Fragments from a War Diary, Part #117
I’ve decided to change my accommodation in Lviv. It’s not just that the cleaning lady of the current suite of apartments seems to use the empty units as a brothel. I suppose I can ignore that, with a good set of ear plugs. More disturbing to me are the sounds of domestic violence I heard coming from the apartment next door this afternoon. I’m not sure what I am supposed to do in such circumstances, and inevitably I did nothing. This is a country at war and I am a guest in the country and I don’t even know how to call the Police or whether the incident is sufficiently serious to warrant intervention. I might just make a mess worse. Whatever was going on, and there was a lot of screaming, could have been anything. There is a war outside, I tell myself, and I have to measure my expectations of behaviour to the crisis outside. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and rather than blundering into a situation I know little about and where I don’t even speak the language I might investigate supporting charities that support women’s rights in Ukraine. It’s a subject I’ve expressed an interest in before and I haven’t followed it up or I haven’t met quite the right people. It’s also a subject about which there seems to be significant stigma and people don’t talk about it much. But it is an issue that concerns me and it is essential we address it if Ukraine is going to move forward in embracing the sorts of pan-European values that are required for European Union membership.
There are several other problems with this apartment, which were not obvious when I immediately moved in. It’s on a noisy main road, which makes it difficult to concentrate on anything until after dark when the streets empty a bit. It is up an impossibly steep flight of steps, that crumble to the touch, and hiking up here in the dark can be quite an experience. It is not really possible to invite anyone to visit me save perhaps in the dead of night, which is not something I have done. The building is eery, and the ground floor floods when it is raining: something I learned today the hard way as my feet were soaked before I had even departed for work. It is central; but lots of places are central. Nevertheless this apartment feels rather isolated and gloomy, stuck at the top of a large dark building it is not welcoming in the way that I would hope for.
So I have resolved to move again, this weekend, to somewhere that feels more modern although there is this persistent rumour about the place being awash with bedbugs. That’s no problem; I know my tropical insecticides and what you need is some boric acid to spray down the sheets. I wonder where I will find that. Perhaps I can ask Гусінька (“Gusinka”, the female diminutive of the Ukrainian for the word “Goose”), my new Ukrainian girlfriend, who is a beautiful cream soft toy goose that I bought on a whim in a tourist souvenir shop. Yes, Lviv is actively encouraging foreign tourists, even in the middle of a war. Гусінька and I connected yesterday evening. She sat with me in my regular bar, far more engaging than some of the regular patrons, as I met a variety of people from the NGO community and listened to their stories of what they have been doing and what they want to do next.
I never cease to be amazed by how enormous both the domestic and international NGO communities are in wartime Ukraine. This stands in stark contradistinction to a number of war zones, where the NGO communities may feel more enfeebled. In a number of countries, people associated with civil society expect government funding and hence sit on the laurels waiting for nothing to happen. In Ukraine, people are sufficiently cynical about the operations of their government that they do not expect government to help them in any way at all and therefore they have embraced the idea of collective self-help remarkably quickly. They actively go out and hunt for funds to run their collectives, and they rely upon domestic patriotism and zeal to pursue to the public good to help themselves and others in the absence of much effective government.
I am thrilled to meet all the people involved in these initiatives, and they have undoubtedly achieved the most extraordinary things amidst the chaos of war. The domestic NGO sector has also engaged effectively for the most part with the international NGO community, where the international NGO’s have wanted domestic NGO partners. I learn that there have been some frictions, and I recall that it is important always to remember what a friend and colleague reminded me of the other day which is that as foreigners we are guests in Ukraine amidst the people’s darkest hour since World War II and for all the good intentions we might bring with us, we must be respectful and work harmoniously with Ukrainians whose culture is different from those we have travelled from and which a lot of us know much less about than we ought to. Nevertheless the process of respect is symbiotic, as I alluded to above, because Ukrainians must also conform to European standards in order that we can embrace Ukraine as an equal nation within the European polity in the years to come.
Most importantly, Ukraine must in due course become economically self-sufficient which is a gargantuan task but we need carefully to plot a course, beginning right now, to take her in the right direction. Ukrainians are naturally entrepreneurial and we should encourage that, which is why I bought Гусінька as a present to myself last night. She cost 1,000 Gryvnas so she was more expensive than the sort of goose that you eat. We can and will assist the Ukrainians in every way to break away from the Russian Sovietism with which they have been plagued. The transformation involved entails not just military resistance but rejecting a totalitarian mindset and embracing pluralistic mainstream European values and I am confident that Ukraine can achieve this.
I have been rushing around meeting so many people and hurtling from this event to another that I realise I have become quite exhausted. I have been working long hours, having virtually no breaks from the moment I wake up to the moment I rest my head against the pillow. I have resolved to slow down the pace, at least for a few days. I feel exhilarated about helping Ukraine and using my own specific skills to assist, and I know that however much longer I stay in Ukraine on this occasion I will be there, at least in the background, to help this country throughout the Russian invasion and surely well beyond the war’s conclusion. Bringing hope to Ukraine is a long-term project, and it might even involve me for the balance of my career. I still believe in those democratic political values of tolerance, liberty, rule of law, free markets and social protections, that define modern Europe. It will be my pleasure to assist Ukraine, one way or another, in the future.