Fragments from a War Diary, Part #34
It was a baking hot Sunday today when we set up shop in the shadow of Mykolaïv airport to deliver food to over 1,000 hungry, impoverished people. Unlike yesterday’s aggressive crowd, these people were calm and patient and I had the opportunity to study a number of the people in the line with care. Mykolaïv’s airport was the scene of a ferocious battle in 2022 as Russian paratroopers tried to seize the airfield to launch an aerial assault upon Mykolaïv. The airport was mostly destroyed, but the Ukrainian Armed Forces kept hold on the airport and thereby resisted a Russian occupation of Mykolaïv with all the consequences that might have entailed. The surrounding area was the scene of street battles and a substantial quantity of war damage was incurred in the suburb’s residential buildings. Many people fled at the time but since then a number have returned. We were regaled with stories of the battle of Mykolaïv and the struggle for control of the airport that took place last year. Nevertheless it was obvious that the people of this suburb were enormously poor and the symptoms of malnourishment were omnipresent.
Mykolaïv once had one of the largest airports in the Soviet Union when the Russian-speaking city of Nikolaev was the capital of the Soviet Union’s shipbuilding industry. As that industry subsided after the end of the Cold War, the airport fell into disuse but near-daily flights remained between Nikolaev and Moscow until 2013 when it became apparent that relations between Russia and Ukraine were deteriorating and that some sort of annexation by Moscow of Ukrainian territory seemed likely. The Maidan Revolution began in February 2014 and Crimea, not far from Nikolaev, was indeed annexed. Somewhat presciently, the flights between Nikolaev and Moscow stopped shortly before then. It is important to to recall that although the events of the Maidan Revolution, in which Kyiv’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich was overthrown before the end of his due term, were a surprise to many in the West, amongst those in the know they were widely predicted. The Maidan Revolution was long in the planning, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin found Mr Yanukovich sufficiently personally distasteful not to do anything to support him or prevent the revolution from taking place. Mr Yanukovich disappeared to live in the Russian city of Rostov, and nobody has been entirely sure what happened to him since.
Now the area around the airport sees very little going on. The airport has not been repaired. An ageing Soviet-era passenger jet is parked near the runway. A couple of ancient bi-planes, apparently made of balsa wood, are parked near what might once have passed for a General Aviation terminal. A former Pepsi Cola factory in the vicinity is shuttered but intact. That factory probably once employed many of the people in the surrounding suburb, but now they are poor, hungry and in need and that is why we went to support them.
For a Sunday, it was a long day: close to six hours in the soaring temperatures and under the sun, cooking, serving, unpacking, packing, cleaning and driving: the usual rituals when delivering humanitarian aid, all executed calmly by the highly professional members of my team. Nevertheless we have a series of teething troubles. Our vehicles have a number of faults, which is common for any vehicles driving in war zones. We are in fear that one or more of them might break down or not start. A “technical” man has joined our team for two weeks, being an expert in renovation of vehicles in inhospitable conditions. I met him only briefly but he seems competent and just what is needed. He will take the vehicles to a local garage tomorrow and discuss with such mechanics as he may be able to find what repairs are necessary. Therefore tomorrow will be a quiet day, and apart from some duties cleaning the vehicles and reloading our mobile freezer unit with fresh food, the entire team has a day off. I will give myself a self-guided tour of the city, reminiscing about old haunts and the handful of genuinely interesting tourist attractions Mykolaïv has to offer - if they are open. I may just be content with an extended stroll down the calm and peaceful Yuzhny Bug river, where Nikolaev’s vibrant shipyards once stood.
My hotel has filled up with people in military uniform. The military presence in Mykolaïv seems to be increasing. I have no idea why. The local market was bustling from 8 O’Clock this morning, even on a Sunday. The streets are busy with some activities, although this tends to tail off by mid-afternoon. In war zones, everything tends to happen in the mornings. You rarely meet for dinner later than about 6.30pm, having showered and relaxed in whatever way works well for you after the pressures of the day in feeding over 1,000 hungry people. The relentless daily routine is exhausting, but you have more time to yourself each day if, as today, the site you are servicing does not involve too long a drive down dusty, bumpy roads or negotiation of occasionally complicated military checkpoints. Also the calm of Sunday was disrupted only once today by an air raid siren, so we should always be grateful for small mercies.
I do not know what we are doing after tomorrow. One of the costs of living and working in a hot war zone is that it is very difficult to plan substantially in advance. Will we be staying in Mykolaïv Oblast? We might be; but it is hard to ascertain for how long this might be appropriate given the needs of the local population. Daily travel to Kherson seems contra-indicated for now; the situation there is increasingly “loud”, as the local people like to say: there are endless explosions, shelling and other aerial assaults. Downtown Kherson now requires a flak jacket and helmet, so the war there is undoubtedly fairly hot. I am not sure that all of my fellow team members have quite the stomach for repeat visits to Kherson amidst the raining of the shells.
I have some personal affairs to attend to in Kyiv, and if we are uncertain as to our next destination then I might head up to the nation’s capital for a few days. Or if the team needs me in situ then I will likely stay. We are losing a number of valued team members over the next few days; the turnover of people working in frontline locations is always an issue that requires constant management. Some people are prepared to occupy front line roles only for periods of say two to three weeks at a time without a significant break, and I can understand why. I think my tolerance is somewhat higher than that, but the key to staying sane and safe working on the front line of a war zone is to take each day as it comes. You know when you need a break, and when you realise you need one then you take one and to hell with everyone else. You are no use to anyone if you are burnt out.
I went to a small chapel near Mykolaïv airport this morning, that was attended by a handful of elderly ladies who welcomed me with open arms. I went for a brief pause, to pay my respects, and to rest in contemplation. Seeing all this death and destruction around me, I do not know right now whether I believe or not. But one thing I did learn from study of the Rule of Benedict is that doubt is permissible; as long as you focus upon your duty. It is our duty to help the benighted people of Ukraine, and that is what I will continue to focus upon for as long as I am here.
The chapel was quiet, without a sound. There was no noise outside. The airport is absolutely silent. There are no planes, no roars of engines, and no sounds whistling through the air.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.