Anya has taken another kid. In every photograph I have, she has one hand on her hip, her fanny pushed out to the side and her head tilted, as if to say, “Yes, you.” Anya is fourteen. She took Andre as well.

Andre’s stepfather died. This is actually good news; he beat Andre and Andre’s mother. Maybe Andre will go home now — leave the shelter. Andre is my little photographer. I looked at his stuff, large prints hung on a wire, I was taking my time, “Ok, so this is nice.” With six used digital cameras and a handful of volunteers from the photo club of Odessa, I had sponsored a class for kids at the shelter. Andre understood composition. Almost immediately, after that, I handed him the digital video camera and said, “You come with me to the streets.” Andre is fifteen.

Of the three, Oliya is the one I worry most about. We got her because her mother, an alcoholic, was evicted by an angry grandmother, and after a month of sleeping with Oliya in doorways near the train station, had sense enough to bring her daughter to the shelter. Oliya came to us sweet and innocent, which sounds trite, I know, but those two words fit exactly. Everyone adored her, and all was well until six months later, Anya took Andre and Oliya to the streets only God knows where. Oliya is thirteen.

Oddly, Andre keeps calling my cell phone.

Hello?

It’s Andre, how are you?

Fine. Are you coming back?

No….

Where are you?

In a village.

Do you need anything?

No… talk with your later. Silence.

A month and fifteen cell phone calls later, Andre walks in the door of the shelter.

“Where have you been and where’s Oliya and Anya?” I say.

“In Vinnytsia.”

I look at him for some clue that he is telling the truth or lying. “If I go after them, will you go with me?”

“Yes.”

That pretty much confirms it and that’s as long a conversation as it is. Vinnytsia is about 250 miles from Odessa. It will take seven hours. That’s why people always take the train and sleep at night. My secretary makes the call. The train is leaving at 1030pm arriving very early in the morning.

I have a project proposal to a foundation I need to finish. My credit card got cancelled and new card is supposed to be arriving in an envelope at the local UPS office. I have flight arrangements to make and schedules to arrange for my trip to the states. Ukraine has changed their visa laws, and I need to go to the downtown office. I have a lot to do. But I can do these things on Monday and next week. And for the moment, I know where these girls are, and if I go now, I have a good chance of bringing them home.

If I am bringing back two girls, I need a woman. It seems preposterous to ask any woman to take an all night train ride to a distant city to find two girls and then talk them into coming home. The woman I really need is the psychologist, Alla Soroka. How to describe her: tall, lean and confident. I call her.

“Let me think about it.” She says.

The day passes. My friend, Justin Balding in New York wants some pictures emailed to him. I have to shrink the size of them first, but the little yellow disc called Nikon Pictures Project is not working, and a kid named Sasha who lives on the street is here now standing next to me asking for 20 Grievnas to take a train home. I tell him I’m going to give him the 20. People bet on horses at the track, I say to myself, and I’m betting you will really take the train. “I will call you from home” he says.

I need to pee, which means the toilet, but I know Sergey the artist will be talking to Artum our program director for kids, and Sergey wants some photo from me because he wants to make a painting from it, and I can’t for the life of me figure out which one. Yesterday, he used his hands to make a wide circle several times like he was looking down a hole and yes I have five hundred pictures of kids living down holes, I say and several from when I stood in a hole shot upwards, but my Russian isn’t good enough to understand what he wants. I never get to Sergey or the toilet because Evan, a giant Norwegian has just walked in. He wants to collect some funds from corporations and do something like remodel the kitchen and fix up the workshop where I plan to store 20 bicycles. So we sit on the sofa with the other Sergey, the director of The Way Home, to talk. I think it will be another 30 minutes before I get to the toilet and in my mind I’m wondering if we have running water today; yesterday it was turned off. And not that I need it, but there was no toilet paper.

By 7pm, I am at the train station saying goodbye to two girls who were volunteers; one from Poland, the other from Bulgaria. By 8:30pm I am at the catholic monastery. Alla is talking on a mobile phone in a room where boys are on computers and a woman is serving tea. I look at my watch. We have two hours.

“Alla,” I say when we sit down. “Will you help me get them?”

I see reluctance; she spends 20 minutes checking train and bus schedules by phone, her brow makes a little furrow. “I must be back the following evening.” She says. There are kids walking around interrupting. Father Michal is there too, he wants to talk. It’s 9:30 when she says, “OK. I will go.” We have an hour.

There’s no time for her to go home and get clothes. It’s 20 minutes to the office to get Andre and my camera equipment and 20 minutes to the station. We don’t have tickets and yes, there will be a line.

But it all gets done with time even to stop for groceries; and by 10:25pm, Alla, Andre and I are pushing our way through thick coated men and women, walking the long platform in Odessa, Ukraine, snow like fine mist in the air, just touching our faces like butterfly wings until we board the train to Vinnytsia. The three of us sit in a small compartment with a man we don’t know; there are four bunks. It’s freezing outside, but inside the coupe it is eighty degrees Fahrenheit because they don’t regulate the hot water pipes. We have cheese, bread, apples, juice and chocolate. The other man in the compartment has a small bottle of vodka. “It is for my throat,” he says, using two fingers of his right hand to stroke it. Andre and I have bunks on top; We sleep in our clothes; I don’t sleep well. The drunken man snores.

