One of the challenges of working in Ukraine is to reconcile the imperative needs of a command economy in wartime with the legal and political nuances appropriate to working in coordination with the West. So today I spent a significant chunk of time amending the terms of the Ukraine Development Trust to expand the sorts of purposes for which people can donate funds. This requires a lot of legal work and thinking, and when I explain it to people working here as volunteers in Ukraine they wonder why any of it is necessary. So I need to explain, patiently, that under different countries’ systems of laws and regulation money donated to Ukrainian causes is under a variety of restrictions as to its use. Only money spent for certain sorts of persons can attract tax-efficient methods of donating (what’s often called “charitable donations” or “foundations”) whereas other money can be placed into more generic “trusts” which don’t benefit from tax advantages but aren’t subject to the same levels of legal and government oversight. All of this kind of thing makes scant sense to many people in wartime, when they are just striving to get from one day to another and there is isn’t much difference between food, medical supplies and bullets: they’re all necessary on the front line if we are to win this war. But to a western charitable regulator, the difference between lethal and nonlethal assistance is highly likely to be extremely important and therefore you need segregated bank accounts, different constitutional documents for organisations that may be related in the goals they seek to achieve, and rules prescribing how donors can convey what they want their money to be spent on.
Amidst the chaos of war, this kind of thing might seem silly or trivial but back in the West, who is funding this war and whose donations we continue to need, it is perceived as important. So I find myself almost acting now as a pro bono lawyer to the international community here and even to some organisations associated with the Ukrainian Armed Forces, explaining how to bridge the gap between western regulations and Ukrainian operations, needs and demands which all take place amidst the most elementary of legal structures if there is any legal structure at all. It’s all a bit of a headache and it’s absorbing an increasing amount of my time when what I really want to be doing with each day is chopping and peeling vegetables and chatting with my wonderful friends and workers and in the ever-optimistic search for the wonderful girl in the blue and yellow dress.
These frustrations aside - that I am naturally returning to something akin to a desk job when really I want to be active every day - today has been the usual mixture of tiring, exhilarating and poignant, the sorts of events that fill every day life in a war zone. As I tramped through the snow to work today I almost tripped and broke my neck on the black ice that covers the streets of Lviv in this brutally cold winter period. I walked slowly behind a solitary soldier out walking his dog. Dogs have become therapeutic pets and friends for isolated people trying to survive each day through the horrors of war. The kitchen where I work was awash with burly soldiers today, lifting round bags of something or other. None of that was clear. I was put to work shredding carrots for three hours with a menacing shredding machine with a notorious reputation for shredding volunteers’ fingers. A friend and colleague stood next to me for some time, squirting out tomato juice from some impenetrable contraption while we laughed and joked about our daily routines amidst all this snow and ice. The demand for food on the front line is quite intense at the moment, and the kitchen is jammed to the rafters with all sorts of people helping out in every way they can. Anyone who can put in a few hours each day is heartily welcomed, and that’s what I try to do each day amidst all my other duties and obligations. You leave every day with a headache and then you are faced with whatever desk work tasks might be necessary before hearing off to Mano’s Bar that I now seem to have turned into an office for evening meetings because there aren’t enough hours in the day.
We’re all a bit rattled by the Kinzhal missiles that blitzed Ukraine last night, but I reassured my colleagues that there’s very little to worry about. These aren’t actually very accurate and the odds of being injured working well away from the front line are very low. There are certainly higher odds of being falling over on the ice and breaking a bone. I saw a poor young man doing precisely that on the way home, despite his wearing the best quality hiking shoes as opposed to my decrepit dreary worn-down Russian standard issue trench boots picked up for 10 Euros from a shifty market in Kharkiv. Even good shoes won’t save you if you slip in this weather. You walk around town all day staring down, trying to pick your steps carefully and if you fall then you know you want to fall forwards not backwards because that way you’re less likely to injure yourself.
I was touched this afternoon as I walked home with miserable faces in the rain, grey empty shells of people crouched in large puffy jackets trying to do their Saturday shopping amidst all the snow and slush and with the ghastly incidents of war, the tank traps, the sirens, the relentless bad news, all these negative things, surrounding everyone all day every day. One woman passed me by down the street, tears streaming down her face in the aching cold. Presumably some tragedy had just befallen her or her family. I’ll never know what horrors she’s had to endure. My priority is just to get to the supermarket before curfew this evening, something I seldom achieve, because once again my fridge is empty and I don’t want to be eating my hands. Life in wartime is hard, and its aches and bruises the body and the soul.
And those politicians and lawyers and donors in the West want their documents and their presentations and their policy papers and all the rest, and the most useful thing I can do to help is to draft all these papers so that more money and support can come Ukraine’s way. But, defiantly, every day, I’m still going to peel those spuds and dream of the unknown girl in the blue and yellow dress.