As I slipped and slid through the glacial streets of white Saigon today, I managed to get lost both going to my new place of work and get lost coming back again. Everything looks different when it’s all covered in thick layers of ice. Nevertheless the new place of work is convivial and I am fast learning snippets of Ukrainian language from the friendly and helpful fellow workers, and we’re all having a jolly good time, jocular humour and fun while we work away making food so that the half a million heroic Ukrainian soldiers on the front line don’t starve to death this winter. There are a few teething problems: I woke up this morning to find the fridge completely empty as I’d inadvertently missed the curfew and I couldn’t go out to the supermarket. I went round one pharmacy after another looking for my hypertension medications. They are very plain vanilla tablets but nobody seemed to have any until I got to the fifth pharmacy in a row. At the fourth pharmacy, the sweet girl behind the counter smiled at me and offered me viagra instead. I couldn’t help laughing, even if she didn’t seem to see the joke. Viagra is the last thing you want to take if you have hypertension, because it causes hypertension: that’s how it works. Nevertheless these are trivial details amidst the chaos of living in a war zone, but they all take their toll and they give you an impression into how the small details of daily life in wartime Ukraine gnaw at the soul on a relentless basis.
I staggered off after my pharmaceutical affairs to a Georgian restaurant with some kind of liquor and some kind of pizza and some kind of this and that and it was all a bit overpriced but my friends and colleagues are some of the most wonderful and prized people I have ever had the privilege to work with. They care not a jot about politics and we argue and joke all day about our differences and perspectives and all the things we bring to bear from different points of life about the common work we do which is simple stuff: it is keeping people alive by making them food. We sat together and we lamented how disgracefully some so-called charities act in Ukraine in wasting their donors’ funds on highly paid salaries for trustees based abroad and none of the money is going into Ukraine. The donors, who might be wondering round Ukraine right now, don’t realise that perhaps 80% or more of their donations are going into the pockets of self-enriching foreign trustees and a minimal fraction of their beneficent donations is being rendered in effective contributions to the Ukrainian economy or to good causes feeding starving people in Ukraine or providing them with medical care or all the other essential things that have to be done during a war. So a large proportion of this charities game is some sort of giant fraud upon the donors in which the money never gets to where it ought to be. This is a moral tragedy, of a kind, for us all.
Because let me tell you something: I know, from having met so many well-intentioned, decent people with hearts of gold who really want to give something to this war; I know that these people are here to help and they aren’t here on their filthy sex-tourism missions or their dirty games to hoodwink foreign donors. The vast majority of the volunteers I work with are here because they see an existential threat to the European polity and they see the Russians as evil incarnate as the current Russian government system works. That’s not to say that the greater majority of Russian people are evil; they are scared and intimidated and bullied and suppressed. But the fact remains that Russia is a genuine threat to all of us who hold contemporary civilised values in high esteem. And we can’t let it carry on.
I heard some more horrible stories tonight about an institution I’d earlier had great respect for, that’s working in Ukraine and it’s not acting well and it won’t change its cancerous management and therefore the needless suffering it is kneading and compounding into the Ukrainian people is continuing and it is serving as a horrific counter-example to the sorts of values that the West expounds. I’m so disappointed and saddened by it all. But I’m also lifted by the valiant hearts of the people I work with now, who work so hard and are so committed and each and every one of them are giving every last drop and ounce of their energy to help. And they understand all this dirty filthy stuff and we talked about it tonight over our luxuriant Georgian meal and then over drinks here and there in Mano’s Bar. And our disgust with some of our compatriots with their disappointing motives was nonetheless drowned out by our common resolve to be, each in our own small ways, heroes for Ukraine: an unusual band of oddballs, perhaps, with very different backgrounds, to repeat; but people for each and every one of which I have the utmost admiration.
I met another girl who might like the opera. I have a new set of criteria, that everyone thinks is unhinged: you have to like opera, be a true Ukrainian patriot willing to wear a blue and yellow dress to the front row of the Stalls at the Lviv Opera House with a garland of blue and yellow roses around your neck, with blue and yellow six-inch stilettos hobbling through the icy snow; and then you have to sit in the same blue and yellow outfit in Mano’s Bar, drinking blue and yellow samohon (fermented and distilled vegetable peelings) in blue and yellow glasses. Yes, I’m crazy, with all my crazy ideas and my blue and yellow tie and my blue and yellow cufflinks. Maybe I’ll get some blue and yellow tailor to make me a blue and yellow suit. But like all my other crazy fellow volunteers, each and every one of which I love to the bottom of my heart, I’ll keep fighting for good and for the overthrow of evil. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Silence in the face of evil is itself en evil; God will not hold us blameless.” Let us proceed in his spirit.