Fragments from a War Diary, Part #102
Today started typically strangely. The regular reader of these diaries will recall that in Lviv I am staying in a converted museum in the city centre which appears, the more I study the inscriptions on the walls, to have been a museum devoted to the history of the city of Lviv or at least the offices of this museum - which now contain a few beds in miscellaneous rooms and a graphic design office. As I went down to pay for my continued stay this morning, as I do every few days, the normally friendly lady at the desk, who always smiles charmingly at me, curtly informed me that I have to leave tomorrow. When I asked why, she explained that some other people are staying instead and they are paying more money. I suppose this is rational on her part, if rather unexpected. So I found some other accommodation on that normally reliable portal, Booking.com, which accepted my reservation but mysteriously did not send me a precise address and are not responding to electronic communications. So I might be homeless tomorrow. The property from which I am departing is suffering periodic electricity and water problems, so I cannot in all honesty say I am sad to be leaving. Even in Zaporizhzhia - sadly currently under heavy daily bombardment - they had water and electricity.
That doesn’t really matter; I am sure something will work out. It always does. The key to living and working in a war zone is flexibility. A wonderful Scottish couple at the current place of my employment have loaned to me a huge black suitcase in which to place the miscellaneous paraphernalia that I have accumulated tramping up and down the front line, including a doormat with Vladimir Putin’s face on it so that you can wipe your dirty boots upon his image. Suddenly I have acquired all this excess luggage, having arrived in Ukraine with a minimum of items all of which could be stuffed in a compact rucksack. I am thinking about shipping them all home, and indeed Ukraine’s national postal service, Nova Poshta, has an international deliveries facility. However the gentleman behind the desk in their local Lviv city centre office gruffly told me that the time estimate for a European shipment is “nothing”, whereas a good friend and colleague has estimated to me that it could be a matter of “months” unless I get “lucky”. I don’t like the sound of any of that. So I suppose I am going to be lugging all this excess baggage round with me until I exit Ukraine, whenever that might be.
Ukraine of course has no airmail service, because it has no airports or aeroplanes. The skies over Ukraine are closed to all civilian air traffic and therefore the regular courier companies are extremely limited in any of the services they can offer and Nova Poshta transports parcels and mail over Ukraine’s land borders, I think principally into Poland via the border to the west of Lviv, where as I observed coming into Ukrainian theatre the customs delays for lorries and other HGV’s is a matter of several days or even weeks. The queue of vehicles is many kilometres long. That’s why you walk in and out of Ukraine. There’s bad traffic.
All these comparatively trivial problems aside, today was a day of peeling potatoes and carrots and chopping tomatoes and lifting large boxes of vegetables around. It is all rather stimulating and satisfying work, if physically demanding because you are on your feet all day and it was rainy and cold before suddenly the sun came out and tomorrow proves to be a beautiful day. Farmers and soldiers tramp in and out of the place where we are all working in a harmonious, polite and friendly team, and everything is awash with mud. So even though my trench boots gave me trench foot, as a series of fascinated spectators on a train from Dnipro to Lviv all sequentially observed what now feels like an age ago but can only be a week or two, they come in useful. So do my miscellaneous layers of camouflaged jackets and gloves, because they are all resistant to the dirt and muck associated with farmers coming into our working premises with agricultural produce straight from the fields; soldiers tramping in and out with pieces of military equipment (a number of the foreign workers today volunteered for photographs with them holding a shoulder-launched anti-tank weapon); and the endless production of massive amounts of food to feed the army.
The highlight of any day at my current place of work is the wonderful Ukrainian home style cooking. The ladies who are ostensibly in charge at this enormous kitchen facility (such people always tend to be older ladies, in Ukraine) are the most exquisite chefs and they happily prepare us sumptuous home-cooked meals for lunch every day, as well as make us endless cups of tea and coffee. I feel treated quite regally as I sit there scraping away with a blunt knife on what we have come to call “Chernobyl carrots” (carrots so gnarled and misshapen that it is hopeless to try to process them into food the soldiers might eat and they are inevitably for the garbage). I am really impressed by the long hours of labour put in by my fellow volunteers. It seems that working in a pleasant environment makes all the difference in terms of the commitment people are willing to provide. I have really landed on my feet here. These are some of the nicest people I have worked with during all my time in Ukraine.
Outside this paradise of muddy floors, hot sweet tea, mangled vegetables and gruff farmers with muddy cardboard boxes full of the latest products pulled straight from the fields, the war grinds on relentlessly. A group of young people have gathered outside Lviv City Hall, late on a Friday afternoon, to demonstrate about their fear of the Russian drones that periodically buzz overhead. In fact these are only reconnaissance drones, that have come to spy on what we are all doing in Lviv. Nevertheless these young people are scared. They want normal lives in this city of culture, studying and learning and socialising and being free: the joyous experiences of being young that everybody should have. Instead they live trapped within the grey straightjacket of constant war. I am relieved only to say that my own children do not have to live through such miseries.
Outside the window of my curious hotel-cum-museum, somebody is singing a dreary and depressing Ukrainian folk song in the central square outside. This museum needs some double glazing. I’m glad I am out of here tomorrow.