Fragments from a War Diary, Part #125
Today I am dismayed and rather down because the personal humanitarian trip I had planned to Kherson for later this week has had to be cancelled. I wanted to travel across the country from Lviv to Kherson on a 20-hour journey in third class to deliver some essential provisions to local Ukrainian people I know who are stuck there amidst the chaos of the front line; to check upon the operations of a Kherson NGO whose contact lines seem to have disappeared; and to check up on the situation generally in a city which has suffered heavy shelling over the past weeks. Since I was there a few weeks ago, I had heard that the situation on the ground had calmed down; then intensified again; then become calmer. Now it seems it has intensified a further time, with frequent daily shelling and life extremely difficult for the city’s few remaining residents. I had been planning to stay in a trusted hotel in central Kherson, but I had received a couple of international warnings that travel there might not be safe and this was confirmed late last night by a local contact. So I concluded that the trip should be delayed, at least for now.
The problem with a foreigner staying the night in Kherson, so close to the front line, is not the general risk of indiscriminate shelling. That is a law of averages, as everybody involved in front line work in a war zone knows. The closer you are to the front line, the higher the risk that a shell will accidentally and quite unintentionally strike close enough to you to injure, maim or kill you. In Kherson the shells are raining down by all accounts at the rate of a few dozen a day and therefore the odds are significant. The risk is probably tolerable, ceteris paribus; but they are substantially higher than normal and the risks are as high as the last time I was in Kherson. However the principal difference on this occasion is that I was planning on staying the night in Kherson and this grossly increases the risks by reason of the possibility of Russian infiltrators observing that a foreigner is spending the night in Kherson city and notifying the Russian artillery positions just 800 metres across the River Dnieper from Kherson riverfront of your location. The hotel or other accommodation where you are staying is then targeted by one of the accurate Krasnopol laser guided artillery systems with high explosive warheads and your hotel explodes around you while you are sleeping in the middle of the night. This is not just an unhealthy risk for you but an unhealthy risk for the hotel owner and staff as well and they would not welcome it if it happened.
It is difficult not to stand out as a foreigner if you visit Kherson. It is not just that I do not dress like a local Ukrainian civilian. In fact, as the regular reader of these diaries, will be aware, I am currently dressed in pseudo-military camouflage garb and military fatigues with trench boots, principally for the reason that these are some of the warmest items of clothing I can find in Ukraine in a period of very variable weather in which one day (such as today) it is bright if cool and the next day it is overcast, gloomy and rainy. You just never know what is coming next, so a series of layered warm military clothes serving as removable jackets are the most practical thing available. My apartment (from which I am mercifully moving tomorrow) is also cold at night so I may need to sleep in these various pieces of military kit. My military garb is also bristling with a range of more or less eccentric flag patches that I have picked up in various places. So I don’t look like a regular Ukrainian soldier either. My rucksack has a giant US flag on the back of it so by this point I am looking positively eccentric, walking the streets of Kherson in broad daylight in a hike from the bombed out railway station to the semi-derelict hotel in the city centre. Add to this the fact that my Russian is spoken less than fluently and with a daft accent, and I will stand out like a sore thumb. The risk of a person tipping off the Russian Armed Forces that a foreigner is staying in town overnight is, I have assessed, too significant to be discounted and hence I have decided to cancel the trip for now.
One thing I did however learn in the course of acquiring some military intelligence from a hitherto unknown very pleasant and kind man in a bar last night is something I did not know before: Russian snipers are not able to shoot you if you are standing on the Kherson riverfront promenade from their positions 800m across the Dnieper River. I learned that it takes years of practice on the part of the most highly skilled sniper to have even a remote hope of an accurate strike with a sniper rifle at that distance. Beyond 200 or 300 metres, sniper rifles are seldom accurate. This comports with my experiences of firing .22 rimfire rifles in my youth and I recall that with those rifles an accurate shot is hard at 100m and exceptionally hard at 200m. You have to take into account wind, breathing, muzzle velocity of the round, and a variety of other factors to be able to fire accurately. You need the very highest quality of scope and literally years of expert practice. There are barely a handful of snipers able to shoot beyond 300m with any accuracy, even with the very highest quality of equipment; and more often than not they are likely to miss. So the risk in Kherson is not in taking an evening stroll along the waterfront; it is in being inadvertently hit or intentionally targeted with a laser-guided shell.
The summer fighting season is prolonged for some further days or weeks by reason of the relatively good autumnal weather and fighting in the vicinity of Kherson city, which as far as I can tell is entirely pointless except as an exercise in wasting ammunition because neither side is in a position to pontoon the Dnieper River and engage or push back the enemy, is likely to subside shortly. If at that stage I am still in Ukraine then I will revisit the prospect of a visit, but it is one hell of a long train ride to get over there. Still I have made a promise that I would return to the south and I always keep my promises. In the meantime someone has suggested that I visit the Carpathian Mountains for a short trip and I will bear that in mind although I am not really a skiing person. My daughters outstrip me on that scale by many orders of magnitude, but the Carpathians are the quietest and most peaceful part of the country. Unfortunately the air raid sirens have begun again in Lviv today, which I very much hope do not interfere with my visit to Lviv opera tonight, my ticket being bought on a whim just as I was in the middle of peeling spuds in my local kitchen. The number of people working in the kitchen today was absolutely colossal although when I first arrived the doors were locked but everyone was getting on with the work notwithstanding, under the netting and we had a raucous afternoon laughing about Schleswig-Holstein (see diary entry #122).
My current agenda is to keep helping in every way I can while increasing my network of contacts amongst the international community still further so that I can think of ways to assist the Ukrainian war effort even after I have departed military theatre and resumed an ordinary civilian life. But at the same time I am determined to enjoy every ounce of fun and happiness, and to support the Ukrainian economy in every way I can, which is why I am very shortly to begin a pleasant Saturday night out.