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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #24



No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man's death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.


Johne Donne


Death is something inevitably commonplace in war zones. Yesterday evening we learned of our first death since I had arrived in Zaporizhzhia. A soldier close to our team, with whom we had worked in the past, had been killed on the front line in Kherson, about 40km from where we are staying in Mykolaïv. Our work today is delayed, due to his funeral that will take place this morning. Today we will play no music. There is a sombre mood. I feel shocked, surprised; but I should not be. In war zones, people tragically die every day. Every person in Ukraine has been to several funerals. By reason of man’s propensity for killing man, wars are humanity’s greatest self-inflicted evil, which is why we must do everything we can to prevent them and, where they do occur, to stop them in their tracks. In Ukraine the West is currently falling below that bar.


We have changed hotels. I am immensely relieved. The last hotel was dingy, with long corridors and stern-faced soldiers solemnly occupying the large but featureless rooms. Designed in the old Soviet style, the staff were surly and even non-existent. There were no services and although the room was functional, it did not have elementary features such as curtains that kept out the light. Therefore you would be woken up with the sun streaming into your eyes at daybreak, in a state of bewilderment and confusion as you thought somebody had turned the lights on. The lack of hot water was also frustrating - or it would have become so as the temperature dips. Although the sun is still strong during the day in late September in southern Ukraine, it is getting ever colder in the evenings. At some stage the lack of hot water would have become a distinct inconvenience.


The hew hotel is buried in the middle of the shanty town that calls itself Mykolaïv market. Before the war, this was an eclectic collection of food, Chinese manufactured clothes and miscellaneous contraband from across the Soviet Union, and it had something of a reputation as a giant sprawling morass where people from across the region would come to ply their wares. Now it is altogether more hollowed out, for the most part the dominion of packs of hungry dogs tied behind iron railings that bark ferociously whenever anyone walks past. The new hotel might once have been a place for market traders travelling from afar to spend the night. Now it is one of the few of the very many hotels in town that has not been garrisoned by soldiers, and therefore its atmosphere is rather more relaxed. Although hardly on one of the most desirable of streets or in the best neighbourhood, this has some advantages. There is no loudly audible air raid siren in the vicinity, which assists with sleeping at night. The risk of the hotel being intentionally targeted by expensive accurate Russian missiles seems extremely low.


The staff are friendly. It talk an inordinate period of time to check in yesterday evening, as the pleasant and patient staff insisted on explaining an extraordinary array of complex breakfast options to each member of the team. Suffice it to say that all these breakfast options were very unusual by international standards. They all involve some sort of heavy cooked meat. I made my choice most rapidly; in my experience heavy meat, a staple of Ukrainian cooking, is much the same no matter what variety of it you order. Nevertheless there was great consternation as people asked whether there was any fruit or cornflakes. (It turns out that there is, but it requires substantial discussion through an interpreter to order these items.)


There is no functional internet at this location, so we are reliant entirely on the precarious mobile phone networks. One team member complained that his room is awash with cockroaches. Nevertheless I am satisfied. My room, while not grandiose, has a pleasant print painting of a jolly pink and white bowl of roses on the wall. There is a mirror, a place to hang my clothes and a bath. There is a small table where my icon of Luke the Evangelist sits next to my laptop; something approaching an office chair; a kettle and a fridge that looks like it might work. Because our days are long, we do not get to spend much time in our accommodation so it needs only to be functional rather than comfortable. Nevertheless I think I can say that my room is cosy. I slept well on a clean bed, and there are towels and other linen. I long ago learned to appreciate the value of small things, when others have none. Compared to the way the vast majority of the Ukrainian population are living at this moment, I have ample luxury. I have no cause for complaint.


I return to my reflections upon the fallen soldier. I do not even know his name. I feel ashamed by my ignorance. I think of his family and the agony they must be going through. I wonder whether he volunteered or was conscripted. I do not know. I wonder what his last moments must have been like, and the thoughts that were going through his head. I hope that for his sake, his end came quickly. These are the reflections that we all have, living through war. War changes the way people think about life, relationships and what is important fundamentally. It teaches us to live day by day, to place trust in those around us, and to understand what is really important in life.


Last night the lady in the hotel waited up for us as we walked back through the dark and empty streets from a local restaurant, arriving shortly after the curfew. In her small gesture she showed her kindness. Amidst the fog of war, the true colours of human beings shine through.


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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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