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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #31

Today we provided humanitarian food aid to a site close to a library in the Mykolaïv urban area, in the southeastern part of the city. The southern and eastern districts were the victims of particularly heavy Russian aerial bombardment attacks during the 2022 battle of Mykolaïv, as the Russian Armed Forces intended to invade the city from the east and south from then occupied Kherson. The central library was hit by Russian missiles and its considerable academic collection, appropriate to a major university town, was substantially destroyed. Now southeastern Mykolaïv is generally peaceful but largely quiet and empty of people, and the significant building damage has not been repaired. The people who remain living there, mostly the elderly and women with children who were unable to flee the fighting, live difficult existences and are sorely in need of humanitarian aid. So the team of which I am part decided to spend the Saturday helping them.

We were hosted by one of the libraries in that part of town that had not been destroyed. It was a civilised, welcoming and hospital group of people that were extremely pleased to see us and went out of their way to make us feel welcome. We were honoured by their kind and generous treatment. Nevertheless the crowd of 2,000 people who were waiting for us were starving and desperate. There was an immediate question of crowd control, as aggressive, hungry people pushed and shoved to get to the front of the queue for the hot food we were providing for them. There were shouts and screams, and we feared violence. The Police presence was nugatory; we even called for military assistance and some eventually came. As is usual, we ended up calming the crowd down ourselves, assuring everyone who came that they would be fed if they formed an orderly queue and keeping to our promise. The taller members of the team had to stand amidst the crowd to preserve a sense of order. These sorts of experience are daily, even typical.

The sun was blazing and the line of people just kept growing. It was a long, gruelling day. Local volunteers pitched in with us; but there were several thousand hungry people to feed. We all became hot and frustrated, but we kept going and did our best to keep smiling. Although many a cursed word was exchanged, none of them were directed at us. We kept calm and we kept ploughing on amidst frankly difficult conditions.

There came a point at which the air raid sirens began to blare and the usual attack warnings we have been experiencing on a daily basis became too uncomfortable. Although we have a policy of always finishing the queue of people waiting, we realised that several people and their families had been going so hungry that they were queuing up multiple times, presumably to feed their families for several days. It is a devastating experience to acknowledge the poverty and malnutrition that engenders such desperation. Eventually we decided that we had to finish our operations for the day and move out. We were receiving warnings of aerial attacks in the Mykolaïv region and as an internationally recognisable aid convoy, we were sitting ducks. We turned off our cookers and we packed, cleaned and prepared for return to base.

And then we had a surprise. The director of the library, who had laid on entertainment for us while we undertook our tasks in the form of a group of Ukrainian folk singers, invited us into the library for a tour. And most sumptuous a tour it was. I personally was treated to a review of an extensive stamp collection from the Warsaw Pact countries, including some extraordinary and rare stamps from the German Democratic Republic (the Communist era East German Soviet puppet state). I was also shown historical stamps from Communist Cuba. The library had a selection of historical maps of the region through the centuries, revealing principalities, kingdoms and other territories long forgotten in the mists of time. The library had a wealth of historical books associated with Ukraine, including an original collection of the complete works of the Ukrainian political theorist Taras Shevchenko. In this obscure suburb of Mykolaïv, a wealth of historical and cultural works could be found.

The director of the library was proud of her collection and deeply grateful for the support and assistance that we were providing to her neighbourhood. She was kind enough to give us a short presentation in which she thanked us all for our efforts and she had even gone to the effort of preparing a series of certificates of appreciation naming each of us individually and thanking us for our efforts to protect Ukraine and her civilisation. I am rarely moved by my work - I consider the performance of my duties to be its own reward - but on this occasion I was. Notwithstanding the air raid sirens and the threat of bombardment, the staff of this superficially modest library were going out of their way to make us feel wanted and our work valuable. I felt privileged to be helping this community, and grateful for the efforts they had gone to, amidst the horrors of war, to express their appreciation for us.

We rolled back to base slowly, humbled by and reflective of the kindness and decency of the people we had met. These were not violent, aggressive people tormented by war or hatred of the Russian aggressors. They were educated, decent civilians committed to acting in a civil way irrespective of the daily nightmares they undergo and the care they feel bound to provide for their communities. I felt at home in a community of people who had no interest in war or violence. Their goals are to look after the impoverished people in their neighbourhood and to preserve their culture: so often an early victim of war.

Then, as we approached our base, we felt more of those ominous shadows hanging low overhead, and we heard a tremendous noise. I think the war in neighbouring Kherson is about to enter a wholly new phase, in which the Russian Armed Forces are about to be placed distinctly on the back foot.


Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.


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