There comes a point in life where you have to concede defeat - or, at least, engage in a tactical retreat. It happens to us all from time to time. This morning I was due a breakfast meeting at 10.30am after a lot of booms and bangs during the night in central Kherson. My colleague I was due to meet called me frantically instead at 8.15am, saying that he was coming immediately in a taxi and then we would be driving somewhere else. It was all rather inexplicable. Anyway I hastily finished what I was doing and I stepped outside my hotel to find him chain smoking in the lobby. Every building in the vicinity of my hotel had it appeared been the target fragmentation warheads overnight; the streets were covered in smashed glass and there were men with brooms cleaning up the mess. My colleague had advised me that for our trip this morning no body armour would be necessary; that turned out to be poor advice. Because we were driving up to the river, with the Russians just on the other side of the water. The taxi driver, waiting for us nervously, didn’t want to go in that direction. My colleague had to offer him extra money, and then we sped off in a banger down empty streets towards the water front, at speeds of up to 90 kilometres per hour through the centre of town, lurched left, drove along a bumpy straight, and then we were instructed to decant at some empty crossroads. Boom bang boom bang.
After a few minutes, another couple of characters showed up, one of whom was wearing body armour and we all hung around. I looked around nervously, wondering where the next shell might come in from. Then suddenly a black SUV screeched to a halt on the corner and we all jumped in that. Down we drove some steep roads towards the water front, past what I was told was some Kherson public building, totally blown to pieces on the riverfront and occupied now by Ukrainian ad hoc snipers holding off against their Russian counterparts on the other side of the river at its narrowest point. We bundled through a corrugated steel gate, out of the vehicle, and ran behind some iron barricades, into a house, whereupon we were shown a collection of assault rifles. We went up some stairs where we stared at the Russian positions on the opposite side of the river, about 100 metres away. If ever there was a time you wanted to be wearing a sold lead breast plate, it was at this juncture, but I didn’t have mine with me.
After this quick tour, we were shown where one of my colleagues sleeps with his assault rifle on a mattress behind a concrete blast wall beneath a Ukrainian flag, waiting for the Russian paratroopers who, I am assured, are going to parachute across the Dnipro river and drop behind enemy lines any day or week now and everyone on the waterfront will be ready for them. The entire waterfront is lined with tank traps because, I think, the river here is so narrow and shallow that it may actually be possible to drive a tank straight across the river without pontooning it. This must be about the most dangerous place along the entire front line, and I didn’t have my body armour again.
Back we got in the black SUV, and again we screeched off at high speed round the empty town, amidst the smell of burnt rubber and handbrake turns. Boom bang boom bang wail blare in the background. After much shouting and consternation, we arrived at the railway station where there was a lot of arguing about a mobile ‘phone. I bought one of my new colleagues and friends a hot dog and a coffee, for which he seemed very grateful. As I was doing so, I noticed that one of his fingers had some severe case of septicaemia, bulging with puss and all sorts of strange colours that fingers shouldn’t be. Another emergency. We had to go screeching off some other place in the SUV, but I insisted that I take my colleagues with the dangerously swollen finger to my hotel room where, as a paramedic, I would do something about it. I was dangerously short of supplies, but I did my best. I found a large spiky thing in my men’s toiletry bag and as he winced, I just stuck the sharp point - previously sterilised with cheap Ukrainian vodka - into the pussy blackening skin and liquid squirted straight out of it. I bandaged up his finger and gave him a two-day course of ciprofloxacin, a broad spectrum antibiotic, which was all I could spare. I did an ad hoc job of re-sterilising my ad hoc medical supplies, and he seemed still more grateful.
We went back into the hotel lobby, and all the moody men previously hanging around in there had mysteriously disappeared. Actually it wasn’t mysterious at all. Wail wail wail scream wail. Boom bang boom boom bang. They were all hiding downstairs in the air raid shelter or behind concrete barricades in a room out back. We met up with the SUV crew who were screaming off to some other place in a hurry. I returned to my hotel and took stock of the situation. I decided to walk to the John Howard monument, ten minutes’ walk from my hotel. John Howard was a distinguished eighteenth century penal reformer who I very much admire. This time I took my helmet and my body armour. Boom bang boom in the background. Puffs of smoke. I went to take stock of the monument to Howard, who had died in Kherson of typhus while studying the prison system in the Russian Empire. The Russians seem to have blown his monument to bits with a shell, also shredding the building structures in the square around his monument. All that is left is a blackened stub.
I returned to my hotel, to see people scattering from the high street and the only other people walking down the road were a couple of foreign journalists with maniacal eyes also wearing body armour. I urgently tried to call a taxi to get me out of Kherson, but of course none were available because the city is under attack today. I finally found the hotel manager, hidden behind a concrete wall. When I calmly informed him that I wished to check out immediately, he didn’t bat an eyelid. His friend showed up within 10 minutes as an informal taxi driver, and drove me to the military checkpoint on the outskirts of Kherson. Looks like I picked the wrong day to visit Kherson.