Fragments from a war diary, Part #1
War has a harrowing effect upon everyone involved in it. It radiates misery, unhappiness and pain in every direction. The lives of ordinary people are pulled apart in countless directions on whims or pretexts, and people used to living their daily existences are plunged into uncertainty. Each day of their lives suddenly involves something new, extraordinary, harrowing and miserable. Lives are ruined at random, because war is arbitrary. Everyone is affected by war, and it is sheer luck whether you have a good war, depending on where you live, who you know, the nature of your profession and your ability to adapt to war’s extraordinary new rules.
Arriving in military theatre, the first sensation you feel that all is not right is in a neighbouring country, because war’s effects spill over borders and cause suffering within their proximity even where there is no fighting. Arriving in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, one is immediately struck by the consequences of the war in Ukraine. Strangers are quick to strike up conversations, and what they want to do is to talk about the war and how it has influenced them. This author found himself flying into Warsaw and a stranger spent an hour on the flight telling him about all the problems caused in Warsaw, ordinarily a present and breezy provincial capital city, by the conflict in Ukraine next door. Although numbers are uncertain, both Poland and her capital have been changed by the massive influx in refugees as a result of the conflict in Ukraine. Inevitably, Poland has absorbed more Ukrainian refugees than any other country and although the Poles have taken this shock to their political and economic system with a remarkable amount of good grace, there have undoubtedly been strains.
Warsaw does not have enough accommodation for the Ukrainians who have moved there en masse to escape the dangers and hardships of war. One man told this author that he rents property in Warsaw. At the current time his telephone is ringing 24 hours a day, and 19 enquiries out of 20 are from Ukrainians. Because Ukrainians do not have enough living space in Warsaw, they have taken to sleeping rough or in railway stations or other public places. This grates upon the sensibilities of ordinary Poles, who see their neat city overrun with vagrants. None of this is the fault of the Ukrainians; Warsaw simply does not have enough infrastructure to accommodate the huge influx of people it is currently struggling to cope with.
Parts of Poland’s mostly impressive railway network have also become overrun by the influx of refugees. This is not just a matter of the breakdown in international railway services heading into Ukraine, although they have indeed become dysfunctional. The telephone lines for booking tickets on the daily train from Warsaw to Kyiv now open at exactly 8am 20 days prior to the train’s departure, and all tickets are usually sold out within two to five minutes. (It is not easy to obtain this information, incidentally.) Undoubtedly a substantial number of the tickets are bought by hawks and scalpers, who then sell the tickets on at elevated prices to those suffering from misfortune. Likewise the train to Przemyśl, the once quiet and quaint southeastern provincial Polish town that sits close to the border with Ukraine, is now overrun and it is very difficult to buy tickets for this train unless one anticipates arrival at unusual times of the day. Many people buy a ticket for a different train and just board anyway, hoping that the guard will overlook it. (They do.) A first class ticket probably guarantees you entry to the carriage but you may end up standing for most or all of the journey. A second class ticket may not even guarantee you that, as the throng of people fighting to board the train is so intense. The accommodation options in Przemyśl are overwhelmed with refugee populations. While the Polish residents in this historical Austro-Hungarian town try to go about their daily lives oblivious to the massive quantities of people flowing through their hamlet, it is inevitable that to some degree that their routines are impacted. If you plan to enter Ukraine via Przemyśl, book your hotel room well in advance.
The border at Medyka, just east of Przemyśl, is the principal point of entry to and departure from Ukraine during wartime and the easiest for a foreigner to navigate in practice. The border can hardly be described as normal; it is heavily militarised and all luggage is searched for guns and other munitions. Nevertheless for a person with strong reasons to travel to Ukraine during wartime crossing this border on foot represents by far the easiest way of doing so. One takes a taxi from Przemyśl to the border, and then one walks down a series of paths with high chain fences adorned with barbed wire on either side for a total distance of about 2 kilometres. Immigration formalities on the part of both the Polish and Ukrainian authorities are cursory; this author was asked no questions whatsoever. However on no account attempt to drive. On each side of the border, the tailback of trucks waiting to cross continues for several kilometres and it would appear that the waiting time is several days. For regular cars, we were told that a wait of six to eight hours in each direction is not unusual. The border must be crossed on foot.
