Fragments from a War Diary, Part #130
Today was a tough day working in my Lviv military kitchen, not because of the howling bad weather we had experienced yesterday - by contrast today was beautiful and the sun radiating down on us - but because I wasn’t feeling well. Yes, I had that old fashioned problem: I needed to go to the bathroom. Unfortunately the bathroom in our kitchen is an old-fashioned squat toilet; and I had a few engagements in that direction. Squat toilets are simple but effective, but when your digestive tract isn’t feeling quite right they can be a bit fiddly as you perch down on your knees precariously above the hole in the ground and you try not to fall in. The problem is that I’ve been drinking the water in my new hotel, because the five flights of stairs that test a person’s resolve even without having had a drop to drink make the cafe on the ground floor an intimidatingly long way away. Hence I suffered, and the squat toilet and I became good friends.
Nevertheless as always the company was breezy and enjoyable, as we chugged through our giant pumpkins, bucketloads of potatoes and crates of mangled carrots all of which have to be thoroughly shaved before being prepared and packed and sent to the front line. Today the stench of pickle juice bubbled up from the drainpipes: the liquid associated with the pickling process, I have come to learn, is extremely stinky. I stuck to my usual routine of four and a half hours’ manual labour today, undertaking administrative work for another NGO before and after - and of course finding the time to write these diaries. I like the manual about aspect of my work here in Ukraine. I’ve not really been engaged in manual labour in the course of my previous career, except a very energetic past couple of years in another Eastern European country but we shan’t talk too much about that.
I keep imagining that I’m losing that belly through all this hard work, but what is really happening is that my appetite has exponentially increased and amidst the relative comfort of cosmopolitan Lviv living I am sure that in truth I am putting on weight after those tough weeks working on and near to the front line when I am sure I was losing it. Also those weeks were virtually free of alcohol - there are no cozy English pubs on the front line. Whereas in Lviv, a semblance of normal nightlife can easily be found, and actually it’s all quite fun, particularly on a Sunday when there was live music and I met some superlative people. I always do, in my local bar, which feels like a real English pub - at least to me. The Ukrainian version of an English pub, I imagine. People sit or stand at the bar and talk to strangers, and they want to hear my story and ask me what I am doing here. It’s friendly and jovial and good-natured, and I think it is a wonderful thing that young Ukrainian people are learning English as fast as they can and they have a new openness and enthusiasm about engaging with the West, even though there is this shocking and cruel war on their doorsteps. Inhaling this enthusiasm with the live band energises my heart and I feel reinforced that Ukraine, through her youth, will have a bright future.
Today raised concerns I have experienced and heard of before about the quality of Ukraine’s ailing healthcare system. Some volunteers in my group are concerned about the risk of tetanus and have visited the local hospital. I have training as a paramedic and I am not convinced that the hospital has been treating those visiting it as efficiently as might be. They might be guilty of over-caring for foreigners, because nobody in Ukraine wants foreigners to get sick or injured here. On the other hand, I want a renewal of a routine prescription medication and I am told I have to wait three weeks to see the right sort of doctor to get the prescription. On the one hand it is a good thing that prescription laws are now being enforced in Ukraine; a few years ago you would just walk into any pharmacist in Ukraine and by prescription medications, even strong ones, without any paperwork. That is an indication of improving rule of law and evolution towards European standards. On the other hand, it indicates that the healthcare system in Ukraine remains bureaucratic and chronically overloaded if it takes you three weeks to get a non-urgent appointment. And this is a private clinic I am proposing to visit, and I will pay with cash.
I recall experiences with the hospital system in Ukraine before the war and it was notorious as one of the worst in Europe. The massive quantities of money that need to be injected into Ukraine’s public healthcare system in order to bring it up to European standards of efficiency and treatment have not to my knowledge been earmarked by anyone. That may well be because the public administrative structures necessary to accept and spend that money efficiently and without corrupt practices causing the money to be lost are not in place. Public administration reform in every sector of the Ukrainian economy remains the most important priority even in wartime Ukraine, in my opinion. Of course it is true and proper that medical resources are currently being diverted to treat injured soldiers as a priority; but by all accounts the military hospitals are not functioning as well as they might, either. I am seeking an opportunity to visit a military hospital, because with my expertise in various areas of psychotherapy and psychiatric medicine I might, I imagine, be able to be of some use. However I have not yet found an opportunity to contribute in that way. If anyone reading this knows of an opportunity for me to use my skills in this area productively to help the Ukrainian military, then please let me know.
It is a very busy time, and I realise that I am busy more or less from dawn until dusk with different sorts of task, some requiring my mind and some requiring my body. But I am enjoying myself, and I am finding my experiences engaging with the NGO communities in Ukraine on the whole extremely enjoyable. There have been some bumps along the road, but I do not think I have met a single volunteer in Ukraine who has not experienced some sort of problem or irritation. I still do not know how long I am going to stay here; but as a precaution I am now undergoing the process of applying for the relevant paperwork to obtain a re-entry visa for Ukraine: to stay beyond the initial 90 days most western nations are permitted to remain in the country, you need to leave Ukraine and then apply for a visa to a Ukrainian consulate abroad and the closest one is in Lublin in southeastern Poland. I have received mixed reports of experiences at the consulate, but I have scrutinised all the procedures on the consulate’s website (that is written in Ukrainian but it is very clear what the procedure to be followed is). It seems that as long as you get the paperwork exactly right, and apply online and obtain an appointment in advance (the whole procedure is online), then you can walk away with a visa within 24 hours. Many people have not had that experience and have found themselves waiting around in Lublin for days or even longer. But that is because they have not followed the procedure as stated precisely. There is a lot of gossip and rumours about the procedure and I hope that one thing I can do in the future is to help volunteers with this sort of administrative and paperwork issue so that they are not confused. That in itself would be of great help and it fits my skill set perfectly.
Finally, I found a new friend last night who shares my love of the opera. So I bought us two tickets on the spur of the moment and we are going later this week. I won’t tell you when. I don’t want you all turning up to have a look. But it is wonderful to find a fellow lover of the fine arts in this sophisticated, entrancing, haunting and mysterious city of Lviv.