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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #224

This afternoon a lady I know in Kyiv called me. Can I give her a job, she pleaded; she doesn’t have anything to eat and she doesn’t have any money. Can she send me her resume and can I give her a job. It’s a tragic, heart-breaking story but the bottom line is that I can’t give anyone a paying job right now. I’d love to be able to do that, but I’m a volunteer and all I am doing is spending money. If I had money to hire a team, it would all be different and I could achieve so much more. But it’s not possible. There’s no money in wartime Ukraine. The donors have stopped paying, and governments aren’t giving money to people like me. Instead they’re pumping it into the Ukrainian government, which doesn’t have the institutional capacity to spend it wisely and lots of it is disappearing. Western government policy towards Ukraine is a mess for this reason; the same amount of money (or more) needs to be spent but in more intelligent ways. I hope this message gets through.

For now, I can’t therefore help this lady although she appears well educated and potentially employable. She wants to come to see me in Lviv but I know what would happen then: she would move in with me and I don’t want that. So I have taken advice and I am going to suggest to her that she applies to the British Embassy in Kyiv for a visa to travel to the United Kingdom as a refugee. There she will find accommodation with a caring household that has been vetted to take in Ukrainian single women without exploiting them, and she can obtain residence and working papers. It’s the best I can do for her right now: I will point her in the right direction, and guide her through the system if she wants it. It’s another achingly sad story, one of many I come across every day in the midst of this hideous war.

There wasn’t much going on this afternoon at work - it’s so damned freezing. The cogs in my analogue watch have frozen up and it seems now to lose five minutes every hour. I am constantly resetting it whenever I go outside for any time period. My gloves are worse than worthless; they just prevent me from clenching my hand into a fist and thereby decrease the onset time for frostbite in the end of my fingers. Nevertheless I headed off to the Lviv Opera House this afternoon, with a friend, this time for a recital of Beethoven’s two cello sonatas in the Upper Hall that is every bit as beautiful as the main hall. After last night’s tired performance of La Bohème I wasn’t expecting much; but I was due to be surprised. Although we were all huddled in there with fleeces, the music was superlative and dreamy, the duet inspiring us all with their exceptional renditions. Plus at the end of the show, they put on a performance of a piece by an obscure Estonian composer that sounded rather like Three Blind Mice but rather more straightforward. Nevertheless it wasn’t their fault and for all I know said Estonian composer was in the audience behind me. So I kept a straight face and even led a standing ovation, for their music really was quite sublime.

I’ve taken to navigating round Lviv by reference to the city’s multiple liquor stores, all of which have bright lights and neon signs like the one accompanying this essay. When everything is dark and freezing and ice and mush, with gloomy people in huge coats with giant hoods staring down in the dark, these bottle shots shine out radiantly as if jewels sparkling in the night, offering countless opportunities to get smashed for just a few Euros. All human pleasure, and blocking out the memories of war, is available at the bottom of a bottle, and empty bottles of cheap liquor point lazily out the piles of deep-compacted snow. I suppose they might be there for the season.

I’ve decided to move away, ever so slightly, from the military nutter look. The problem with wearing a military camouflage jacket round the centre of Lviv is that all the Sunday (or Monday or Tuesday or Friday or Saturday) alcoholics want to approach you and talk to you about something and generally I don’t want this. Some guy I’d met on some hazy occasion in Mano’s Bar recognised me by reference to my jacket and, stinking of drink, came to shake my hand. And then I realised that he wouldn’t let go. And he was drunk. And it was half past two in the afternoon. This is the sort of thing I don’t need, and therefore I am taking a break from it. I have acquired a new pseudo-military black jacket, which makes me look more like a sinister member of an obscure Eastern European internal security bureau: a look I have cultivated before for one damned fool reason or another. This should entail that I am less likely to be mistaken for a military conscription officer, causing young men to scatter before my eyes. Some drunkard in a bar the other night, aged 30, told me that he goes out on pub crawls dodging the military police. What a nutter. He has no papers exempting him from service. If he’s caught, he’ll be in Bakhmut or Avdiivka within three weeks. He would be better off volunteering for service and negotiating a position suitable to his skills (he is an educated man) and away from the front line.

A friend and colleague asked me for my advice on war tourism, the other day, since I’ve spent a lot of time on or near the front line during the beginning of this Ukrainian adventure. I suggested he might try the beautiful city of Kherson. How do I get there, and what do I do?, he asked. Well it’s simple, I replied. You just travel to Mykolaïv, go to the bus station, get on a marshrutka (minibus) to Kherson, lie your way past the military police, and then walk into the city centre. You don’t need a map; you just follow the Krasnopol artillery shell explosions and their distinctive thuds and plumes of black smoke and miniature mushroom clouds. Then you sit in a cafe and enjoy a drink, until one of those shells slams into the street in front of you and several shards of metal rip you to pieces. I think I put him off.


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