Fragments from a War Diary, Part #136
Have you ever had one of those experiences when you just can’t stop eating? I mean when you rush to the shop or the store or the bakery or whatever, desperate to find some bread or some cheese or some something - anything, really - to fill your stomach? If you’ve never had this sort of experience, then you’ve never been in a war zone. Because this sort of rampant, ravenous, all-consuming hunger is the result of never knowing when your next meal is coming, or where it is coming from, or what your routine is going to be, or really what on earth is going on.
I had this experience tonight, and I haven’t had it - or so I thought - in a few weeks. This is a front line experience, I thought, and I will soon snap out of it. But then I realised that actually the entirety of my eating and living and exercise and lifestyle have been shaped by my experiences on the front line. I find myself working in a military kitchen, peeling potatoes and then popping the potatoes I have peeled into my mouth. I find myself drinking gritty simple ground coffee beans straight out of the roaster, with added hot water and copious amounts of sugar, and imagining to myself that this is a perfectly good cup of coffee. I find myself ravenous because I am busy on my feet with manual labour all day but I have forgotten to eat. I haven’t taken account of the fact that my lifestyle living in wartime Ukraine is radically different from that I have experienced before, and I need to absorb far more calories than I am traditionally used to in order to evade the pangs of hunger. All this is new, distinctive and disturbing.
I went to a book launch tonight about people living with disabilities in Ukraine, which was moving and profound, and I wanted a copy of the book and I am going to read it and I am going to tell you about what it says and I am going to explain to you the struggle that people with disabilities in Ukraine have fought to overcome the social stigmas that they have endured and that they quite unjustly continue to endure in the midst of the maelstrom of war in Ukraine. And then I had to rush off to meet a friend who has come from my home country and brought with him as an act of sheer generosity a few things that would remind me of home and he brought those things for me in a gesture of kindness and good spirits and the sort of camaraderie that characterises people who live and work together in a war zone and the sorts of natural human bonding that take place amidst the most extreme and chaotic of situations. And this friend gave me a sense of relief from my perennial exhaustion and he talked in normal ways about normal things and he reminded me of the fact that there is a life out there outside of a war zone.
And I thought about the fact that I have the opportunity to exit military theatre and to leave this war zone and to walk away from all of this at any time I want. And my friend reminded me of the normality and the humanity and the decency and the kindness that exists outside the extreme environment of a zone in which the horrific incidents of war are recurrent and incessant. And I was grateful for his small acts of kindness and consideration, and they reminded me - and I needed to be reminded - that there is a way out of all this for me even though for the population of Ukraine that has remained in the country, for the most part there is not. So I felt privileged and I felt humbled and I was reminded of normalcy and of common human decency.
As my friend and I relaxed over a few beers, a war-scarred veteran, laced with drink, crawled over to me and engaged me in a conversation of a kind that I have heard a hundred times or more. He had been a soldier on the front line. He had captured and shot various Russian troops. He showed me photos and videos of his captives. He showed me images of his comrades-in-arms, now fallen, the glorious dead. He told me stories of the nightmares and atrocities he had experienced, and he asked to stay in contact. Of course I agreed. He is returning to the front line in the next couple of days, and he has all the symptoms of what is known in psychiatry as post traumatic stress disorder. He should not be going back to the front line in this condition; he has too many nightmares and ghosts and ghouls and horrors in his head. Nevertheless I will stay in contact with this man, even though our encounter was a brief and inebriated one, because he needs a friend and he needs a person with whom he can communicate in times of direst need. If he wants to reach out to me during his own period of imprisonment in his nightmares amidst the horrors he has experienced, then I am willing to be his friend. I feel this is something I can offer.
I stumbled home via the bakery, down the cobbled streets, desperate to eat because I had not eaten nearly enough calories during the day to sustain myself amidst the frenzy of activity that had weighed down upon my shoulders and lurched me from one place to another, biting off more than I could chew, throughout the day. Outside, some drunk ruffians were fighting in the street, with girls in short skirts in the early November weather trying to intercede between them. As I clambered back up the stairs in my hostel (the elevator is still not working), girls in tight nightgowns ran around the corridors, screaming incoherently. I went into the kitchen, to sit down and take a break with a cup of coffee while I finished wolfing down my pastries. In every corner was a glum, moody, solitary stranger, with lonely penetrating eyes, headphones clasped firmly over their ears, staring relentlessly into their mobile telephone or laptops, determined to block out the outside world amidst their own personal misery of the experience of war.
God help us all. But I haven’t seen her recently.