I’m getting a bit sick of east Beirut. I went for a walk this morning up the high street - there’s really only one street in east Beirut - and again it’s tannoys warning me to take cover and of my imminent death, and air raid sirens blaring, and boom-boom-boom in the background, and as always absolutely nobody gives a damn. The temperature plunged dramatically overnight, so now we can call this the frozen Beirut as well. East Beirut has very little in the way of charm, except for a gigantic sprawling market full of things I don’t want to buy, like dirty vegetables straight from the fields that I have spent plenty of time washing with a hosepipe in my military kitchen in Lviv. Also the people here - predominantly soldiers and those selling things to them - are a little arrogant. There aren’t many normal people here if any. It’s just soldiers with a lot of money spending it on things they shouldn’t be, like the latest laptops or Segway motorised vehicles, or expensive Italian lingerie for their “girlfriends”; and a group of sullen locals who take their cash. Everyone drives round in these quasi-military pickup vehicles splattered with mud and with their licence plates hanging off. It’s a nightmare of a city to walk around, because it’s all on a hill and the distances between blocks are so long. Plus it’s full of mud and slush, so you get dirty tramping around it.
I’m waiting for my train out of here at 4pm, and to be honest I’ve had enough. I tried looking for some tourist sights but all I could find was a decrepit Soviet fighter jet from World War II in a dull square in the centre of the city. I’m waiting for a new colleague to meet, but I don’t know if or when she will show up or if she knows where this unusual address I’m staying even is. It’s basically buried between a bunch of Stalinist concrete apartment blocks amidst a series of piles of rubble, and half the windows are smashed out. But here’s the saddest part: this isn’t war damage. This is just how it looked like before the war, because nobody has done any renovation on any of the structures in this town since about the 1970’s. This is very common throughout Ukraine, particularly in the east and the south of the country: there simply was no exercise in infrastructure and construction renewal or renovation after the end of World War II. A building was erected, or a road was built, and that was it. Nobody ever looked at it or touched it again. The communists didn’t understand that all things decay in time, people and buildings included, and they need renovating. So everything just slowly and steadily drops to bits.
Kramatorsk is a sad and washed out city, but that’s nothing to do with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It’s because Donbas was historically a neglected corner of the Soviet Union, notwithstanding its mineral wealth and economic potential. And indeed most parts of the Soviet Union were neglected, because it was a neglectful, wasteful command economy system in which private consumer comforts and preferences were sacrificed in favour of a series of grandiose projects like the Kharkiv metro or Tverskaya ulitsa in Moscow. In the provinces, and in particular in Ukraine, the rural populations were moved to new cities like Kramatorsk and hastily erected apartment blocks were thrown up to accommodate them; then they were given anonymous jobs in anonymous factories building munitions or whatever military obsession was in vogue at the time in the Soviet Union’s relentless Cold War with the West (that we are now seeing replayed). And that was it. These cities did not develop or grow; they did not become distinctive or quirky; culture of a specific kind to the region was not allowed to flourish. All individualism, born of private preference, was squashed, and these cities rotted. Kramatorsk is an old fashioned rotting Soviet city, and it could be anywhere in the former Soviet Union.
In the summer of last year, a pizzeria known to be frequented by soldiers was hit with an Iskander cruise missile, a giant hypersonic missile that carries a massive warhead and many people died; still more were injured. The Russians said it was a legitimate military target because soldiers ate there; the Ukrainian side said it was obviously civilian premises. Just because soldiers may dine at a restaurant from time to time in the middle of a city does not make it a military target under the laws of war. Whatever the proper outcome of that juridical debate, a lot of people died and I went to pay silent homage to the victims of the attack. The structure has not been rebuilt, but another restaurant with the same name has been opened next door. It seems now that soldiers are more careful than they used to be in congregating all in single places. The place had acquired a reputation for raucous good fun, which is understandable; even (especially) amidst war people want to enjoy themselves from time to time. But it made the place an obvious target for a particularly unpleasant Russian hypersonic cruise missile, and the net result was deaths of soldiers and civilians alike.
I am no great fan of drawing moral distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, in any event. In the words of John Donne, every man’s death is a tragedy. It matters not whether you are wearing military uniform when you die; you are still someone’s son, wife, girlfriend or father. That applies even more so in a war premised upon conscription on both sides. This war, like all wars, is a moral tragedy, and although there are political rights and wrongs there are no moral absolutes. In war, there never are. It is just hell incarnate, all human misery ablaze for everyone to see.