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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #285

At the time of writing I am sitting in a waiting room turned into an ad hoc reception centre for internally displaced persons from Kherson, most of whom are elderly ladies. The shelling and fighting in Kherson has apparently driven a small but significant number of people away from the city, that may well be part of the Russian battle strategy for Kherson: each attack drives a few more people away and instils a general sense of terror amongst its population and a few more leave each time. There is a friendly volunteer in this cavernous Stalinist modernist waiting room in the railway station, handing out free tea with sugar to the people who have gathered here, uncertain of their future fates. She likewise gives me free tea, seeing I am a volunteer from my colour patchwork collection of flag patches that adorn my jacket and my giant camouflage-coloured military rucksack adorned with a Union Jack. There is even a table with some electricity sockets on this table, and some exhausted old chairs of a kind, so I can kind of pretend that I’m sitting in the office although it’s not really like that.

One of the more unusual features of this arrangement is that there are two large military police officers with flak jackets, AK-47 assault rifles and magazine clips standing around just outside the door of the waiting room. The shops have all closed in the station, so there are no provisions to buy for the 18-hour train ride (the only train apparently leaving Mykolaïv railway station today) and you can’t even get a cup of coffee. Thankfully I had the foresight to buy some provisions for the train ride before I arrived at the railway station which is a vast Soviet monolith of a building in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately it seems that I have picked up a waterborne bug while in Kherson (this seems very common due to the degradation of the city’s infrastructure in consequence of the ongoing artillery damage) and I have just accidentally defecated in my underpants. This generates a feeling of extreme discomfort and displeasure as I am sitting on this wooden bench, I can’t for the life of me see a lavatory anywhere in order to correct the situation. I’m sorry to tell you that this sort of thing is just the sort of unpleasantness you have to get use to when travelling through in a war zone. It isn’t going to kill me; it’s just extremely unpleasant. We have to press on.

The huge cavernous hotel in the centre of Mykolaïv I’d been staying in last night has long Soviet-style corridors and all the furniture looks like it’s brand new and ready to fall apart in that IKEA kind of a way. It was a long walk up the steps with my heavy military rucksack full of all this body armour and as is typical there was no elevator but I have stayed in this hotel years ago, before the war, and it’s a great improvement on what it was like then. The only strange feature of it was that I was the only guest. This rendered it all the more perplexing when on the dot of Midday the aggressive receptionist came up to my room and hammered on the door demandingly, insisting that I vacate. Can I stay another hour or two?, I requested. From the look on her face I knew that this was not possible.  I muttered something ridiculous like “for God’s sake, this is like staying in a hotel in Russia” and then I packed my bags and tramped down the corridor with my rucksack and out onto the street.

I wondered what to do with myself; the train to Lviv arrives from - you’ve guessed it - Kherson at 3.10pm and I had a few hours to burn. My two favourite bars in Mykolaïv have both been boarded up and so in fact has most of the centre of the town as far as I can tell. I tried to go to the Cathedral yesterday and I was there in the pitch black as they weren’t turning on the lights. There’s a depressing and grim quality to Mykolaïv at the moment, as though nobody really cares about it anymore. I was here before recently, in September 2023, as the regular reader of my diaries will be aware; then the city was awash with more fun-loving people and it had an air of relaxation to it notwithstanding the terrible damage the city had incurred during the Battle of Mykolaïv in the early days and weeks of the Russian invasion in 2022. Now, and perhaps it’s just the weather but I think it’s a bit more, the city feels dreadfully depressed, almost ominous, as though there might be some new invasion and there are a lot of air raid sirens and there are new waves of people fleeing Kherson every day and that must take its toll on morale. Mykolaïv, the city of shipbuilding and of brides, has a great deal to offer and it is relatively safe so it might make for a centre for the international community to reconstruct Ukraine once NATO troops enter theatre as they inevitably must before this war can come to a conclusion. It’s full of hotels and the once plentiful restaurants and bars can reopen. The centre is charming even if the suburbs and the railway station in particular are less so.

A haggard, tired old man sits next to me, reeking of liquor. Two elderly ladies, one in a fur coat, both with pompous woolly hats (although it’s not that cold), sit opposite, blankly staring into their mobile phones. A soldier with the same gigantic rucksack as I have walks past in his boots, exhausted and determined, pleased I assume to be heading west and away from the front. An aggressive railway official whips away my tea and water given to me by the volunteer, remonstrating with me that I am not allowed to put liquids on the waiting room table for some incomprehensible reason. He pulls the tea bag out of the paper cup, splatting it on the table. I can feel the diarrhoea running down my trousers. It’s a long wait from now for the train back to frozen Saigon.


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