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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #286

Oh no. I’m doing it all again. I’m sitting on another of these ghastly long-distance trains, this one from Mykolaïv to Lviv, and it’s a breezy 18 hours, all so that I can get back in time for the opera in Lviv. It turns out it’s exactly the same train as I came down from Lviv to Kherson on, and I have exactly the same “de luxe” berth and exactly the same train attendants who even managed a laugh and a smile at me as they said “oh, it’s you again”. But two of these gargantuan journeys in the course of just a few days is a bit too much, even if I’m travelling at the height of luxury. I am sharing my compartment with a young lady who seems tolerably impressed with the quality of the carriage and fingers nervously on her mobile telephone while I watch her actions out of the corner of my eye. I sense she doesn’t quite know why she’s going to Lviv; she seems all alone right now; she isn’t taking much luggage for a long journey; maybe she’s being sent away by her family to escape the carnage and violence in southern Ukraine, and while she has some money (or she wouldn’t be able to travel in de luxe class) she isn’t really sure of her fate. She is one of countless such individuals in a country at sea amidst the vicissitudes of war, people wandering around, not knowing what to do or how to react. It’s all commonplace for me, because I’ve seen it before; for them, it’s scary and new and frightening.

As we wait in Mykolaïv’s monolithic and ugly railway station, some old blokes are doing some duff old job purporting to fix some doors with the beating of loud hammers. It’s all disconcerting and annoying and not what any of us want with our minds fixed upon our thoughts. Then while waiting for the Kherson-Lviv express to shuffle into the carriage like a shambles (see the video at the end of this diary entry), an air raid siren started wailing; soldiers started shouting; people huddled like frozen puppies on the icy platform glanced at each other; nobody really knew what to do. Only I did: in these circumstances, you do nothing, unless and until someone puts a gun in your face. That’s the way it works in war and I’ve taken countless of these long-distance behemoths of trains by now and so I know how it all works but for this lady sitting opposite me and for all the other nervous civilians wondering what happens next in their lives, it’s just uncertainty, terror, isolation and anxiety.

I’ve been taking advice on how to raise money for the Ukraine Development Trust, Everyone seems to agree that the website is full of fascinating information, but the message I seem to be receiving - at least this is how I interpret it - is that it’s too complicated; it has too much information. People need simple direct messages in order to donate: videos and photos of appreciative beneficiaries of aid, smiling soldiers and babies, that sort of thing. Maybe that’s right; I just don’t know. For me it all seems terribly false: because war isn’t all smiles and happiness - it’s exactly the opposite, and the money you spend and the people you help: it’s all indirect and invisible and hard to specify or identify unless you bend the truth. It’s obvious, surely, that hundreds of photos and descriptions of people preparing food is worthwhile because food is something that keeps people alive. What do donors want to see: someone having food put into their mouths and saying thank you? Maybe that is what donors want but this sort of stage-managed choreography itself is very time consuming in terms of resources and it means you spend all your money arranging publicity stunts and less money actually helping people.

The figures are easy. I work in a kitchen that keeps tens of thousands of people a month alive; and we have electricity bills in the region of a few thousand Euros a month and not a lot else. I’m not sure how to turn that into a video or podcast narrative of smiling happy people eating meals, because that isn’t really what it’s about. Maybe I’m too gloomy and determined to do the marketing side of things and I need to outsource that to someone else. I can organise things and I can give vision; but I don’t much smile when what I’m trying to do is save lives and I’m not much good at fabricating false figures out of thin air. So while I understand the logic of the advice I’ve been given, I really think I need to outsource this kind of thing to others.

I’m feeling frankly gloomy and depressed on this long train ride back and unlike the journey down south to Kherson, that flew by, I have a sense that this journey will become a terrible chore. My new compartment companion speaks English it turns out and we exchanged a few pleasantries but neither of us really want to chat. We’re absorbed in our own thoughts and I am thinking how to keep as many people alive as possible until NATO eventually comes to save the day. “It’s all about building up trust”. Well, I’ve seen a lot of untrustworthy people raise money and throw it around or just keep it for themselves, saying they’re trying to do something for Ukraine. My colleagues and I are actually trying to do something for Ukraine and we’ve set up the right sort of structures to achieve that. We’re churned out masses of materials for people who want to help Ukraine and I am pretty pleased with myself that I have become an expert in wartime Ukraine in just a few months. Therefore I know that amongst all the glitzy adverts and goofy websites, who is really spending money wisely in a way that is saving lives and I know who isn’t: who is doing preposterous things like importing food into a country with massive agricultural surpluses and in which culinary delights are even available in downtown Kherson. There’s no need to waste money in such ways and that is the expertise I’ve learned and I suppose I’m appealing to people’s trust on the basis that I’ve tramped up and down this massive country, from the safe end to the sharp end, for several months now and therefore I know what I’m doing more than a lot of the people who say they’re doing good for Ukraine.

This is simple straightforward work without melodrama: spending limited funds to save lives for an indefinite period of time until the war ends and while we know what the trigger event for the end of the war will be we cannot with any confidence say when that will take place. There must be a place for someone with my acquired knowledge within this system of donations, but I fear that people are just tired of donating to Ukraine and no level of glitz or glam is going to wake them up and open their minds to the idea that they need to pay more.

I’m going to go back to the idea of approaching larger donors who have a longer-term geopolitical perspective of why this work is so important, and why it is essential to save lives in Kuwait and not just let people die arbitrarily. I’m better at reasoning with articulate people than I am appealing to raw emotions of sympathy and common humanity, although I feel those values are tremendously important. It’s my job to approach the world’s top philanthropists and talk them into it; and I should assign to others the task of approaching the more general population to appeal to their sympathies. It is so decided.


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