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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #39

War is full of trivial but unusual details, as the banal and mundane clash with the eccentric and unusual. Yesterday we delivered aid to a site with a depleted set of vehicles. There was overwhelming demand and a full team of people were on our feet, even with the assistance of local volunteers from the village, all day in the blazing sun. The environment was safe but the people were obviously very hungry. They waited patiently in line for hours under the blazing sun, unusually hot for this time of year. They were visibly moved by our presence, and they appreciated the help we were bringing to their community just a few kilometres outside Mykolaïv. Nevertheless we were all exhausted working in such conditions. The sweat ran down our faces and we finished the day with pounding headaches.

Down the road, the situation in Kherson seems to be getting worse. It is now difficult to travel to Kherson, as road and rail links with Mykolaïv appear to have been cut although as always in a war zone it is hard to establish exactly what is going on. A safe house is being established for international workers who are stranded there overnight, which is a welcome respite although of course its location is a closely guarded secret. Kherson city is being shelled daily and there are reports of laser-guided bombs striking the centre. The entire front line appears to be heating up. There are reports of Iranian-made Shaheed drones threatening Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro, the main eastern city serving as a garrison to supply and support the front line offensive in free Donetsk Oblast. Russian long-distance Mig-31 fighters are reported to be airborne, possibly carrying hypersonic missiles with (accurate) inertial guidance mechanisms although it had been thought that the Russian Armed Forces are running low on such missiles.

As always, nobody really knows exactly what the true position is. Although at times the quantity of military intelligence that comes your way while you are operating in military theatre is colossal. Some of it may be accurate; some of it may be faulty. Some of it may be as trivial as speculation based upon what one person heard or saw by way of a flash of explosion. They may be mistaken. Even a seasoned expert in contemporary Russian ballistic missile technology (and I make no claims to be any more than an amateur) may have trouble distinguishing drones, subsonic cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs and certain sorts of air defence.

It is often hard to establish which side is actually doing the firing. This is a low intensity war in the sense that there is no use of traditional bombers undertaking conventional carpet bombing. Each airborne munition will destroy one building maximum and often, with an industrial facility, less than one building. Several strikes may be necessary to destroy a solidly constructed building, and for now shelling, even across the Dnieper River in the Kherson region, appears to be relatively constrained. There are daily shelling incidents but the shelling does not currently appear to be indiscriminate.

Nonetheless, Kherson - probably the region of Ukraine most in need of humanitarian assistance - appears off-limits for the next period as the fighting there intensifies no doubt in anticipation of the forthcoming end of the fighting season. Although the 2023 summer has lasted longer than expected and southern Ukraine remains t-shirt weather 24 hours a day well into late September, Ukrainian weather can change quickly and at some point soon fighting will become all the less agreeable. The sides therefore seem determined to trade their final blows while they still can and at this point the aid workers community must remain particularly cautious.

I have been called away from my team for a few days. It seemed an appropriate time, and I anticipate returning in about a week although in the chaos of war anything is possible. I think I know what my ultimate destination is but at the time of writing I am languishing away the small hours waIting for a train to Kyiv. Exceptionally, I was able to find a first class ticket which is a (comparative) luxury on Ukrainian Railways. Few trains have first class carriages and those that do may only have one and the seats are often taken up quickly. The price is about double but remains extremely affordable by western standards. In Kyiv I am staying in a pleasant hotel for a couple of nights, as an antidote to relentless flophouses. Again the price is very reasonable so I should take advantage of reliable internet access, hot water and maybe even a hotel bar and restaurant to exchange contacts and ideas with other foreign travellers and to relax.

I am not sleeping well, which is a typical experience for everyone in war zones whether they be civilians, soldiers or international workers. The environment is stressful and there is always the question of what on earth to do in the evenings when you are living in a city with a curfew. The idea of going out to be sociable seems superficially attractive but after the end of the working day I am typically so physically exhausted that I can barely quaff back a beer, having something to eat and then crawl into bed. I then find myself going to sleep early and then waking up in the middle of the night, either writing in the calm of the quiet (when the air raid sirens are not wailing) or reading the latest intelligence briefings that relentlessly pop up on my phone.

Modern war is fought in public. Whereas in some earlier wars governments would suppress information about what is going on, and attempt to censor the media, in modern war the existence of social media renders this almost impossible. Virtually every incident, no matter how mundane, that takes place along the front line tends to be reported: firstly in social media networks, then on specialist news websites, and then ultimately a lot of it makes its way into London’s The Independent newspaper which has reinvigorated itself as possibly having the best Ukrainian war commentary of any international periodical. This seems ironic given that it is owned by a Russian; he may well not be welcome back in his home country any time soon. We always do well to remember that there are plenty of educated, civilised Russians who are absolutely opposed to this war. This is Vladimir Putin’s personal war, and doctrines of collective Russian responsibility are not appropriate in my opinion.

I will miss the fine members of my team, but I know that I am going somewhere interesting and I will be doing something challenging and satisfying, I am quite excited about the short break, although I will miss my team members and I know they will survive without me while they repair their vehicles and decide upon their next destination. I hope to return to Kherson shortly, once the security situation there has improved and transportation links have returned to normal. There are other ways of approaching Kherson other than Mykolaïv, if the transport arteries between those two cities remain closed. Ultimately I will just have to play it by ear, checking and cross-checking with my network of countrywide contacts as to the latest information I have, and then I will decide. There are no certainties in the daily existence of war. Everyone just takes the events of the day as they come, and is pleased to reach their beds at night even if they cannot always sleep undisturbed.


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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