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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #23



Southern Ukraine’s black sea coast has a series of pleasant beaches. At least they would be pleasant, had the surrounding waters not been comprehensively mined and there not being a danger of death from Russian naval vessels in the vicinity.


Today we delivered humanitarian assistance to a community of independently displaced persons (IDP’s) taking refuge from the conflict in Kherson at a Black Sea tourist resort in southern Ukraine. Out of respect for the residents of this camp, I will not identify the tourist resort, although anyone reasonably familiar with the geography of the region would be able to take a good guess as to where it is. The tourist resort, built during the Soviet period for the Communist Party elites, had subsequently been comprehensively redeveloped in the period after the end of the Cold War but now lies in ruins and almost entirely deserted. The beautiful beach has been heavily mined by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and it is illegal to step onto the beach. Many of the hotels and other buildings in the extensive resort show evidence of war damage and have lost their windows or are boarded up. The roads are full of craters and aside from a few military officials and a community of almost 300 IDP’s occupying what were once holiday apartments, there is nobody to be seen anywhere. The site is eerily silent on a beautiful autumn summer’s day.


The reason the resort is so quiet is that the Russian Black Sea warship the Moskva, until she was sunk on 14 April 2022 by two Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles, was located just offshore, guarding the once fiercely contested Ostriv Zmyiini (Snake Island) that was seized by the Russian Navy early in the war but later recaptured by Ukraine. The Moskva took to firing at buildings close to the shore with her ship to ship cannon and anti-aircraft guns. It was the barrage of gunfire from the Moskva against the tourist settlement that destroyed buildings and roads and made the resort unsafe for human habitation. The IDP’s present in this tourist settlement are concerned that Russian bombardment of their new homes may start again if another vessel similar to the Moskva approaches the southern Ukrainian coastline. These IDP’s fled from occupied Kherson in the early days of the war, and they are amongst the most vulnerable people displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Their situation is a tragedy for all.


I have particular sympathy for IDP’s. I have a former IDP in my family. The experience of being internally displaced is a horrific and harrowing one. Faced with mindless carnage, you suddenly have to move your family and such belongings as you can carry to a totally new place, because your home may be unsafe or destroyed or at threat of destruction, as was the suburb of Kherson from which these IDP’s had been evacuated. You are then placed in new accommodation with people, some of whom you may know if they have been evacuated with you but many of whom you will not know and who are not of your choosing. You are entirely reliant upon the good will of the state and of private benefactors for your support. The days are long and boring. You have nothing to do. The children are terribly frustrated. The authorities try to set up ad hoc schooling arrangements for the children, but they are never quite as good as they were back home. You don’t know if, or when, you will ever be able to see home again.


An old lady came up to me, grabbed me and wept into my arms. The Russian soldiers were monsters in Kherson. They raped children, and murdered people in front of their eyes. They were worse than animals. She wept and wept and wept. I tried to hold back the tears but I could not. How can these horrors be taking place in modern Europe? Why can the human right to dignity not be respected and preserved by the Russian Armed Forces? Nobody knows the answers to these horrible questions.


For a day, the team of which I am part tried to bring warmth and joy to the dispossessed. We played music, served hot food and introduced a sense of normality to these deeply abnormal and distressing situation. This formerly luxurious tourist resort had been reduced to a ghost town by the actions of a single Russian warship. The Ukrainian Armed Forces had also manifestly been concerned at one point that the beach and tourist resort might be used as a landing point for a Russian invasion of southern Ukraine from the sea, which is why they had mined the beach. Now, amidst dozens of hotels of every class, from simple to five star, and amidst what had been bars and nightclubs, there is nothing but silence and tumbleweeds. Within this eery environment a group of 300 IDP’s have to live in stasis, and they do not know if or when they can ever go home.


I hope this tourist resort, obviously once a haven of tranquility for Ukrainians and for others from abroad, might again reopen and return to normality. The costs involved in renovating the town after its bombardment, and of de-mining the beach, are likely to be extremely high. One might think that a tourist resort is not a priority. But that would be a wrong way of thinking. It is home to a group of impoverished and dispossessed people, and they are undoubtedly a priority. Moreover war inflicts trauma upon people, and showing that there is fun or pleasure to be had amidst the daily grind of conflict and all the horrendous stories and experiences it imposes upon people caught trapped within it is a form of relief and potentially a release from all those traumatic experiences.


I want Ukraine to become a normal country again, as soon as possible, and not a scene of conflict. I want this tourist resort to re-open, for the IDP’s to be able to return home, and for tourists from around the world once again to lounge on its luxuriant beaches, not warned off by signs advising of the presence of landmines. Civilian reconstruction assistance is required across every corner of Ukraine, and at the current time the magnitude of the civilian project for rebuilding Ukraine is not understood sufficiently clearly. We need more civilian boots on the ground.


Returning to Mykolaïv, I notice that the only other international group apparently in town, aside from our team of humanitarian workers, is a single car from the United Nations World Food Programme. They have travelled into Mykolaïv for the evening from Odessa. I do not know whether the two people in the car are Ukrainian or foreigners. It is obvious that the international civilian presence along the front line in south and eastern Ukraine is miniscule. On behalf of all Ukrainians, I implore the international community to do more, to send more people, and to devote more resources. Structuring the civilian rebuilding of Ukraine is essential to advancing the end date of this conflict, and to alleviating the suffering of the Ukrainian people.


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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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