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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #391

The mercury’s rising in frozen Hanoi. Although Kharkiv seems like a dilapidated city on the borders of Russia with nothing much going on, it’s replete with surprising pleasures and infuriating frustrations alike, and within just a few hours of arriving again in this city I became both exhilarated and exasperated with the city. For me, Kharkiv represents everything that is both right and wrong with contemporary Ukraine, why people in Ukraine don’t understand one-another, live apart from each other while protesting national unity, they party while the bombs drop and the missiles strike and they drive everyone insane with their bad-tempered alcoholic diatribes and their old Soviet ways.

Within a few few minutes of arriving in Hanoi, we’d staggered across town past the blown out buildings, one of which is conveniently adjacent to my hotel - it’s taken a full missile strike with a high explosive warhead and there’s nothing left - to an Irish pub, which is located in the basement, where all wise establishments are located in central Kharkiv. I was rather alarmed that our hotel sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the rubble, waiting for the next Russian missile; but so be it, this is to be my home for the next couple of days. Some former members of the International Legion came to chat with me and my friend, saying they’d met us before. There’s a few of these characters in Kkarkiv. It’s a city foreigners come to in order to disappear, on the border with Russia and one of the most remote cities in Ukraine that retains a truly cosmopolitan character. So if you have a problem with the law in your home country, then join the International Legion and Ukraine, quit, and move to Kharkiv. Anyway I’m speculating but that’s what these guys looked like. Kharkiv is full of people playing the role of NGO operators but in fact they’re imposters with some some sort of unusual agenda. That’s not all of them - but it’s a good proportion of what’s going on here.

We didn’t linger, and we moved to another restaurant where there was some ghastly musician blaring out live music at top volume while we tried to eat admittedly delicious food in a conservative and formal environment. The customers at one large table had ordered a whole bottle of whisky and several bottles of wine, in a typically Russian style, and were dancing badly to the atrocious music while we tried to have a relaxing dinner. Then I jumped in a Bolt taxi to try to go to a karaoke bar that advertised itself as open but of course was boarded up. It was by this moment that I noticed just how bad Kharkiv is looking now: every second building has bomb damage and it has all the semblance of a city that suffered the Blitz in World War II. In the centre, you’re lucky if your building is standing and as I write these words I can hear bombs and explosions outside. Nevertheless I found one of these daytime nightclubs right opposite where my taxi dropped me (he didn’t of course bother to tell me that the place I had asked him to go was closed but just dropped me there anyway) and I found a nightclub there in which people were dancing their socks off while the bombs rain down. This thriving place was a mixture of people of every age group, from youngsters to old age pensioners, with a hip young thing beating out funky grooves until 10pm and the music booming from all the doors.

It is an extraordinary sight to see people of all ages dancing themselves to bits while the bombs drop outside with not a piece of care or abandon in the world. It is inspiring and reckless in equal turn, and the place was enormously fun. I danced my socks off and left buzzing and exhilarated. I am sure I will find myself there again tonight, as Kharkiv continues to rave during the middle of a blitz of Russian missiles and artillery because living here right now is really quite dangerous and it’s amazing really that anybody goes out at all but if they do then I want to be part of that groove and pulse.

Then I walked home and realised that in accordance with some old Soviet policy and probably to as an air raid prevention measure all the lights in the city had been turned off and I had no idea where I was going. I staggered and stumbled through a park in the main city centre and I think I just got to the right bridge over the river and past the principal cathedral in town. And then I reached the area where I knew my hotel to be and of course it had no proper sign, no staff and no signs of life. The evening entrance door to which the poor visitor is left to themselves to figure out must be out 60 years old and consists of some rusting iron buttons that have to be pressed simultaneously. And every building in the neighbourhood had one of these. They aren’t exactly secure, either; I booted a couple of them in, looking for my hotel. Then I was accosted by a drunk who wanted to help me get to my hotel, so he said, but really wanted to take me off to some unsolicited random drinking party. I was stuck out in the dark and alone in the streets with a bunch of drunks wondering around amidst the potholes and the bombed out buildings and I was wondering what to do. The only marking on the hotel was that it is green and of course in the dark. That doesn’t help much because it was so black I couldn’t see my hands in front of me and I was completely lost amidst a maze of rusty old doors. I was calling one of my friends who was still up when I found the right old door to boot in and I escaped the drunks and I finally let my self in. I crashed into bed, pleased to be getting home and away from all the chaos of the night.

Kharkiv is under siege. The Russians want to take it. The city still feels Soviet in many ways, but the people are defiant. They do not want the Russian aggressors taking away their city and their fun. For now they are content to live to the full amidst the ruins and the rain of bombs. Let Kharkiv rise again.


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