On both sides of the border, small villages of money changers, liquor stores, people selling SIM cards, groceries and other staples, and different sorts of offices of domestic and international NGO’s have sprung up, for the most part in ad hoc shacks. There is a persistent sea of confusion and chaos, although people for the most part are very good-natured. Upon entering Ukraine, there is a prominent office to assist foreign soldiers coming to the country to fight as volunteers for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, with an English-speaking solider proudly standing guard. Navigate around this office amidst the chain fences, debris and craters in the pavement, and you have just entered Ukraine. It is important to have pre-arranged accommodation to collect you on the Ukrainian side of the border, as otherwise you might be left waiting hours for a bus to take you to Lviv and it is highly likely that the bus will be very busy indeed. Although the border appears to be open 24 hours a day, do not attempt to cross it after dark. There is a curfew throughout Lviv oblast, from Midnight until 5am, and we understand that if you try to travel from the border to Lviv during curfew hours the Police will stop you repeatedly to ask you what you are doing. Although the Police in Ukraine have improved dramatically in the last few years, no longer being nearly as corrupt as they once had a reputation for, you do not want an otherwise reasonably pleasant journey into central Lviv to be disrupted by constant Police enquiries as to why you are breaching the curfew.
The historical city of Lviv itself has become a base in western Ukraine for all manner of people, because it is relatively safe. It is also rather beautiful and in peacetime conditions it would be well worth several days on a tourist circuit. The air raid sirens for the most part have diminished in Lviv over the past months, as the Russians have used up their supply of long-range missiles that they were previously using to strike the city. Lviv has a heavy military presence, as there are substantial training facilities for the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the environs of the city. Soldiers in training can be seen jogging through the streets in the early morning. The city is also awash with refugees from other more dangerous parts of the country. The greater majority of the city’s budget hotels have filled up with refugees and the displaced, but the atmosphere is quite merry. The streets throng with people from all over Ukraine, and again everyone is good-natured. The hawking of trinkets and souvenirs to the stream of foreigners entering and leaving wartime Ukraine via Lviv is common, but Lviv has a series of pleasant bars and restaurants amidst its cobbled streets and historical buildings. An unusual array of languages can be heard on the streets, and a lot of people speak English: something that never used to be the case in Ukraine. However it is not politic to speak Russian in Lviv. Understandably, Ukrainians have become resentful of Russian language and customs, seeing the Russians as their former colonial overlords during Soviet times and now the aggressors invading their beloved land and killing their people.
Observe the curfew in Lviv. Bars and restaurants all close at between 10:30pm and 11pm and then there is a rush to the supermarkets before running home for Midnight; although there are some 24 hour stores open in case of emergencies but be prepared to explain to the Police why you need to use them, if you do. Life continues tolerably normally in Lviv, in a jolly if simple way, notwithstanding all the unusual features of life in a city changed by being a key strategic centre in the middle of a war with a massive foreign aggressor.
Nevertheless the strains of weariness and fatigue are manifest on the faces of the people. War is hugely exhausting, harrowing and distressing for those caught up in it. This author has seen a number of civil conflicts up close, and the marks of distress in the eyes and demeanour of its victims are the same worldwide. Bewildered children wonder where their parents have gone. Girls group together and chat idly while their boyfriends are fighting on the front. War is terribly boring; in military theatre you spend most of your time just waiting, anxious, hoping to be able to see your loved ones again and waiting for news. There is a disturbing sense of impotence that hangs in the air as people affected by war understand that there is very little they can do to change their fates. War makes people feel helpless.
Despite all this, we should be proud of Ukrainians. The country is full of volunteers, each person willing to play their part in helping one-another, supporting the brave men and women of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and assisting in reconstruction and delivery of aid to suffering civilians. Foreigners who come to help are made to feel very welcome, and they are supported in every way the Ukrainians can. What we see emerging from the terrible circumstances of war is a positive and optimistic new Ukrainian nation, of whose people the world can be proud.
* Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.