It’s quarter to eleven at night in the middle of nowhere. The train jolted to a half at 10pm at some crummy station stop barely six hours into our 18-hour journey, and awoke me from my slumber. This train ride back to normality is turning out to be far less agreeable than the journey to Kherson, whereas I ought to be infused with a sense of relief that I am escaping danger. It isn’t like that though and I can’t explain why. I’m now wide awake and with nothing to do and no prospect of reliable internet connection so I don’t know when I’ll be able to post this and you’ll be able to read it.
The young lady sharing a compartment with me can’t sleep either. She tries to; but it is pretty hard to sleep on these moving hulks, even in de luxe class, unless (as I was on the way out to Kherson) you’re nursing a terrible hangover and therefore sleep is a compelling necessity. As it is now, I stare blankly out of the windows while this enormous half-mile train rips at full speed across the frozen empty Ukrainian tundra. These trains are really remarkably fast and the fact that it takes 19 hours to travel from Mykolaïv to Lviv on a very fast train emphasises just how far it is. It’s like travelling all the way across the rest of Europe on a single train: from Lisbon to Vilnius, for example.
My travelling companion is singularly un-talkative, and I can’t blame her. Her entire family - husband, brother and father - are serving in the military in Bakhmut. They’re placing themselves in danger of death or horrible mutilation every day and we in the West worry about the weather. They’re serving to defend Europe’s front line against naked aggression and we just don’t get it. So she can’t sleep but she won’t talk either, and we both just sit or lie here respectively in the silence in this squatting box of a compartment as the world whistles by outside.
I had one of those strange experiences this evening which caused me to have to mute my ‘phone to a certain correspondent. He has been in the International Legion for a substantial period and now he wants to sell some of his equipment. I asked him what he had to sell and how much he wanted for it. The reply I got was that I could make him an offer for it. He’s someone who doesn’t get it either. He imagines that selling trophies and trivia from Bakhmut is a seller’s market. I’m sad to tell him that it’s not. People don’t want a flag signed by this or that person in Bakhmut, because outside the very specific context of the military circles in which he has been spending time, nobody in the outside world is interested in these sorts of trophy. They’re not really collectors’ items; they’re just the sore incidences of war. After you’ve spent time on the front line, your mind has been psychologically re-wired to conceive that the only thing that matters is the experiences you’ve had at war. It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to him; but I don’t really want to be invited to bid on items that have no intrinsic value for me. He can tell me what the price is or I don’t want to talk to him.
There’s a whole period of readjustment that goes on when you leave operations in a a military theatre, particularly on the front line, and you re-integrate yourself into civilian lifer, and there is a huge whole in civilian and military support for people emerging from front line operations. They’ve started to find the daily routines, thrills, shocks and horrors of front line life inuring, and they can’t see that others can’t see what they’ve been through and the dramatic change within them that living in this way has caused. That’s why there are high rates of alcohol and drug use amongst ex-soldiers’ lives, often without sympathy or the availability of psychiatric recourse. When you’ve been sitting in the trenches for a few months, you think it’s perfectly normal to have a glass of beer at 8.30 in the morning. Because why not. It’s a war zone, and you might be dead in half an hour. Real life isn’t like that of course. It’s far more mundane.
That’s one reason why I think the Ukraine Development Trust, www.development-foundation.org, ought to have as one of its partner organisations an NGO that helps retiring veterans to fit back into civilian life, and to engage with any mental health problems they bring home with them. Life in wartime is both fun and stressful at the same time, and it re-wires your mind to think in a way that contemporary civilian life has no obvious use for.
In the meantime, the two laughing Ukrainian carriage attendants on the train have taken away my boots again (as happened once before) to be quarantined in a plastic bag because they are so exceptionally smelly. I think the problem lies in their wooly inners having become matted down with stinking sweat. The unwelcome prospect of washing them somehow once I’m back in Lviv detains my thoughts while we rattle along with my barely being able to keep hold of my laptop on this tiny table. But really what do I have to complain about. I’m alive, and I’m heading in the right direction: away from the front line. In war, you do get a fresh sense of perspective about what is important and what is not. I looked in my rucksack earlier this evening and I found a piece of fresh shell that might in a different world have ripped straight through my body. As it is, it just sits there as a cold piece of iron, useless flak, stuffed in my bag and ready for me to show off to the drunkards in Mano’s Bar.
I’m looking forward to seeing them all at the end of this ghastly train ride in which I am just locked into this hurtling compartment with my own private thoughts. I’m looking forward to the ballet, I’m looking forward to going into the military kitchen where I work, I’m looking forward to all these simple things and my brief visit to the front line has taught me to be humble. But I’m still mischievously planning a trip to Kramatorsk and Bakhmut whenever my mobile phone gets a bit of reception.