Today was another typical day in the office. As I hiked up the hill towards the military kitchen were I am undertaking several hours’ manual labour each day (I must say to all you desk workers out there: a proportion of one’s day devoted to manual labour is extremely therapeutic), I realised the weather was lifting slightly and the ice was turning to slush. This makes a good pair of military boots all the more essential, and the cobbled streets are awash with mud and brown slime and it is easy to ruin any regular pair of shoes. Our kitchen is being emptied out now; it is actually part of a school complex, possibly once the kitchen and garage facilities for the neighbouring high school, and the school wants the kitchen area back so some inspiring volunteers with construction skills (that does not include me) have built a whole new military-industrial complex using their bare hands and without any equipment at all somewhere behind the Lviv Opera House. Soon we will all be working there and there is a tinge of sizzling excitement in the air as tools and equipment and building structures are taken away from the large unheated yard where we have all been working and slowly but surely moved to the new building where within a few days or weeks or who knows how long we will all be working.
I spent a couple of hours this afternoon doing nothing but washing carrots. Carrots are dug out of the ground and then they are peeled (they are all covered in Ukrainian brown mud) and then they are peeled and then they are washed which is the most gruesome of all jobs. Due to the sub-zero weather the water has frozen in the hosepipe outside so I was sat cramped on a little stool by a massive Soviet-era wash basin in a small room full of people peeling and chopping and chatting about various kinds of nonsense while I covered these chopped carrots in icy cold water. I started to wonder whether carrots are sentient and feel the cold because my hands certainly do. And then I started to think about the conditions for the soldiers on the front line in their trenches and their thin sleeping mats and their freezing conditions and they don’t have proper uniforms or warm coats or warm socks or warm gloves and they are reliant on private funding to buy the most elementary pieces of uniform that will keep them warm and alive during these cold months.
I wanted to buy dozens of warm socks for soldiers when I was in Poland - just EUR100 could achieve so much in preventing frostbite for soldiers and other grim and indecent medical conditions that afflict frontline living in the winter but I couldn’t find the shop that sold them. It’s such a small amount of money that can help so many people but I was rushing around when I was in Poland. I feel terribly guilty but you realise that there’s only so much you can do and there are only so many hours in the day. I’m doing enough, I figure, I’m doing my fair share, we all are, and guilt is a useless emotion in these circumstances. However I implore all the people out there and reading this: please, if you can send some money, any amount of money, just to buy socks and gloves and hats to keep these heroic soldiers in tolerable conditions through the winter months, please do so. It’s incredibly important and it makes us all human if we can each just give a little bit of money to help the soldiers who are protecting Europe’s front line in World War III from a Russian onslaught that, if not determinatively prevented, threatens Europe once again in a way that we have not seen since the end of the first Cold War.
In the last day or two I have also been reminded of some foolishness on the part of the international community in that civilian volunteers are still going into Kherson to undertake deliveries whereas the situation there remains exceptionally dangerous. My own source inside Kherson has disappeared and that causes me tremendous concern. However his last reports paint a grim and depressing picture of atrociously dangerous conditions, soldiers and civilians sleeping jam packed together in cellars, relentless shelling and missile strikes, and the cold weather being every bit as dangerous as the Russian artillery. All my contacts in the region have advised me in the strongest possible terms not to travel to Kherson, and the regular reader of these diaries will be aware that I recently called off a trip to Kherson myself to undertake a humanitarian delivery precisely due to the abundance of safety warnings. Yet there are people with no military or other relevant experience going into Kherson, even today, risking their lives and risking a morale and PR boost to the Russian Armed Forces by getting themselves killed. I personally think this is irresponsible.
I am trying not to let the plight of my friend who has disappeared in or from Kherson overcome me. Of course I am worried about him and he has assured me he is alright and he has asked me not to contact him and I respect that but I have anxiety worrying for someone I know to be a good man and not knowing what has become of him. I don’t know him very well but I immediately sensed a well-intentioned, decent person and I warned him of the risks and anyway he knew them very well but he went to Kherson notwithstanding and I admire his bravery for that. He has some military experience and therefore I am more comfortable that he understands the risks and how to mitigate them than some international civilian volunteers.
I have also been warned recently of the risks of Russian infiltrators attempting to penetrate the international community of volunteer workers across free Ukraine, in particular focusing upon Lviv. Nothing surprises me and I remain vigilant for Russian infiltration. I know their methods extremely well. They have a certain narrative that, once you have heard it a few times, becomes all too obvious. Life can take you in different directions, they begin, and would you like to work in a team with different perspectives. Who do you know who is an organiser, and isn’t there a different perspective on these things. It’s a skill of a kind to hunt out these sorts of infiltrators and subversive elements and those without experience of the bizarre psycho-ops methods used by Russian intelligence might easily be taken in by them. In the interim I guard all volunteers to be aware of this kind of thing. If you are suspicious of anyone, express an extremely pro-Ukrainian view (all the genuine international volunteers here have highly pro-Ukrainian opinions) and see what reaction you get. See whether you get a very pro-Ukrainian view back. If you don’t, ask yourself whether something might be wrong. There’s no need to be paranoid; but there is a need to be alert when the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (the SVR) get involved. In my experience they are mostly a pretty incompetent lot; but just be on your guard for anything that seems obviously out of place and these dreamy, hazy, incoherent narratives of how you might be doing something slightly different. And, as with any proposal or offer you receive, if it seems to good to be true, it probably is.