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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #16

As I write these words it is 4:50am, and curfew is just about to break in Zaporizhzhia. I had a troubled night’s sleep, as are many nights are living on the front line of Europe’s hot war. Many of the things members of a tightly knit team such as this, delivering humanitarian aid to those most affected by war, talk about are repetitive and circular. This is not perhaps surprising; we effectively live together as a giant family, as though I have seven husbands and wives. Aside from the people we are helping, and various figures in the domestic authorities, we only have one-another for company. One of the things we all discuss repeatedly is how we are unable to sleep at nights. We all have anxiety. Also we suffer from boredom. Our working hours can be very variable; each day, we have no idea how many people we will be striving to help or, sometimes, even where we are going until late at night the day before or even the morning we are working. Some days are very long; some shorter; some involve a lot of driving; some involve little; sometimes missions are aborted, due to security concerns. All days are very tiring.

This day, however, is special: in a few hours’ time, the entire team is leaving Zaporizhzhia and splitting in two, some leaving military theatre altogether over the next few days. This compounds the uncertainties and exacerbates the insomnia from which we all suffer. Also aid workers suffer from the problem of boredom. You have little time for yourself. Everything is provided for you, in accordance with quasi-military strictures. You are told where to sleep at night, when and where to eat, you may or may not get a choice of what to eat, and your timing is uncertain and not controlled by you but by events. Even late last night, possible changes to team members heading in different directions were being discussed. Some have an appetite for maintaining a status of elevated risk and remaining close to the front line; others do not and are seeking relative sanctuary. I have made my election and I know where I am going. But I do not know what I will encounter when I arrive, any my mind mulls over the same re-iterative thoughts as I sup my coffee while listening to the blare of the air raid sirens and waiting for a ping from my mobile telephone warning me of the latest attack alert.

The Ukrainian government has established a formal air raid App for people’s mobile ‘phones, that creates an unnervingly accurate air raid siren sound and warns you to take cover whenever there is the threat of aerial bombardment. It is triggered endlessly, and often in the middle of the night, so I have not installed it. I sleep with ear plugs in, to try to block out the sound of the sirens. The air raid shelter in the hotel in Zaporizhzhia is locked anyway, and nobody uses it; so it is best to try to sleep through the sirens as there is nowhere to go. So I have another night without enough sleep and I wonder what to do. Going for a walk is out of the question; there is nowhere really to walk in Zaporizhzhia, a low density city in which buildings are separated by parks, broad boulevards and gardens, and which extends over several kilometres. Moreover it is pitch black outside and there are no sights of interest within the nearest five to six kilometres. Furthermore walking in the street just after curfew breaks on your own is not safe activity. Security is paramount, and with scant nightlife, after dusk aid workers, as with civilians, spend a lot of time wondering what to do with themselves. I glumly survey my emails, and I realise that I have tens of thousands of emails that I have never read. My inbox is suddenly awash with invitations from tour guides. But, as previously observed, they are all in Kyiv and Lviv. There are no tour guides, and there is no tourism, in the rest of the country.

This is a shame, because Ukraine has plenty of tourism potential. The main challenges to developing tourism in Ukraine are the size of the country and the dilapidated nature of the infrastructure. The country’s size, before the war, was being addressed by the development of a series of regional and international airports across the country’s major population centres and the construction of new airport infrastructure together with development of Ukrainian International Airlines as a reasonable, friendly and price conscious flight alternative with Kyiv as an international hub and the acquisition of a fleet of modern aircraft. Now during the war, with the skies closed, you see no aeroplanes aside from the occasional military fighter jet passing overhead on an undisclosed mission.

Much like living through COVID, after any period of time in Ukraine you start to forget what airport experiences are like because the nearest active airport, in Rzeszów (pronounced Zhezhov) in southeastern Poland, seems like it is on the other side of the world, and it is several days’ solid and heavy travel to go there. Apparently there is a daily budget airline service from Rzeszów to a city in England, although I hear this only from my colleagues and I know nothing about it. Nobody ever seems to have taken this flight which apparently is used by refugees, soldiers and aid workers only. The nearest major airport is in the Polish capital Warsaw. The relative normality of Warsaw feels quite remote.

Ukrainian Railways had been investing in some high speed trains to replace its dilapidated Soviet-era rolling stock. However with the onset of war this programme was halted and the high speed services are few and far between and very difficult to obtain tickets for. Travel close to the front line does not involve any of these luxury services. Instead it involves slow, old trains from a bygone age and interminable bumpy roads with the ubiquitous military checkpoints.

The trains in the Zaporizhzhia region suddenly all seem to be full, which confirms a military build-up (soldiers coming to the front) and/or an exodus of civilians. Either way, it is an ominous sign. Hence as we depart Zaporizhzhia, we will be driving, together with our convoy of aid vehicles. I wonder where I will be staying the night, and in what conditions. While I know my intended destination, I do not know the quality of the accommodation I will occupy. I hope I won’t be sleeping on a roll mat; I have a pain in my back. Am I getting too old for all this, I wonder? It is a thought that crosses the minds of all the more experienced participants in civil conflicts. The answer is probably no, as long as you remain in tolerably good physical condition and you are happy without your creature comforts, and content operating without any element of certainty. In a war zone, age gives you a certain calm attitude in the face of danger and privation, and this philosophical air helpfully glides over younger members of the team who may be shocked by what they see if this is their first foray into front line travel.

Also, as an older person, you have a little more of the customary phlegm: I have had a good life, and if the worst happens to me, although it would be a tragedy for my family, I cannot complain too much. Experience and age teaches a person to withstand life’s hardships, and also the endless waiting and unremitting boredom of living on the front line of a war zone, with more of the proverbial stiff upper lip. I will find something to do for the coming period until I am called upon for our sudden departure. Maybe I will read a book, or watch the television, or just enjoy a cup of instant coffee with some typical wartime powdered milk. But there is a problem with the electricity again. I wonder whether I will be able to post this online. I will try. Why not. What else to do?


Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.


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