Daily life on the front line of a war zone superficially has a routine to it, but in practice every day is slightly different; the differences become accentuated in one’s mind, perhaps to avoid the recurrence of any feeling of boredom. I have just been woken up, writing these words, after a seemingly endless cacophony of unexplained air raid sirens sounding over the city. The 5am curfew has recently broken and there seems to be an unusual quantity of vehicular movements in the neighbourhood. Something may be going on out there, although I may or may not ever learn what it is. The simple hotel in which I am staying, still sleeping on a sofa in the office, remains mysteriously full. It is not apparently straightforward to obtain a regular room, unless one is a Ukrainian Armed Forces member with a very specific agenda. I have vague memories of being woken during the night by miscellaneous sounds, and a peculiar sense of unease.
Zaporizhzhia's principal hotel with western standards was destroyed by the Russians early in the war, to deter a substantial international community presence in the city. This in itself speaks volumes as to Russia's malign intentions in the region; they do not want their dirty wartime tactics revealed to the world. The absence of adequate accommodation in this really quite large city is one reason why there are so few much-needed foreigners around.
Nevertheless yesterday evening was a cause for celebration, and illustrates the sort of unusual normality that can punctuate life even in the middle of a war zone. A member of the team in which I have the honour to serve celebrated his birthday, and we all drove in a variety of clapped out taxis and a medical van to an outdoor restaurant overlooking the Dnieper channel, a river flowing past the centre of town that connects Ukraine’s upper waterways to the Zaporizhzhia hydroelectric power plant and dam and the Kakhovka reservoir to the south. This involves a drive over one of the Soviet-era bridges traversing the Dnieper channel, through various security checkpoints, and then down a series of unpaved, unlit roads that seem to wind down to the end of the earth until suddenly a Ukrainian national restaurant appears, as if by magic, at the end of the cragged path. The food was fine, the liquor flowed freely and spirits were high as we found small cause for celebration. Other tables were occupied with Ukrainians celebrating or enjoying a moment of normality in a very abnormal world.
Various people have left or are leaving the team shortly. They have tired of front line life, perhaps, or maybe they just need a break to attend to other affairs and obtain a breath of normality before coming back. Others are returning after a short break elsewhere in Ukraine, a distance from the hazards and complications of front line living. Lviv in the west and Kyiv, the capital, are both popular escapes. It is difficult for Ukrainians to travel abroad for short periods, because the realistic arteries in and out of the country are few (crossing by foot to Poland west of Lviv is the only border it can really be said is straightforward to use, where one is unlikely to encounter lots of questions and delays) and Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country without time consuming paperwork. The principal exemptions are either multiple medical disabilities or a large number of children; the rules in each case are complex and not, it seems, entirely transparent.
Other people are coming back to the team, and still others are visiting for a short period, to absorb the lie of the land. With constant personnel changes, the group dynamic always feels vulnerable but everyone strives to keep spirits high. Everyone has their own personal concerns: thinking about their children back home, worries about their health, fears for friends and relatives caught up elsewhere in the conflict, and all the other array of thoughts that go shooting through one’s mind when you find yourself on the front line of war. Small daily concerns are often amplified in your mind; minor events seem more important than really they are. The most important things are to go to bed each night alive and well, and to sleep well if you can.
Continuous problems with the electricity supply, internet access, mobile telephone reception, GPS signals, in short everything electric and electronic, persist. It is impossible ever to get to the bottom of these miscellaneous outages. You just have to grin and bear them. Yesterday there was a problem with emails; now my laptop computer appears unwilling to charge; whenever an attack is anticipated, GPS and data connectivity on mobile phones may be disrupted.
There are some confusions about where the team is going next, or more accurately when: we know we are moving southwest, to another part of the front line, which will be a welcome relief from the daily toils of life in Zaporizhzhia and the challenges of moving through territory that is liable to Russian artillery attack on a daily basis. There are uncertainties about the route, the timing and the bureaucracy, and having the right connections once one arrives.
Zaporizhzhia, a large, open plan Soviet town now awash with army barracks, including one adjacent to this hotel, is harmless enough. The city is dotted with minefields, tank traps and billboards promoting the Ukrainian Armed Forces and mourning the fallen, but shops are open and the ordinary incidents of life can be obtained at low prices by European standards. Some supermarkets also sell military equipment, including sniper rifles, handguns and enormous knives, seemingly without any licences or paperwork being required.
Like all jurisdictions immersed in civil conflict, Ukraine is suddenly awash with cheap guns and, as in other post-war environments, in the years to come all these casually owned firearms will no doubt present a variety of societal problems as they prove very difficult to collect after the end of the war. The prevalence of firearms in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Serbia remains a recurrent problem to this day, some 25-30 years after the conflicts in those countries came to a conclusion. Once the war in Ukraine has ended, however it ends (and for now we can only really speculate), the international community will be well advised to focus upon the disarming of a nation. Otherwise the proliferation of firearms and other dangerous wartime matériel may generate all sorts of instability as Ukraine becomes a centre for the illicit arms trade and these weapons fall into the hands of drug gangs and other undesirables. This is what happened in Bosnia and Serbia, and it ended up with tragic consequences as the school shootings in Serbia earlier this year exposed.
For now, the team is in suspense, engaging in daily deliveries of humanitarian aid to areas to the east and the south of the city of Zaporizhzhia, in areas in more or less close proximity to the front line in which the civilian populations are suffering most acutely. Our location for the next day is never revealed until after close of business the previous day. Constant maintenance of the vehicles is required to facilitate their travel down lonely, empty, bumpy roads, past military checkpoints and navigating around tank traps and minefields that represent the defences between the city of Zaporizhzhia and the hot front line. In these often remote locations, it is sometimes possible to hear the monstrous pounding of the artillery guns in the distance as one delivers humanitarian aid, and the air raid sirens groan their loud yawns all day as people calmly and patiently wait to be fed.
The task of civilian assistance is endless and overwhelming. There is always more to be done, and there are simply not enough people willing to do it. The British government has long held a roster of “Deployable Civilian Experts” to accommodate such needs, but the idea seems to go in and out of fashion and foreign governments are loathe to send civilians into hot war zones, irrespective of the level of training they have received. This is an attitude that ought to change, because civilian intervention can be a critical tool in maintaining the momentum in a just war.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.