I woke up after a heavy twelve hours’ sleep on this lumbering train, with a soldier opposite me listening to some sort of military radio station nonstop while he tries to asleep. Like me, he’s decked out with multiple layers of clothes because it’s cold out there. There’s some confusion with my train tickets but everyone is very helpful and friendly. As you get closer to the front line, the warmth and camaraderie of wartime living come to the fore. My inbox is awash with people who want to meet me and tell me their stories, and I’m not sure two days is even long enough anymore. I might have to stay longer and miss the opera. I’m wondering whether the body armour was necessary and I’ll only find out once I arrive in Kherson. At least I’m lucky enough to be able to afford it. This is a war in which perpetual financial uncertainty is all-pervasive because soldiers have to buy their own equipment beyond the basics which aren’t good enough to keep them alive. The internet’s increasingly patchy, but who cares when we have the warmth of supportive people around us at every turn.
Outside I just see wild plains of snow, as far as the eye can see. I didn’t manage to read a book or even to take a sip on the giant bottle of vodka I bought with me and I’m glad I bought my own food because there isn’t any on this train. Everything’s a bit chaotic as you head towards the front line but by some miracle I am still able, stuffed tight in this travelling office, in a space the fraction of a size of a prison cell, to hammer out these words. And still it’s warm in here. Last night was the first night I haven’t had a drop of alcohol since I arrived back in Ukraine, such is Lviv’s boozy atmosphere; it’s refreshing in its own kind of way to get a break from all that. I’d almost forgotten what the rest of my beloved Ukraine was like.
Yesterday, nursing a hangover typical of life in Lviv, I admit I had a sense of trepidation about all of this business going down to Kherson but now I am overwhelmingly pleased that I did it. I’m already reminded that while life on the front line is obviously difficult, it’s another part of Ukraine that actually I know better and that in a certain sort of way makes more sense to me. The body armour may or may not stay stuffed in my rucksack; we’ll just have to make a judgment on that when I arrive in the city centre. But without doubt the people I’m going to meet down here are extraordinary. Yes, I imagine there’ll be a lot of waiting around and lots of silly things, because that’s how life is in a war zone. But these people who have stayed in Kherson throughout the occupation and afterwards, amidst indiscriminate Russian shelling of their cities - they are the true heroes of our times. Amazingly I am staying in a hotel that was open throughout the occupation and afterwards, and it seems they’ve all just been getting on with it.
I wouldn’t mind a cup of coffee. I wouldn’t mind a bit to eat. I wouldn’t mind all sorts of damned fool things you get used to in calm normal western civilian life and that the people of Kherson, just two year ago, had cruelly taken away from them by the Russian occupation. I asked myself yesterday how I could justify spending 800 Euros on solid lead body armour and whether I’ve wasted 5 Euros buying the wrong sort of train ticket and I’m just a prat. I’m heading off to meet people who’ve been through hell and they’ve lost everything and they’re on the front line of World War III. This is intense and we have to support them and more than ever I am absolutely determined that we need to get NATO troops into central Kherson to face off against those bastards of Russians who are sitting on the opposite side of the Dnieper River firing their guns at a city full of civilians with no more obvious purpose than to cause terror to ordinary people and try to destroy their morale. That’s a war crime and it disgusts me that we’re allowing it to happen in modern Europe.
The soldier’s snoring, catching up on every last wink of sleep he can before he heads off to whatever hellish fate awaits him in a trench or doing supply runs up the northwest bank of the Dnieper or whatever duties are calling him. The train has slowed to a crawl as the railway lines run parallel with some icy, muddy tracks and we pass into a hamlet where the buildings are boarded up and blown up and all this stupid stuff. The soldier’s trying to learn English by falling asleep again with a tape of parallel English-Ukrainian sentences repeating in circles round and round from his mobile phone stuffed under his pillow. I doubt that’s going to work. I’m still thinking about the coffee and my stomach. It’s insufferably grim and grey out there, but I’m glad I’m back in the action.
There’s a war to win, and it helps us get everything in perspective to understand, even if just for a short period of time, exactly what is going one and what real war on the front line is about. It’s about the law of averages is not getting killed or maimed. It’s about ploughing on regardless, pushing through to the end. It’s about looking after and caring for strangers, fellow men and women all acting in the common cause. It’s about unity of purpose, patriotism, pride and sacrifice in the nature of the common good. It’s not about worrying over whether you’re running out of toothpaste or whether your latest lipstick might attract the boys. In short war, although ghastly and horrendous, and the greatest evil of our times and of every time, has the potential to bring out in people the finest and highest qualities of which humankind is capable. And that, I am sure, is what I am going to experience in Kherson.