Fragments from a War Diary, Part #123
For now in Lviv, I feel I have settled into a more agreeable routine. The maximum amount of manual labour I am inclined to do each day is about five hours. Writing takes up about an hour of my time each day. Pieces of administration relating to the international community in Ukraine may take up an hour or so per day. I may have meetings with people. I try to limit these to one or two per day. The rest of my time is mine to relax, sleep, eat and have that occasional beer or two. This is a marathon not a sprint, I decide, however long I am to stay in Ukraine and engage with the Ukrainian just war. Today was another day of hideously cold weather and relentless freezing rain, in which I was wearing the wrong footwear and I should have donned those ugly Soviet trench boots. Cutting peppers and lifting spuds under the pouring skies is a particular form of hell, and the pool of able and willing diminished volunteers was somewhat diminished today but I turn out to assist in all weathers, hail or shine. This, for now, is my life, seven days a week, and I am proud to say that I am thoroughly enjoying it.
In the coming days I am planning another trip to the front line - if my own security assessments conclude that the trip does not involve enhanced risk. Much as I predicted, after a few fiery weeks in anticipation of the end of the fighting season, the violence along the front line is subsiding as the bad weather kicks in and we all become drenched in freezing rain and torrid mud. I will be delivering personal gifts and supplies to a city on the front line, and liaising with some members of the NGO community and various other tasks - as well as undertaking my own personal reconnaissance of events on the ground. However before this sort of travel is confirmed it is necessary to check every source and undergo every kind of investigation to ensure that travel takes place with a minimum of risk and a maximum of efficiency. I am fortunate to have created a circle of friends and colleagues who can assist and advise me with about such things, and to all of you who are willing to help me, I want to extend my most gracious thanks.
Today was a thoroughly miserable affair, in objective terms, I suppose. The rain was relentless; the temperature was close to freezing; the streets did not embrace their usual throng. Nevertheless I try to find small kernels of satisfaction and pleasure even amidst what is going on all around me. I make plans with friends and colleagues for the future. I exchange chatty emails and messages with my beloved family members. I laugh and joke with my new friends and colleagues in one of Lviv’s central bars - until the barman abruptly calls us out and tells us that we must all go home because the curfew is not far off and the Police intend to enforce it in advance and in a peremptory fashion. We all rush for the door, lurching for our coats, and we ascend the steps of what is really an air raid shelter serving beer into the dark and stormy night of Lviv’s cobbled streets. I stumble off home in my trench boots, and I drag myself up the tortured medieval steps of my apartment building. I halt, nervously, wondering whether I should have bought some food in the local shop to see myself through curfew. It’s only five hours in Lviv, from Midnight to 5am, and I have water, tea and coffee. I might even have a few sachets of sugar buried somewhere in the bottom of my bag. It should be okay and anyway I should get some rest and be ready for the next day which is, like all days in a war zone, a working day.
My dinner this evening was not very glamorous: a stale croissant, stuffed with some vegetables and jammed in a microwave oven for a few minutes. My socks are a bit stale. I figure I should spend a bit more time looking after myself. I enjoyed the chatter in the bar with my friends and colleagues, but some of the stories I heard this evening disturbed me. They were more stories of the kind I know well, of people who have been to and returned from the front line, and all the horrors they experience there including the loss of friends and loved ones and the sense of alienation and loneliness. Each sufferer deserves their privacy, and I try to listen and care as much as I can. In my experience, those who have experienced the horrors of front line warfare need tender care and, above all, a person who will listen to what they have to say. After you have been on the front line of a hot war, all the trivial details of civilian life suddenly seem tangential and divorced from the intense reality of what you have been through.
I feel intensely for the people who have undergone this transformation. I have seen countless enthusiastic, buoyant volunteers bound through Lviv on their way to certain hell. On their way back they are altogether less extravagant and more modest, humble and reflective about what they have been doing and why they are here. They are, almost to each individual, the most well-intentioned of souls; yet they are often young, and learning, the hard way, that there is little glory in war and only mountains of suffering. I have heard endless stories of the corruption embodied in the Ukrainian Armed Forces: the Ukrainian military, amply supplied with international funding, nevertheless cannot provide its brave troops with elementary medical supplies such as tourniquets. I am reminded of Siegfried Sassoon’s bleak and even hateful poem about the cynicism of military leaders caring not a jot for their rank-and-file soldiers during wartime, in his World War I short but compelling poem, The General. The stark horror of the disregard by the Officer Class for private soldiers cannot be more engraved upon our hearts than by the following immortal words.
“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He's a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.