Over the Christmas and New Year period in England, a number of people have asked me what it is like to live in a war zone and in the middle of an ongoing war. There’s no easy answer to this question. It’s exhilarating, frightening, satisfying, fun, anguishing and exhausting, all at once. Living and spending most of my time in Lviv, a charming cultural and historical city several hundred kilometres from the front line in an enormous country such as Ukraine, I cannot pretend that I feel in daily risk of danger: contrast this with my experiences in proximity to the front line in September and October of last year. Nonetheless, the risks exist: Lviv has recently been the subject of nightly multiple drone and missile attacks. People do die from time to time in these attacks, but to the best of my knowledge no foreigner (and the city is full of foreigners) has died as a result of these attacks in Lviv. However the constant anxiety and stress involved in living in an environment with relentless air raid alarms, even if they are generally ignored by the local population and foreigners alike, rattles even the most hardened battlefield veteran.
Then there is the military discipline involved in the routine of everyday life. As I was discussing with a colleague in the British military last night, life in theatre involves waking up at the same time each day, devoting portions of the day to different specific tasks, travelling safely and securely from one place to the other, undertaking one’s duties, then getting yourself home and eating, spending some social time relaxing, and then getting home to sleep within time of the curfew. Life in a war zone is an unusual combination of rigidity, in the sense that you do everything pursuant to some sort of schedule; and the need to maintain maximum flexibility, because military theatre is full of unforeseen events and you may suddenly have to drop everything you are doing and abandon that schedule and go and do something completely different because there is an emergency of some kind. All of this requires a certain type of mental agility, in which you operate within strict parameters each day to undertake the tasks assigned to you; but you also get ready to do anything, and go anywhere, and interact with whoever you need to interact with, should the need arise.
Then there are aspects of discomfort and inconvenience. I am about to return to Lviv and the weather on Monday, when I arrive in Ukraine, is forecast to be -17 degrees celsius. This is seriously cold, and my rucksack and luggage is currently weighing in at about 25kg and I have promised to carry another four kilograms of plastic cement over the border as well so I am going to be tramping around Lviv in obscenely cold temperatures with an extremely heavy set of luggage, with huge gloves, a hat, multiple coats, fur-lined boots and all the rest. This is inconvenient but the inconveniences are compounded by the fact that from time to time the electricity may go off, or the mobile phone network may go down, or there may not be any water or heating in the building for a period and all these other sorts of infrastructure failings that are just typical of living in a war zone. There’s nothing you can do about it and you just have to get on with whatever inconveniences life throws at you every day.
The next thing that strikes you about living in Lviv is that you are in the centre of this extraordinary city of culture and history and around every corner are these exceptionally ornate architectural gems. The city is also jam packed with people which is typical for a city on the edge of a war zone that has attracted huge numbers of internally displaced people (nobody really knows how many) and also has become the locus of international activity and there is a substantial foreign presence. That’s why I refer in my diaries to Lviv as “the frozen Saigon”: it is an eclectic mixture of local and foreign people with a uniquely exciting and intoxicating atmosphere as a result. The restaurants and bars all rock with unusual interactions between people from every different walk of life and this sort of mélange of varied people is highly unusual and distinctive. If you don’t like meeting and interacting with a wide range of very different people from yourself, then life in a war zone probably won’t work for you.
In the main cities in Ukraine, there is no shortage of consumer goods. Every city in Ukraine has several US-style shopping malls and you can buy everything from Chinese knock-off goods to modern designer luxury brands - at a premium, because getting those goods into Ukraine is not straightforward amidst wartime conditions. So I can’t say myself that I am somehow deprived of life’s little luxuries - if I want them. I’m sure there’s a shop somewhere in Lviv selling Swiss chocolate if I want to pay through the nose for it. Also there’s fantastic Ukrainian chocolate, sold in a series of venues that seem to have copied Swiss chocolates right down to the designs of the boxes. However I must tell you that having lived in Lviv for some time now, and also having spent a lot of my time in Ukraine in a variety of other cities across the country, that I never have any time to go to any of these shops. I barely find time to get to the supermarket to buy food for my fridge. Each day is a nonstop maelstrom of activity and conversations and crises and meeting new and old friends, and I hardly have any time for myself except when I go to bed at night and then, and only then, can I feel calm and at peace.
I say that, but I sleep badly in theatre - everyone does. You may only get a few hours’ sleep in a night because you are worrying about something or other - everyone living in war zones has worries and concerns. And you are acutely aware that the next day will bring new challenges, obstacles, problems and duties. Friends will come and go, you will make new friends and you hope to stay in contact with old ones. So you spend a lot of time sleepy or wanting to sleep and sometimes you fall asleep in the middle of the day in whatever small spot of spare time you may find for yourself. By the way, all the shops in Ukraine are open very long hours. My local sandwich shop opens at 5am and closes at Midnight, seven days a week, and as far as I can tell the staff live and sleep above the shop so they don’t have to breach the curfew going home. War zones are full of zany things like this.
In short, living in a war zone is all quite overwhelming, with a relentless assault upon the senses as you are exhilarated and frightened in equal measure on a daily or even hourly basis. It’s also an environment you should live and operate in only if you are comfortable with strict routines seven days a week, and you don’t need too much time for lounging around because there isn’t any. You’re always too busy with this or that. Also, you need a rugged sense of duty and determination, because you have to keep on going no matter what the bad news from the front line and irrespective of what the politicians and the pundits and the talking heads and all the rest are sating. This is war, it is World War III, and it must be won.