Fragments from a War Diary, Part #4
It is very tiring to live and work on the front line of a war zone. By reason of the increased danger after dark (you are easier to spot by a Russian reconnaissance drone), your daily routine tends to follow daylight hours, and of course your routine is almost always seven days a week. Wars do not stop on weekends.
In my case I found myself sleeping on the sofa in the office of a hotel otherwise occupied for the most part by soldiers, in a suburb that has found itself the subject of frequent Ukrainian Armed Forces air defence fire. Hence it is important to get used to a lot of flashes, explosions and bangs although these tend not to take place at night as the curfews are respected in general by both sides. Fighting stops at night, and people stay indoors. One’s daily regime begins at dawn, usually at 5am, as the curfew is lifted and people start to go about their business. My room, although small, was at least private. Not everyone has this luxury.
The first activity is to pack, re-pack and check all one’s belongings for the day’s activities. Whether one’s role be civilian or military, everything needs to be meticulously preprepared. Because communications are so essential in modern warfare, you need to make sure that your own communications, whatever they may be, are as reliable as possible. On the Ukrainian side, most communications are effected by means of a specific messaging service although there is always the danger of electronic communications interference because Russian mobile phone masts, which may have a range of up to 35 kilometres, are not far away. Modern warfare relies to an extraordinary extent on mobile ‘phone masts; Russian drones are reported to be using the Ukrainian cellular systems to navigate, which is why the Ukrainian authorities periodically disable them. So your mobile telephone probably needs more than one SIM card in it, and it needs to be fully charged together with a full battery pack for the day’s activities. Take out foreign SIM cards, or you may be a sitting duck for Russian reconnaissance drones.
Whatever baggage you anticipate needing for your day, everything must again be meticulously packed. Any bag you carry must be tightly strapped to the body for the duration of your day. Do not bring clutter but do bring all essentials. You never know if you might be injured or be unable to return to your base that evening. An early check of overnight attack warnings, and other intelligence gathering, is also useful, and you will want to check your destination point for the day using detailed maps, preferably physical maps that will end up scrawled with marks showing routes, changes to the front line, sites of recent attacks (there are often patterns revealed by marking maps, that use of electronic mapping will not reveal) and will reveal road qualities and natural geographical contours more helpfully than an electronic map.
After having undertaken these activities, and washing yourself as best as facilities allow (front lines of war zones are quite dirty places), you may even get some time for yourself: for example an hour to write your diary and enjoy a cup of coffee. It is important to take some time out for yourself each day, because the intensity of the day’s activities is likely such that you won’t have much time to think or contemplate. At the end of the day, you will be exhausted and your time will be consumed by constant chatter with colleagues about the violent incidents of the day, the traumas and shocks you went through, and the desire to sleep. So take your time for yourself early in the morning.
The next step is to check the vehicles to be used for the day’s mission, whether to the front line or otherwise. Check the tyres. Has there been any deterioration overnight? Is the engine ticking over nicely? Are there any noticeable mechanical concerns upon a brief inspection? Are the drivers allocated? Is the vehicle adequately loaded, whether with medical supplies, food, emergency equipment or other essentials? Is a driver allocated? Do they know the destination and the route? Is the destination confidential? Is there a risk that revelation of the destination might compromise the security of the day’s mission? Are there specific items that the vehicle needs to be loaded with? Where have those items been stored? Has storage been disrupted overnight? All these checks need to be made with military precision.
Then begins the drive to the site where people need assistance. Last-minute checks with local authorities are made, to assess the danger of the drive and the destination. The relevant people are collected from wherever they are lodging. Absent some last-minute security alert (quite common), the drive begins. It may be a short trip or it may be a long one. Hence the day may be short or long. Always be prepared for the unexpected.
Where civilian assistance is being provided, the first step is to set up the assistance point in a suitable location. Follow local advice. Ensure an adequate means of communication so that people know where you will be and from what time. You are likely to be on your feet all day, so dress comfortably and appropriately for the environment. At the time of writing, in southeastern Ukraine it is very hot during the day but a little chilly at nights. The blazing sun can be exhausting, so make sure you are dressed to resist it. Spend the day undertaking your duties, whatever they may be. Working in warfare generates remarkable teamwork between very different types of people, who form natural teams quickly. Whatever the differences in their personalities, working in war motivates people and each finds their role. The things that go on during war are often not technically very complicated, whether it is aiming a gun or a piece of artillery; cooking and serving food; administering medications; or driving in convoy. The tasks being undertaken do not necessarily require huge individual skill. However everything is typically being done in large volumes. It is a matter of doing the same thing again and again and again and again. You may have a thousand people to feed that day. There may be dozens of people requiring the same or similar medical treatment. A group of people need to work together to deliver straightforward things in large volumes. That is the key to a successful operation executed with military precision, and it builds team skills.
Some people will be monitoring attack warnings and political developments, while others will barely be looking at their phones and instead focusing on the immediate task at hand. Whatever the task, it must be completed within a window of time safety and therefore everything must be done on time. Half an hour’s delay may compromise the success of the day’s mission. When the mission is completed, you close your shop, clean and load everything so that it is ready for the next day (you will be too tired when you return to base), and close shop and prepare to drive back safely and in convoy to your base - if you can get there. Make sure you have eaten, as you will probably have been consuming a lot of calories while on your feet all day. Ensure you feel healthy. Treat any wounds on yourself or others. Check for both the physical and mental safety of each member of your team. It is important to spot the early warning signs of both physical and mental fatigue, and to be aware that people exhibiting these symptoms may need a break or they may need treatment. But approaching these issues with people must be undertaken sensitively and sympathetically.
War is dreadfully gruelling, as it is relentless, the daily grind continuing indefinitely far into the future and with no obvious way out or ending: that is for the politicians and strategists and they may not know the answers either. This in itself can take its toll on people, and you need to be constantly alert.
Once you have navigated your military checkpoints, returned to base, and you have identified a place to sleep and a safe location to park your vehicles, you check upon all members of your team and then there should always be some kind of debriefing, even if informal. By this point everyone is likely to be fairly tired, and sundown will be nearly upon you. Try to have a social event with the team at least every other evening, if just to show solidarity. Wash your clothes and yourself. You are likely to be covered in dirt. After a final check of security issues, go to bed soon after dark. There is nothing to stay up for, and you will only cause your fellow colleagues to worry for you.
Welcome to a day in a war zone. That is your routine, day in, day out. Get used to it, because the war in Ukraine appears to be a long one.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.