Kherson nightlife is somewhat limited. Actually you basically need to stay indoors after 5pm, when dusk arrives, because the city is plunged into darkness with no streetlights of any kind turned on anywhere and you can’t see the hand in front of your face. The shops all close at 5pm, and this evening I arrived at the local supermarket that had advertised it was open until 7pm but in fact it wasn’t. The single restaurant I have found open had only a handful of soldiers sitting on their own, gloomily staring at their mobile phones; but the food was admittedly fantastic. The beer they served turned out to be alcohol-free; but I found its taste curiously satisfying nonetheless. It’s refreshing to have a few days off the booze. Kherson might be a somewhat unusual place to get away from it all, but it’s not totally disagreeable.
I suppose it all depends what you want from a place. I am looking for a break from the chaos of Lviv, and I am looking to meet some good people doing some fantastic work and I think that’s what I’m finding here. Conditions are obviously hell for the few residents who remain; I have been shown pictures of primitive hospital conditions and all the buildings are blown out. Unless you’re used to all this boom and bang, it must be very frightening to be sitting in your apartment alone with the lights turned down at night hearing mysterious explosions outside. Actually I could tell that most of the explosions I was hearing were coming from our side and were being fired at the Russians, rather than the other way round; but your average old aged pensioner or woman with children who are the typical remaining residents of Kherson won’t understand this sort of thing. It’s true that I’m not sitting right now at Mano’s Bar, getting all boozed up as I might be; but that can wait until Friday when I’m back in Saigon.
Real life on the front line is difficult and unpleasant. It involves constant uncertainty, as things are exploding around you and air raid sirens are going off. It involves a lot of waiting around and it involves being bored and lonely and not knowing what is going on or whether you are really in danger. I know that I’m not in substantial danger sitting in this hotel, but there are buildings not far from the hotel that have been blown to pieces. I don’t think the Russians have been targeting Kherson itself for a while. There’s nothing left to blow up; it’s all been destroyed already. Therefore you can walk round Kherson as though an empty ghost ship, fairly free and easy and I don’t think the body armour was, in retrospect, necessary. By contrast if you go just a few kilometres up the road then things get very dangerous indeed, particularly to the northeast of the city towards the Ukrainian bridgehead across the Dnieper and the road to Nikopol. I was contemplating a day trip there but that, I think, would be too dangerous even for me.
So I find myself sitting in a well-appointed if slightly boring hotel room, all shades of brown and dull green in typical Soviet style, at slightly earlier than 7pm wondering what to do with myself. I’m not a great one for the television, but I might find a ridiculous movie or I might read a book. I still have a large bottle of vodka, but that would be a very Ukrainian way of passing the evening. I suppose I might feel lonely, sitting here on my own; but I know there are thousands of other people in Kherson, in the same boat as me, sitting here right now and wondering what to do with their evenings because they can’t go out and everything’s been blown to bits.
I have a meeting tomorrow morning, and maybe even two or three. That’s also all quite uncertain. I think people in Kherson were severely rattled today by all the booms and bangs, whatever they were; and the fact that there was at least one strike on the city. As I sit here writing these words, I hear another air raid siren in the distance but I don’t know whether it’s indication the beginning of an air raid alert or the end of one. Something is going on somewhere, but I have no idea what it is. I am filled with this sense of unusual melancholy, rather than fear or anxiety, in which the whole thing seems faintly absurd but also tragic at the same time. The air raid siren has just turned into a nonstop high-pitched tone continuing endlessly, but I have no idea what that means. What am I supposed to do? Take cover? There are only two people in this hotel so far as I can tell: me and the receptionist, who is likewise gloomily attached to his mobile phone. I do wish someone would turn the noise down on the siren, or I might have to go to bed with earplugs in. Aah, there it goes. It’s toned down again now. I hope this doesn’t go on all night. It would be wrong to say that this is tranquility, but it is an odd sort of calm. And I am sharing in the experiences of civilians on the front line, understanding their suffering, their daily agonies, and I am relieved that I get to leave whenever I want whereas they are stuck here indefinitely.
Indefinitely. Why does it need to be like this? Peace and calm could be brought to Kherson immediately if NATO troops were to establish a base here, because the Russians wouldn’t dare continue any attacks in the area. Then the essential exercise in reconstructing this historical and once-beautiful city could begin in earnest, because nothing can be done to rebuild it right now with all this crazy stuff going on outside. Let’s please bring this to an end rationally and sensibly, and bring in the foreign soldiers that will cause the Russians to pause. There is an ongoing civilian tragedy unfolding outside, and this is a personal plea to the international community to get off their rears and act in concert to stop this. I have plenty of time to write diary entries imploring people to do something, while I’m sat here in empty, isolated Kherson, so unless you want to read my stuff ad nauseam and forever you are morally obliged to act.