BERLIN: The convoy slowly pulls out of the heart of Berlin, its eight carriages attached to a bright red locomotive. Destination: Ukraine, thanks to a historic “railway bridge” bringing humanitarian aid to the beleaguered country.
Four days of travel, over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) traveled and at the end of the line, tons of food and other necessities delivered to people in need.
The operation of Deutsche Bahn (DB), the German railway company, echoes the famous Allied airlift – known as “airlift” in German – during the Cold War to come to the aid of the city of Berlin during a Soviet blockade .
“It only took four days” to set up this cooperation with the Polish and Ukrainian railways which now allows this “railway bridge” to operate regularly, explains Sigrid Nikutta, head of DB Cargo, the freight service of the public company.
Every other evening, a convoy leaves the German capital after having collected donations from companies and individuals throughout the country, at dedicated points or directly from manufacturers and mass retailers.
Pallets of baby food, boxes of sanitary napkins and tampons, small household appliances, medical equipment, floor mattresses, blankets… the outpouring of generosity is so overwhelming that the containers fill up quickly.
“Each container is a message to Ukrainians: ‘We are not leaving you alone!'” says Nikutta.
Within the DB staff, morale is good. Employees take convoys to Poland where they then hand them over to local drivers.
The containers must then be unloaded and transferred because the width of the rails in Ukraine is different.
When the train arrives in Ukraine, the national railway takes over.
The unfailing commitment of the employees of the Ukrainian national company to transport food and refugees from one end of the country to the other has aroused the admiration of their colleagues in the West.
“They have my respect but also my concern because we all know it’s dangerous,” says Nikutta.
However, the risks for the “railway bridge” are limited, says DB Cargo spokesman Michael Schmidt.
“We are not transporting weapons, no oil”, he underlines, noting that since the beginning of the Russian offensive, attacks on the Ukrainian railway network have been rare because “the Russians need to maintain these infrastructures in good condition”.
All convoys, sent to various Ukrainian cities, have so far arrived safe and sound, says Nikutta proudly.
She even received a photograph of the arrival of the containers in kyiv sent by the mayor of the capital, the charismatic ex-boxer Vitali Klitschko.
“Many Ukrainians feel today, after four long weeks of war, what Berliners felt at the time of the blockade by the Soviets” in 1948-1949, says the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, who witnessed the departure of a convoy this week.
“Without the enormous effort of the Allies at the time, what would have become of this beautiful city?” he asks.
“We now need other solid bridges, including political ones, and the most important would be a prospect of EU membership for Ukraine”, declares the ambassador, giving the starting signal to the locomotive stamped with slogan “We stand with Ukraine”.