At 5am Alla shakes my arm. “We must go.” Snow is still falling, thicker now. We step out of the train, our feet sinking into snow on platform. Andre leads the way. It’s beautiful, I say out loud. Street lamps light the city streets made white by fresh snow. We walk out of the station, our feet making a crunching sound on snow covered sidewalks. We walk for eight or ten city blocks in the early morning, no cars, or buses are running. At a corner, Andre tells us to wait. He lights a cigarette. Alla stands patiently, I set my bag on the snow.

When the bus arrives, we are the first passengers. We motor through the silent city. I sit close to the front and watch out the windshield as wipers beat back the falling snow. Six or seven people board the bus, then we are out of the city, buildings disappear into blackness. Now and then I see a small house and lights, then darkness again. I think about these people and their small lives, a man a woman, a job, soup, beer, potatoes, children, the normalcy of it for them, the strangeness for me. They will never know what I know of life, nor I what they know. It seems extraordinary at that moment for me to have come this far, to Ukraine, to Odessa, to Vinnytsia, to riding an all night train and a bus to some remote village to find two teenage girls. I am far from churches and parishioners and committee meetings, the cycle of weekly sermons I would write, and the familiarity of digital music in my car.

“Here,” Andre says and we get up as the bus rolls to a stop. We stand in the snow on the side of the highway as the bus putters away. Silence. One street lamp lights a small side road. We walk down it, three abreast. I am not speaking; my Russian isn’t good enough to understand Alla and Andre as they converse. Andre has lit another cigarette. They are laughing about something, I believe it is about life in this collection of homes that is not even a village. We are off the road now in someone’s yard. There is a small fence and gate, but it has been pushed down. The snow is almost to my knees. “Stay here,” Andre says. Alla and I wait while Andre he goes to the door and knocks, then knocks again. It’s a long wait. A man in a t-shirt and underwear opens the door. We enter.

It is not a house. It is a cabin; it’s a cottage; it’s a Hobbit home, it’s almost a bunker, made of heavy logs, plaster and a pitched roof. Inside it is one room, twenty feet by fifteen with a front door not even five feet high. To my right inside is a woman in a dirty cotton robe, standing in an area that serves as the kitchen; to the left of it, a giant concrete fireplace and chimney with hot plates on top and a space for a stove built in. In front of me is a table; the man is seated and smoking. Beyond him is an iron bed with a sunken mattress, blankets and soiled linen; it is large enough for two. Behind the fireplace I see what looks like shelves. I see a pair of feet then legs sliding out. No one is speaking.

Oliya comes out first as if from the shelf of a deep closet. She looks at me and makes a smile. I move closer and see a mattress. After Oliya, Anya slips out and down; she looks at the floor. They have their jeans on and sweatshirts; they pull on coats and hats, then boots.

The man and woman are talking to each other. No one speaks to the girls. Alla is standing erect with her black fur coat on, like a soldier, like a Sargent against the wall, waiting, watching, the slightest smile on her face as the girls are getting ready. “What’s going on?” I say to Alla.

“We go.” She says, and smiles.

I am like the child in the family, the only one who doesn’t know what’s happening. It’s all too easy and dreamlike. I want to pull out my camera, but I can’t. The man is in a t-shirt; the woman in a robe. Their home is shit-storm, everything is filthy, the walls, the dirty carpet on the concrete floor, the shelves, the windows, the same exact sink I have seen in a hundred other kitchens in Ukrainian apartments. The only goodness here, the only comfort is that it is warm because of the fire. It’s a home, I am telling myself, but he makes drugs, Andre had said, and I am looking for something: glass bottles, chemicals, I don’t know what I am looking for. I am thinking maybe this man is screwing not only his wife but these two girls as well in this warm bunker. I don’t know this. I will never know it, but I think it.

And now it’s all moving so smoothly. No one speaks, no goodbye, no embrace. We are out on the snow, me Alla, Andre, Oliya and Anya. I take out my camera begin to shoot, the four of them ahead of me on the snow covered street, then from ahead of them, I shoot the four behind and walking toward me. I shoot the houses, the single street lamp, the bus as it arrives.

The sky has gone from black to spectrum blue, the hump of dawn now visible on the horizon. The bus is crowded now, with workers bound for Vinnytsia. A small transistor radio sits up on the wide dashboard, filling the front of the bus with music. No one speaks. I sit on the carpet covering the engine cowling, my back to the windshield, looking at these faces. God help me, if I lived here, who would I be. At the train station we buy tickets but the wait is two hours. We will be home tonight by nine thirty.

At a cafe nearby, I pay for breakfast. We eat on white tablecloths, with eggs and potatoes on white porcelain plates. If I close my eyes, I can still see the cups and saucers, the tea in white tea pots, the strings and tags dangling on the sides.

Dr. Robert Gamble, an ordained Presbyterian Minister, lived in Odessa, Ukraine from 2006 to 2010. Now stateside, he continues to travel back and forth and serve as Executive Director of This Child Here, a 501c3 not- for-profit he founded in 2006.