Claudia Beltramella – Train to Freedom

Gyumri station was crowded, and people were rushing to the platforms to get on the trains. In those turbulent days, Armenians were fleeing as far as possible: the war with Azerbaijan for the Nagorno-Karabakh province, that had lasted for more than ten years, had exploded during the last few months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Andrey Medovka accompanied his wife Lidija and little Vera to their carriage. He would have preferred to travel with them, but he was a police officer and his presence in those troubled times was absolutely necessary. They hugged each other for the last time before Lidija reluctantly got into the carriage with tears in her eyes.
The train would cross almost all of Turkey and, after changing at Ankara station, Lidija and Vera would arrive at Istanbul. There, they would take a ferry to Italy, where Nika, Andrey’s younger sister, was waiting for them. They were to stay there until the clashes in Armenia were over.
Nika had married a young officer of the German embassy in Armenia, who had later had been transferred to Italy.
Doctor Aamir Kond was the last one to get on the train. He was the family doctor, and a very good friend of Andrey’s, ever since their years at university.
«Dear friend», Andrey said to him while shaking his hand, «please take care of them and let me know as soon as you arrive».
«Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. See you when I get back».
The train left on time at 5.30 am. It would take more than 16 hours before it reached its intended destination.
An hour of the journey had passed. Due to the rocking of the carriage, Vera had fallen asleep in on her mother’s lap. She was a beautiful child, with a mass of black curly hair around her small, plump face. She had just turned three. Lidija and Andrey were hoping she could begin the nursery school in a calm, peaceful environment.
She had not been frightened by her father’s sudden disappearance: her parents loved her and had explained that Daddy would soon join them at Aunt Nika’s house.
She had been born in September 1988, on the day Michail Gorbačëv had taken office as President of the Soviet Union. It had been hard for Lidija and Andrey to conceive her. The tests they had taken during the last ten years had shown that their reproductive organs were completely normal and, in general, that their health was good. However, they had both undergone several kinds of treatment so that Lidija could become pregnant. The news of her pregnancy had been a godsend to them.
The compartments were crowded. It was hot, and every now and then some passengers went out into the corridor to take a breath of the fresh air coming through the windows. Lidija was still crying: she hadn’t wanted to leave Andrey in the turmoil of the town and was afraid for him, but she had to protect Vera.
A few hours later, fatigue and sleepiness forced her to fall asleep too.
Some men were travelling on the train, but the wide majority of the people were women and children. They were shocked and looked around with puzzled expressions on their faces. There were people of all faiths: Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Yazidis.
A couple in their fifties exchanged glances and sad smiles, and then averted their eyes from each other. They were wealthy people: besides their dignified manner, one could tell their social rank from their elegant clothes and the big sapphire on the ring the lady wore on her right ring finger. The man was hiding his sorrow by looking at the landscape as it passed swiftly outside the window.
A bit farther along, some youngsters were arguing heatedly about the latest political and economical events. Behind that discussion was their hidden desire to build a future in a faraway country and their hope of finding new opportunities awaiting for them.
Everyone was looking for something at the end of that journey: the freedom of walking along the streets without being overcome by civil or military riots.
Lidija woke up as Aamir came back from a walk through the train. When Vera also awoke, they shared their sandwiches.
«Aamir, what do you think is going to happen to our country?».
«Don’t worry. Everything will be fine and you and Andrey will soon be reunited».
Despite his reassurances, Lidija was worried. She was not sure that things would work out. The same concern was on the faces of the other passengers who had boarded the train at Gyumri.
Six hours later a voice from the loudspeaker announced the arrival of the train in Ankara.
«Please wait for me down there. I’ll take care of your luggage».
Vera stretched in her mother’s arms as they got off the train.
«Here I am. Now, let’s buy the tickets to Istanbul and for the ferry. Then we’ll go and eat something nice».
«Thank-you, Aamir. I really appreciate what you’re doing for us. You know, I don’t only mean the fact that you’ve accompanied us all this way».
They deposited their suitcases in the left luggage room and went to the ticket office. The station clock read 10 pm: they had two hours left, since the woman and child would be leaving for Istanbul at midnight and Aamir would catch the return train home.
They went out of the station and sat at a table outside a cafe nearby.
They ordered dolma sarma1 with yogurt and spices, two glasses of white wine and an iced fruit tea for Vera.
When they were back at in the station, they retrieved their luggage and Aamir took them to the train.
«Goodbye, and thank you for everything!», said Lidija, deeply moved.

Aamir hugged them and promised he would help Andrey to join them as soon as possible. He left only after he had put them into the carriage and had watched the train leave. Then he found a phone booth and called Andrey.
«Andrey, it’s me, Aamir. Your family have just left. All is well. They will arrive at Istanbul tomorrow at about 6 am. Lidija will call you before boarding the ferry».
«What time does it leave?», Andrey asked from the other end of the line.
«At noon. Have a good rest».
«Thank-you, my friend».
Aamir arrived at Gyumry late at night, exhausted. He decided to call in to see Andrey the following morning, just to check if his friend’s family had arrived safely.
The next day he took the copies of the keys to Andrey’s house from the small table near the doorway. Then he left his house. He walked quickly along the two blocks of buildings that separated their dwellings. He would buy the newspaper on his way back.
When he rang the bell, there was no answer. He rang again. He took the set of keys out of his pocket and, after selecting the right one, opened the door and went in.
«Oh my God! But… what…!». Andrey’s house was a mess: Aamir moved carefully, trying not to trample on the objects all over the floor. A coffee pot was boiling in the kitchen. He went in slowly. «Andrey! Are you here?».
His friend was sitting with his face down on the table, in a pool of blood. In his right hand he held a gun, in his left, the newspaper and he had a hole in his head.
Aamir didn’t understand. He took the newspaper and read the front-page headlines: “Terrible rail crash in Turkey on the Ankara-Istanbul line. Last night two high speed trains collided in a tunnel two kilometres from Istanbul. The crash killed all the passengers. The police were able to identify some of the victims: their names are listed in the centre page”.
Aamir didn’t need to check the list. Lidija and Vera were certainly dead.

Translation by Michele Curatolo (edited by Carole Watt)

1Grape leaves wrapped around a filling of rice