Fragments from a War Diary, Part #13
The idea of a relaxing evening out on the front line of a war zone may sound like an oxymoron, but in Ukraine it is an eminently plausible proposition provided you are in an area whose curfew does not begin too early. The curfew in liberated Kherson, for example, is 19:30 and therefore there is no prospect of an evening out. There are very few bars or restaurants open and no hotel accommodation, so the idea of a night out there is currently unlikely. However in areas where the curfew extends to Midnight - and this includes Lviv, Kyiv and Zaporizhzhia - the nightlife options may remain open until 22:00 or possibly even slightly later (in the centre of Lviv, for example). In Zaporizhzhia the bars and restaurants will bring the bill at 21:00 but you have an hour to finish your drink or your meal.
Travelling to and from your nightlife venue, particularly if you are drinking alcohol, can be a precarious affair. The streets in frontline cities tend to be unlit at night. Even if there is street lighting (which in a lot of provincial Soviet cities was only ever a paltry affair and was not substantially upgraded after the collapse of the Soviet Union), it may be turned off so as to contribute to air defences and confuse Russian reconnaissance drones. Hence you may find yourself walking down bumpy, potholed or cratered roads in the dark to proceed to your destination. The problem may be compounded by the fact that early evenings are a common time for air raids, and the authorities may interfere with GPS channels or mobile telephone communications at the time when you are seeking to go out. Therefore Google Maps won’t work; when I was walking to a bar yesterday evening, Google Maps placed me 30km east of the Russian front line.
Because GPS may not work, taxis, that now use GPS (in particular the San Francisco service “Bolt”, that has captured Ukraine and now allows easy taxi travel across Ukraine, both within and between cities) may not be available either. They may not be able to identify where you are and they may not be able to locate your destination. Therefore the evening taxi system is breaking down. Because drink driving is on the increase, due to these problems and because alcohol is being consumed in excessive quantities as a form of stress relief, such Police as there are tend to enforce the drink driving laws (that are non-permissive in Ukraine) rigorously and corrupt payments, that once formed part of daily interactions with the Ukrainian police, have mostly disappeared.
As I walked to a local restaurant last night, as a change of scene from my somewhat depressing accommodation, my walk was accompanied by a nonstop barrage of air raid sirens. Nevertheless I approximately knew the way, always carrying a physical map with me. The directions were: turn left out of the hotel, turn left again, walk down the main road, where the road veers right you stay straight, under the Bridge, follow the kink in the road, walk opposite the UNICEF building on the left and the unmarked street where the destination can be found is the third on the left just after Gogol Road and after the corrugated aluminium fencing on the left. I took my time on a pleasant late summer evening, amidst the families walking with their children, all apparently oblivious to the air raids.
We should not have been oblivious. Rumours are circulating that the Russian Armed Forces, after a lull, have started to use Kalibr and Iskander missiles again in the Zaporizhzhia region. These cruise missiles, amongst the most capable in the Russian armoury, carry accurate inertial guidance mechanisms for precisions targeting at medium to long range. They can travel at hypersonic speeds, making them more impervious to Ukrainian air defences. It had been imagined that the Russians had run out of these missiles, and were resorting now to the far less accurate laser guided bombs or Soviet era cruise missiles that often go way off course and can carry less devastating payloads. The Kalibr and Iskander are more expensive and their presence in the Zaporizhzhia theatre had not been seen for some months. Now it seems that they are back. This presents an omnipresent danger to the citizens of Zaporizhzhia. In any event the use of laser-guided bombs in Zaporizhzhia by the Russian Armed Forces in Zaporizhzhia is confirmed, and these bombs are every bit as deadly.
There was an explosion near the basic hotel where I am staying, and people scrambled indoors. Local shops were closed for a period. It was not clear what the explosion was, or where it struck. It seldom is. There is a large military barracks near the hotel where I am staying, and this is both a prime target for Russian missile attacks and an originating source for Ukrainian Air Defences. Therefore the team of which I am part gets used to relentless bangs and air raid sirens. It is just part of daily life.
Zaporizhzhia’s glorious theatre, captioned in the image accompanying this article, remains in one piece. Although performance art and other concentrations of people into tightly packed spaces for extended periods is discouraged on the front line, as being too easy a target for a massacre by way of Russian missile or bomb, amazingly the Volodymyr Mahar Music and Drama Theatre on Sobornyi Avenue in Zaporihzhia, Europe’s longest street, is still scheduling (occasional) orchestral performances. I do not know whether I will have the opportunity to attend one of these rare events, or whether it may be called off in advance, but I hope so. It is illustrative of a determination to keep the cultural and intellectual life of a nation alive amidst the chaos of war.
Nevertheless the mood in Zaporizhzhia is increasingly dark. The restaurant I walked to, and back from in the dark, in each case amidst the air raid sirens, had a gloomy feel to it. Soldiers on leave with their families ate their meals silently. Although a football match was playing on the screens in the background, there was little interest in such frivolities. It was extremely cheap; but virtually everything is in Ukraine, even in the midst of war. Given the Russian embargo upon Ukrainian food exports through attacks upon free Ukraine’s principal Black Sea port at Odessa, there has not been significant food price inflation of the kind seen elsewhere in Europe because Ukraine cannot export her own food. The shelves of supermarkets in many cases are overflowing with food intended for foreign markets but that cannot be exported.
But this is scant consolation for the dark atmosphere in Zaporizhzhia at the current time. More than half the people on the streets after dark are wearing military uniform. You are expected quickly to go about your business and then go home and take such shelter as you can. You eat early. I arrived in the restaurant at 5.30pm, and left by 7.15pm. I had a brief chat with my colleagues and I was in bed by 9.30pm. I slept ten and a half hours, through a night of seemingly constant air raid sirens and miscellaneous noises outside. It seems there was a lot of traffic movement on the streets, even during the curfew. None of these omens are particularly auspicious, but I was absolutely exhausted.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.