Fragments from a War Diary, Part #38
Nobody seriously contests that living through an extended war can drive you mad, as the 1978 world-famous film The Deer Hunter, starring Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken amongst others, explored so vividly. In my daily encounters with the huge numbers of people I meet here in Ukrainian military theatre, I see this on a daily basis. Even the most casual encounters can reveal the vivid psychological scars of war. It may be an incident as trivial as having to navigate out of the way of an unstable drunk stumbling down the pavement and trying to engage randomly with people even though they share no language in common with him. In many cases it may be the consequences of loneliness.
War has a habit of ripping families and friends apart, as some people flee the fighting or conscription, while others do not. Some people see their friends die on the front line or elsewhere, or they become injured or disfigured. Women are left alone with children was men of fighting age go to the front. Sometimes friends or members of the same family support different sides. All regular social relationships are dislocated, and people feel isolated and alone. They resort to alcoholism, or worse, to manage their suffering. They imagine they have inner reserves of strength to survive. But they do not. None of us do.
Daily encounters with extreme and unusual events are something that a select few of us, but not all of us, can process psychologically over an extended period of time. Extended periods of solitude cause us to reach out to anyone for human interaction. Depending upon how introverted or extroverted each of us may be, we may find periods of solitude and absence from our families and loved ones more or less debilitating. When you feel the human soul cry out for human contact, it is very hard to turn your heart against them. I now have a series of virtual friends across Ukraine, from all walks of life, who contact me on a daily basis. I know that they are in many cases displaced and all of them have their own problems and challenges they need to face each day. I am very reluctant ever to decline contact with people when it is sought, because I know how this feels.
I think that one of the valuable roles I can undertake in war-torn Ukraine, as a foreigner with a relatively sunny life outside this living hell and with future prospects that will take me I know not where, is a sense of compassion and normality in interacting and relating with Ukrainians who have no easy route out of the daily grind of living through war. I am a free person. I have signed no contracts of conscription or commitment to wartime duties. If the daily pressures of living through a war zone become too much for me, I can leave at any time, either for a temporary respite or to exit the country, never to return. That is my fortune and my privilege, and it keeps me going through my own darker moments. Therefore I want to help all the Ukrainians I can in maintaining daily normality, pleasure and fun in their interactions with others. I try to be an opportunity for them to remember what normal life and daily human relationships are like.
It is not just a matter of financial generosity - although all foreigners present in wartime Ukraine show plenty of that. Nor is it just a matter of my daily duties as a humanitarian aid worker. I execute those duties somewhat robotically, without thinking, as the delivery of aid requires efficiency over the the performance of complex, intricate tasks. Because I can undertake my daily manual labour on auto-pilot, for much of the time, I have extended periods during which I can think. And those thoughts are fed into this selection of essays that I have decided to describe as my diaries although reflections might be a better word.
Like the animals, humans’ first imperatives are to survive. But once they have undertaken the daily rigours to keep themselves alive, humans have so much more. They may want to be artistic, creative, scientific, sociable, studious, or self-improving. They may wish to develop families and networks of friends. So many of these opportunities, available to people in the normal course of their existences, are cut off when you are living through the middle of a war with no foreseeable ending. I know that I am unlikely to stay in Ukraine for more than 90 days, because to do so in theory involves substantial paperwork I may not have the time or inclination for. However the people of Ukraine have no idea when this hell will stop or when they will be able to leave Ukraine or (if they have become refugees) to return. Those who have skipped Ukraine to avoid military service (typically the wealthier classes) do not know whether they will ever be able to return. Now the government in Kyiv is discussing enacting legislation preventing Ukrainians from leaving Ukraine even after the end of the war, in particular Ukrainian males, in order to prevent depopulation.
Ukraine has lost so many people to foreign lands or in the trenches during this war that the country is wantonly short of citizens. This is not the first time in recent history that the population of Ukraine has been decimated. After prior catastrophes, the country was often repopulated by Russians. That seems highly unlikely in the aftermath of this war, both because the Ukrainians do not want them and the Russians will not want to come. Ukraine is an impoverished country and its cities and smaller communities feel empty. It will be exceptionally hard to get the country back on its feet if it has no population. Ukraine may well ultimately substantially prevail in this war, because it is so strategically important for the West to demonstrate solid resistance to Russian aggression. But the country itself is under existential threat.
The daily toll upon the mind of not knowing when the war will end, and having had all one’s daily relationships lacerated, continues to affect virtually all the Ukrainians I interact with. During my time here, I intend to travel across the country and meet each and every one of the people I have engaged with, if I have not already done so. I am not quite sure how I will find the time to do this, given all my work commitments, but it is an important part of what I feel I can do for Ukraine: to persuade her people, in my own small ways, that this is a country with a future and that they, as individuals and as a society, have a future too. This way, none of us, I hope, need go too mad. Or at least we can all do it together.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.