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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #396

The mercury’s soaring in frozen Hanoi. For the past couple of nights I have been bustled and hustled round from one bar and strange establishment to another in Kharkiv, in the hours after dark, and I am amazed by just how much nocturnal activity this city seems to keep tucked away notwithstanding its extraordinary conditions. I must emphasise that Kharkiv looks and feels worse and more dilapidated every time I come back here. More homes are destroyed, more municipal buildings are wrecked, there are more potholes in the streets and there is an ever-increasing sense of anarchy as the city is relentlessly pounded with aerial bombardments. Nevertheless the people just keep going, in their own crazy way, not seeming to give a damn and determined to dance like they’re at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Yesterday there were a series of drone strikes on Kharkiv, across the day apparently, dropping yet more high explosive warheads on the buildings and central Kharkiv looks like something out of the Blitz. Still a semblance of normal life goes on as people go shopping (Kharkiv has a giant shopping mall in its centre, untouched by the carnage affecting the older buildings all around) and it is awash with bars. On Saturday evening I was dancing deep grooves with younger looking beautiful things and there was a superb vibe as people supped on their favourite cocktails, milling around to a DJ and it felt like a corner of Ibiza. Everyone is addicted to these shisha pipes in Kharkiv that they smoke like chimneys at the same time as they knock back one beer after another. Then later on Saturday evening I went to meet a new group of friends and colleagues in an Irish pub (Kharkiv is packed with Irish pubs) and we danced away as we sang karaoke to dreary Ukrainian folk songs I’d never heard of before but it didn’t matter and I still got into the rhythm. There's a sexy, sultry, exciting air everywhere you go in Kharkiv night life, and it's very addictive.

My new colleagues are an eclectic and eccentric lot, doing deliveries of aid to deprived villages and war-torn regions as well as to the military and they drive round an odd collection of vehicles all run from a giant garage somewhere down a broken path fairly close to the city centre. They are all dressed as though straight from the front line, with military fatigues and combat clothing, and they seem to love thoroughly what they do. They too were drinking giant one-litre German-size glasses of beer (the ones with the giant handles) and yanking down the local grotty Cognac that tastes like drain cleaner. A bunch of misfits and maniacs perhaps, but they seem to love every minute of working here in Kharkiv amidst all the devastation and destruction. There is a sense of mindless chaos in living in Kharkiv right now, as the city comes under relentless attack and everyone just ignores it all and keeps on going.

The curfew is a problem, because officially it is at 11pm and all the traffic has dried up by 10pm. The city turns the lights off at 10pm and the town is plunged into darkness; the traffic dries up and you can’t see your own hands in front of your face. On Saturday evening I had no idea how to get home from this gargantuan Irish pub when they finally threw us out at about 10.20pm and I had to beg and plead with my new colleagues to find me a driver that could get me home and who actually knew the way. Thankfully they were most obliging and I stumbled back to my hotel by about 11pm, up the dark and damp staircase of this frankly unsatisfactory establishment which seems pretty oddly run: it’s not really a hotel at all, rather just a series of rooms in a large house with no signs or lights or anything else and it’s incredibly confusing to get around. That’s the sort of poor service standards you have to tolerate living in Kharkiv in the middle of a war zone. Maybe they’ll get there one day with customer service and all that kind of thing; in the meantime there are more pressing imperatives and those include the relentless rain of high explosive warheads. So I’m patient.

Last night was St Patrick’s Day so of course my friends and I went to … an Irish pub. Before that I was refused alcohol in a Georgian restaurant for wearing military fatigues which is an absurd and laxly enforced non-rule. Someone has taken the idea that soldiers are not allowed to drink on duty and transformed it into a rule that nobody wearing military fatigues can be served alcohol which of course are two different things. In Kharkiv half the population are wearing military fatigues of some sort or another; it’s a war zone. And a lot of soldiers come here to relax when they are off duty. Anyway the Irish pub had no such compunctions about serving me in military clothing and I just ploughed on there as it was heaving with people celebrating St Patrick’s Day. Then I went back to my favourite nightclub that was rather barren of people on a Sunday evening but I was invited back to a private party, at 9.40pm, dangerously close to the witching hour. I must have lost my better judgment because I agreed, knowing that what this meant was that there was no reasonable way for me to get home later. The party wasn’t a long one, but it was long enough that at 11.30pm, after curfew, I found myself walking home in the pitch black across town with the GPS scrambled to prevent the drones from locking onto targets in their overnight strikes.

Thankfully I have a few elementary skills learned before this ghastly modern technological age when we all rely so heavily upon our mobile devices, and by dead reckoning (a skill now long lost) I was able to navigate my way home using the various distinctive spires of Kharkiv’s myriad churches. It involved crossing two giant rivers on giant roads - everything in Kharkiv is oversized - with not another soul in sight. It was wonderfully peaceful and calm and I got home by 12.30am after having gone down a few blind alleys.

This morning the landlady in my hotel told me that one of us had smashed a door panel in the “hotel”. None of us had any recollection of it. She said there were no other guests and that I can believe. Did I put my foot through it at the end of my hour-long silent walk in the dark? Possibly. I paid her 400 Gryvnas and she smiled and that was the end of it. Blessed are the problems that can be solved with money.


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