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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #332

It’s a little dreary, or at least eccentric, going for a tourist excursion around central wartime Kyiv on a spare afternoon off in freezing February. I stepped off the train to observe that the giant factory complex just opposite my hotel in Kyiv has had half its windows blown out by a recent Russian fragmentation warhead strike of some kind; that didn’t used to be there. Then I checked into my hotel and, perhaps because I was wearing a warm jacket in the colour of combat fatigues, a deranged man purporting to be a journalist approached me and slurred some words at me which immediately suggested to me that he was suffering from concussion. He was a journalist working with a well-known mercenary company, so he averred; and he proceeded to tell me that he had been struck by glancing shell pieces while covering a story somewhere near Bakhmut. This all sounded perfectly plausible to me; he showed me a giant gash in his shaven head, he was sporting a heavily bruised black left eye, and he was visibly in pain along his right ribs. He suggested that tomorrow he would be travelling to Poltava to meet this mercenary outfit, and then they would be proceeding straight onto Kherson. I asked him whether he had any body armour; he obviously didn’t or at least he wasn’t wearing it, or he wouldn’t have suffered quite these injuries. His shaking, stammering, stalling voice suggested to me that he was in shock and deeply unwell.

I told him I had been trained as a paramedic and that I thought he was showing the signs of acute anxiety and should rest for a day or two. He then revealed he was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder after having taken three rounds while covering Afghanistan as a journalist, and he’d never really recovered from that. I was thinking to myself that this man ought not to be in a war zone at all; he will be placing his own life and that of others at risk, as well as doing huge further damage to his mental health, if he carries on like this. And this was all before I had even reached the check-in desk. We agreed to meet in a few minutes after I’d checked in, to talk things over, and he took my business card; but I never heard from him so I assume he went off to Poltava. What a mess.

I ate in the restaurant - this hotel has a really good, normal, western-style restaurant that makes you almost imagine you’re at home and it is my little luxury to stay here when in Kyiv. I then rather tiredly strolled towards the metro station to get into the city centre, finally working out that you can buy a trivially cheap metro ticket just by brandishing your credit card at a plaque on the gate. In the interim a troupe of heavily armed police officers in flak jackets, ammunition belts and the ubiquitous knackered old AK-47 assault rifles were marching through the passages under the railway station, accosting some drunk who couldn’t keep his trousers held up - a problem indeed in these sub-zero temperatures. I took the rambling scruffy old metro to Maidan Square, the original of the 2014 revolution that was the beginning of all these Russian special military operations to undermine the increasingly western-leaning central government in Kyiv. I surveyed a field of small flags commemorating the fallen both in the Maidan Revolution and soldiers resisting the Russian occupation since, some of them British, some of them American, and I was reminded that this war has been going on for a decade already; it’s just that for the first eight years everyone pretended that it wasn’t happening and the Russians used that for their advantage. I avoided the Museum of Jellyfish next door to Maidan Square although I’m sure it’s very interesting.

I walked around a bit, I thought about heading into a faceless department store to see all the brands hanging that I can get back home, and then I thought better of it and wondered into an up-market souvenir shop where I bought an overpriced but excellently illustrated glossy guide to the Chernobyl disaster and the adjacent evacuated town of Pripyat which is often now forgotten about. Dozens of men died sealing the reactor core at Chernobyl to mitigate the effects of the world’s worst manmade disaster, and I was reminded that Ukraine always seems to have been the origin of some horror or other, generally at the hands of the Soviets or the Russians.

It’s all rather bleak and the city has taken a terrible hammering recently from the missiles and the drones, although the remaining residents try to go about their business in their own simple ways. It’s Valentine’s Day, and I saw a handful of couples having bought presents for one another. As for the rest, I saw many blank faces peer out from beneath their fur-trimmed coats, thoughts of conflict, loved ones, lost futures and uncertainty writ large on their faces. People go about their daily business, but very few have the luxury of a normal daily routine of the kind we take for granted in the West. The men are mostly employed in paramilitary organisations from the Army to the National Guard to the Military Police; their lives are disrupted through deployment to unusual corners of the country; the remainder, and the women, don’t have jobs; families are split up; people are riven with anxiety and distress. War ripples like waves of relentless misery through the fabric of society, leaving virtually nobody untouched. Amidst the merciless horrors of war, we must all find time for one another; we must find time to be kind. We must focus on the right thing, not just on what’s best for us; we must be decent and humane and show the best ourselves. It is imperative upon us all. Without these qualities, we cannot achieve the much needed moral victory over our enemies. Happy Valentine’s Day, and my love to all.


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