Fragments from a War Diary, Part #140
Last night Lviv experienced one of the Ukraine Armed Forces’ periodic rounds of enforced conscription. The way this works is that the Military Police go round in press gang groups in downtown Lviv when the streets are at their busiest around dusk, and they stop males who appear to be fit and of fighting age (the age for mandatory conscription is 25 to 60) and they ask them for their identity papers. If they cannot show identity papers or they cannot show papers granting them immunity from conscription then they are taken to a minibus that is waiting for them on one of the street corners or in Rynok Square in central Lviv and then they are taken to an armed forces training camp. It is very important if you are a male within this apparent age range in Lviv always to carry your passport. Even then, if you have a Ukrainian-sounding surname you may have to wait while they check your name against a central database of Ukrainian nationals. If you are a Ukrainian national with a second nationality and you are travelling on the passport of that second nationality then you are not immune from conscription. If you have no identity documents then you may be arrested until such time as the Police can clarify that you are not Ukrainian. Acting goofily and obviously not speaking Ukrainian may procure your early release but it is always best to carry a passport.
The grounds upon which a Ukrainian male may be immune from conscription are having three or more children; having a prescribed physical disability; or having certain prescribed mental disabilities. However it is no good to argue that these criteria apply to you once the Military Police stop you. You need to have had these papers prepared in advance with the relevant government ministry and you need to carry them with you at all times so that if the press gangs stop you then you can show these papers immediately.
I have seen this “on-the-spot” conscription elsewhere in Ukraine, closer to the front line, typically at military checkpoints for vehicles heading into the so-called “Red Zone” (the area close to the front line within accurate Russian artillery range, into and out of which I have crossed on a number of occasions). However I have not seen it in the centre of a major city before. It is quite a terrifying experience and it will keep the local male population indoors. I do not know how much warning is given of these sudden press gang events but presumably once one begins the word goes round pretty quickly and everyone scarpers. I walked through Rynok Square yesterday evening as this was going on and the Police did not stop me although I suppose I look sufficiently like a foreigner or even a serving soldier: I am generally wearing jackets with camouflage all over them and also with a series of variously silly flag patches of the kinds only foreigners wear. So I was not stopped and I walked by straight under the noses of the Military Police. However many other fit young men (younger than me, admittedly) were stopped and some of them were taken to the minibuses on the spot.
When you are detained and conscripted in this way, you have no opportunity first to go home or to pack or to collect any relevant things. If you have a mobile telephone with you then you will be allowed to call your family to tell them what is happening to you but that is all. You will be told that everything you need will be provided for you at the army training camp and then you will be taken away with the clothes you are wearing and whatever is in any bag you may have on you. And that will be it and your training will begin that evening.
This form of conscription naturally strikes some degree of terror into the population, as men of fit fighting age scrabble to collect the paperwork necessary to show immunity from conscription and, if they cannot do that and they do not want to fight, then they need to stay indoors. I do not know whether door-to-door conscription takes place but Ukraine is increasingly in need of soldiers because it is maintaining a massive standing army of some 700,000 personnel and there are high casualty rates. Therefore Ukraine is using every method possible to require its men of military age to serve on the front line and enforced conscription using the Military Police in public and social places such as busy squares in the centre of a bustling city on a Thursday evening is one of the techniques being used.
I am not going to condemn this practice; Ukraine is fighting an existential war and she has no choice. Some might say that these practices are inhumane but the fact is that Ukraine needs to maintain a massive standing army and she has rules for conscription and they are being enforced. By all accounts it is possible to buy the relevant paperwork to obtain immunity from conscription - a doctor will diagnose you with a relevant physical or psychiatric condition and issue you with the relevant papers so that your immunity is secured - I have been told that this costs between US$2,000 and US$3,000 per person. I have spoken to many men of fighting age, particularly young men with no prior military or security experience - who are scared stiff of these kinds of interaction with the Police which might simply result in your not going home to your family or loved ones that evening. These are the horrors of war.
To each and every one of those brave soldiers who are conscripted, or who join the Ukraine Armed Forces voluntarily, I say this: the world supports you and salutes your courage and heroism. Although fighting is not easy, being in the military is not easy, and being on the front line can be hell on earth, I admire what you are doing for your country and for Europe and for the world. God be with you all.