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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #386



I was woken up at the grizzly hour of 4.30 this morning, by an inchoate explosion outside. As I’d gone to bed last night the air raid sirens were wailing and a shell probably hit somewhere within a few kilometres which is what disturbed us all from our slumber. Walking round this curious accommodation, a sort of hostel dug into the basement of an old residential block of apartments in Kramatorsk, is always rather eery. Apart from the occasional soldiers we’re the only guests, and the corridors are empty like a haunted house. Old furniture from the 1970’s indicates that quite a wealthy family once lived here; my room has a decrepit and ancient running machine in it and a gigantic old-fashioned jacuzzi now worn out with the plumbing all over the place like a bundle of spaghetti, no water in it and the taps adrift. Once I am sure you were meant to relax here with a local girl of your choice in this luxury suite with the lumpy double bed; now piles of exhausted furniture lie everywhere and there is a disturbing sense of absolute silence.


Nevertheless the ladies who work here are helpful enough. They have Chess and dominoes sets, in case you want them; an old juke box in the corner, that I have not dared touch; and a reasonable kitchen although we were asked to buy our own coffee because theirs had gone stale. That in itself suggests that this venue is not often frequented in downtown Kramatorsk, as does the age of some of the food that menacingly presents itself in the fridge. However the only regular hotel in the city seems not to be taking guests anymore, so this is now the sole reasonable accommodation option in Kramatorsk. Indeed most of the hotels seem to have stopped operating in the region. There is one in Druzhkivka and one in Sloviansk, that has become a home away from home of a kind for the International Legion, but all the other resorts, once fancy places where people would hold weddings or romantic weekend getaways, have been boarded up or closed in the absence of customers or the horrors of this horrendous war.


The ladies last night cooked us large plates of pelmeni, Ukrainian dumplings stuffed with minced meat, served with sour cream and they brought us some cans of alcoholic beer, bootleg black market stuff in free Donetsk Oblast which is supposed to be dry, although it’s easy enough to know where to get alcohol in Kramatorsk if you ask nicely enough to a friendly face. The same is true with anything in Kramatorsk, from fur coats to the girls who wear them. So we had an extremely early dinner, served up to us at 5.30pm, before we drove out to the local hostelry which goes by the misleading name “The Pub”, because it doesn’t serve any alcohol whatsoever.


It’s an up-market place in an air raid shelter, with a long cavernous hall mostly full of soldiers and their girlfriends drinking tea and smoking shisha pipes of various varieties while making small talk between their duties at the front line. They have an extensive menu of decent food, but they must bring the bill by 8pm by law so it’s not a place to longer around late after dark. The de facto curfew in free Donetsk is 9pm, so you pay for your orange juice and shisha on the dot of 8pm and then hurry back home in your vehicle (you can’t walk, as the city is so spread out in a Soviet planning style) to be back indoors by 9pm. Last night “The Pub” was really very busy and it felt lively, a semblance of normality in an abnormal world, at least for a couple of hours from 6pm to 8pm. I smuggled in a small bottle of vodka to pour into my orange juice, a practice which seems to be tolerated and which is why they serve orange juice in pint glasses with straws at high prices: this sort of thing is expected, particularly of zany foreigners like me. On the front line of a war zone, there aren’t many rules that are respected and this one was going to get broken.


Notwithstanding it’s extraordinarily early closing hours, and the alluring “Lviv Dunkel” beer apparently on offer at the bar but that you cannot in fact buy during wartime conditions, the pub in Kramatorsk presented a warm and cosy feeling for a couple of hours in an environment of chaos, conflict, uncertainty and gloominess. A handful of reasonably smart cars were parked up outside. Some friends were gathering over the shisha pipes. A family was sitting together and trying to enjoy some normal time. Even in the middle of war, people try to snatch whatever moments of tranquility and normalcy they can from between the folds of the dangerous and the bizarre and it was nice to share in those things with the local people.


My friends and I drove back home at 9pm to enjoy a glass of sloe gin and some pistachio nuts smoothed into a hard milky paste from an Odessa patisserie, a local delicacy of the region. Our “hostel” remained dark and eery, just as it was when I woke up this morning. Doors are all closed, there is no-one to be seen, and a sense of depression lingers. The blackout curtains are kept drawn all day, and you could be forgiven for not knowing the distance between dark and light. Anything could be going on out there. In this war zone environment you retire early and you wake early, because there is nothing else to do; and you get used to waiting because there is no choice about that either. We have a busy day ahead, exploring front line communities to the south and southeast of Kramatorsk, and we are all up before daybreak, now eagerly awaiting our simple breakfasts. Tonight we will venture out for dinner, as we must leave Kramatorsk tomorrow, no doubt finding ourselves in another dark, empty restaurant with traipsing staff with the faces of ghouls peering out from the gloom. This is your social life on the front line; get used to it because the nearest live music is at least a thousand kilometres away.

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