War’s a strange thing. You see your whole life go before you by 11 O’Clock in the morning. Now I’m comfortably in Mykolaïv, I look back on the events of this morning with both bemusement and hilarity. What on earth was I doing, going to Kherson? Well, I went there to meet three groups of people associated with NGO’s, to try to understand what the NGO community is doing in Kherson. Now of these three groups of people, two bailed on me and I understood why: I had arrived at just the wrong time, after a period of relative calm on this front line city; but things had suddenly become much hotter again and they had better things to do than to meet me which is fair enough. They were no doubt escaping the city or squatting in basements, trying to stay alive. The group I did meet are but a handful of enthusiastic volunteers, over-enthusiastic if anything, who are focused on cleaning up debris and rebuilding houses after Russian artillery strikes have slammed into the sides of buildings and all the rest. This is heroic and relentless work and it is unrelenting because it seems that the Russians are assaulting Kherson on a daily basis.
So I learned several things from my short visit. The first thing I learned is that the centre of the city is an extremely inhospitable place to live. The greater majority of the population has left. There’s only one real supermarket and a handful of other shops. There are some outdoor green market types of arrangement and a handful of gas stations but even most of those have been blown up. There is still a handful of people living down near the waterfront in the most precarious of conditions; but they are not the people living in the most danger. The biggest danger is to those living in the centre of the city, that is relentlessly shelled, particularly at night. The atmosphere of chaos and disorder is unremitting and most people spend most of their days indoors. There is absolutely nothing to do in central Kherson and it must be one of the most unliveable cities in the world right now. Those who remain, apart from soldiers, are just eking out daily existences from one moment to the next and they must be terribly bored.
The project of rebuilding destroyed homes seems to me really valuable and it is also intense. There are obviously dangers associated with living in Kherson but also it is a very boring place to be living, precisely because you have to go indoors and stay indoors by 5pm and you are then stuck inside until 8am the next day with nothing but a bottle of vodka and the television for company. Kherson is not hugely dangerous, notwithstanding my excitements of this morning, provided you take greater care than I did and you don’t scream around in unknown vehicles shooting up and down the riverside. Nevertheless it is really a difficult life. I suppose the people who remain there have different motives for staying. Some stay because it’s their home even though it’s on the front line. Some feel they can’t leave. Some feel they are doing good by staying. Whatever their motives, life there is exceptionally tough.
Now I don’t think the Russians are going to reverse their decision to evacuate Kherson, simply because I think they have come to the end of their intended territorial annexation of Ukraine - for now. But I do think that NATO troops will have to occupy Kherson as some sort of internationalised or free city in order that the current conflict be brought to an end. And that will present huge challenges. Kherson reminds me in many ways of another city I helped bring peace to in northern Bosnia since years ago: it has the same chaotic, arbitrary, lawless quality to it, and at some point it will all have to be reconstructed under international stewardship while the Russians sullenly silence their guns on just the other side of the river. Of that I am sure.
All I can say is that this process of internationalising Kherson needs to take place as soon as possible, because while I hugely admire the handful of international volunteers living in Kherson amidst totally dire conditions of habitation, trying to clean up after each explosion, the task they have on their hands is entirely beyond human comprehension and it cannot be undertaken just by a small group of enthusiasts. Instead it needs massive teams of builders, reconstruction experts, people who can rearrange the city’s dilapidated infrastructure. Everything in Kherson needs rebuilding, from the electricity grid to the roads to the public buses to the taxi companies to the bus station to the railway station to the shops to the restaurants and bars: literally everything needs to be started again, and the remaining handful of historical buildings need thoroughgoing renovation by international experts.
Likewise the waterfront, once beautiful and picturesque and now a collection of ramshackle blown-out war-damaged buildings with a handful of crazed and intense occupants remaining living in intolerable conditions needs to be started again. Kherson needs to be made beautiful once more. Once the air raid sirens, air defences, Krasnopol artillery systems and all the rest of this ridiculous stuff has gone, the city centre needs to be reconstructed as a historical cultural and architectural gem, as it once was, a wondrous riverside city and port with a convenient international airport that can attract the world once more to the pleasures of southern Ukraine and the region’s charming, smiling and fun-loving people. The people of south Ukraine are subtly different from those elsewhere, historically more of a mix of Ukrainian and Russian cultures than in the west of the country, for example, and these things ought not to be lost.
As I arrived, being driven at high speed down the brand new highway from Kherson to Mykolaïv with the thuds and booms still pounding in the background, my driver smiled to me, asked me whether I liked Pink Floyd, and we laughed, agreeing that war is a crazy thing. Then he drove me to the wrong hotel. Then he drove me to the second wrong hotel. I just smiled and so did he. I checked into the second wrong hotel. It seemed fine to me. And now, after all this excitement, I’m wondering what to do with the rest of the day. I know! I’ll go and find that bar that serves German beer. After I’ve had a wander around Mykolaïv’s glorious cathedral. Today is a day I have something to be grateful to God for: I’m still alive.