Fragments from a War Diary, Part #41
Decompression is a psychological change when a person moves from an intensity of unusual and extreme experiences to return, however temporarily to a more regular regime in which normality begins to creep back into his or her schedule. It is something that everybody who lives through a war zone experiences with some frequency, because war zones are such extremely unusual places, especially when you are experiencing live fire and daily military activities. You start living not just from day to day but even from hour to hour and minute to minute. Going to bed becomes a victory. Waking up with a good night’s sleep (often painfully uncommon) becomes a victory. Enjoying a good meal becomes a victory. You spend each day meeting lots of unusual people you have nothing in common with, often acting in strange and unusual ways. Each interaction must be managed as best you can, with kindness and understanding and also protecting yourself, before you move onto the next distinctive event of the day. It is a very strange way to live.
If you enjoy reading these diaries - and I hope you do - then it may be because I am trying to capture in them this extraordinary sense of intensity in which physical danger and privation from life’s ordinary comforts triggers a survival instinct in all of us in which we adapt from routine living and every day turns into an episode in crisis management. I have now been in Ukraine for a month, which is a trifle compared to the nineteen months that this conflict has been continuing. Nevertheless my lifestyle habits have changed out of all recognition. I now routinely wake up at 5am each day. Many or most of my readers do not know me but I am not an early riser. I would never dream of going to bed after 10.30pm in my current state of mind; even that seems like a late night.
I talk to the most unusual and crazy people that ordinarily I would cross the street to avoid. I listen to everybody’s story, and I remain acutely aware of all the things that are going on around me. You always need allies and people to listen to you, so I constantly scout every social horizon for people who, my instincts tell me, are likely to think like me. I am always trying to persuade, because you never know when you suddenly might need friends in a dangerous situation. I have never, in my life, compiled an address book of so many new telephone numbers. I must have met 200 people in the last month that I have agreed in some form or other to keep in contact with. That is about seven people a day, every day of the week. Think about what that means.
I observed to a colleague just the other day that time simply stops when you are in military theatre. It is hard for the outside world to understand what this means. It entails that there is seldom time to think or reflect. Events are coming at you so thick and fast that you deal with them, resolve them, and move on. There is a bigger picture in whatever you are trying to do in a war zone - if you are here voluntarily (i.e. you are free to leave, which most Ukrainian people, for one reason or another, are not). You must bring overriding focus to the task at hand, in my case saving human lives and alleviating civilian misery, and - in my own way - showing the population and serving armed forces of Ukraine that I support them and that the West supports them. I think this second part is extremely important because this is a nightmare from which they cannot readily wake up whereas I know that I can take a train to Lviv and walk back over that militarised border on any day that I want. But I do not want to. I want to stay here to help the Ukrainian people understand that one day they will wake up from this nightmare and be able to rebuild their lives.
The speed with which thoughts flash across my mind in this intense environment has become so fast that I can now write each of these diary entries in approximately twenty minutes and without hesitation. I write them because I hope I am capturing something unique and I hope that they inspire both the Ukrainian people and the world outside who so comprehensively support them in their plight to keep going. This is a long, gruelling fight against a monolithic sprawling enemy that seems unthinking of the consequences of the cruelty it is inflicting or the disharmony to the international order that its actions are reaping. While in the short term Russia may not understand or care about the costs of the war, with global hydrocarbon prices entirely sufficient to sustain her war efforts and totalitarian Russian politics being sufficient to manage the death toll on the Russian side of the conflict without significant political repercussions, the long-term consequences of Russia becoming a global pariah in which the world stands aghast at the horrible consequences of her actions cannot be good for the Russian people or the Russian psyche.
When Vladimir Putin was first indicted for war crimes I was sceptical. Now I really believe in it. In pursuit of his own narrow agenda he has placed in jeopardy the international order and inflicted war, with all its evils, upon a huge landmass. It is not just the deaths and destruction but the massive displacement of peoples across Europe and the damage to the psyche of an entire nation that he has inflicted, for which he should be held accountable. I now believe that the horrors unleashed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are at least on a par with the slaughter in the Balkans in the 1990’s and the genocide in Rwanda. We are going through another period of global agony, and in my daily life in Ukraine I am, in my own small way, experiencing it.
I always realise that I must take care. People keep telling me so and it is easy, having survived a month in military theatre without incident, to think that you are invulnerable. However it is not so. It only takes one mistake, or one episode in which you are unlucky, for your life to be ruined forever. Therefore while I am spending the next 24 hours in Ukraine’s capital to decompress, and to reflect upon events so far, I realise that I must not let down my guard too far, because in a war zone the usual routines of life are entirely disrupted and everything is strange and abnormal.
The curfew has lifted, dawn is breaking, and the Kyiv cityscape is slowly appearing before my eyes. A billboard advertises Samsung electronics. The shower in my room apparently works normally. Maybe I can get a regular cup of coffee downstairs. But this will not be a normal day. I am already contemplating walking a couple of hours across the city to make my first appointment, rather than taking the metro. Only a person used to hiking along sandy paths and around barricades on the front line of a war zone thinks to do so daft a thing. I stare at my internet browsing history, and I realise that the final thing I researched last night before going to bed was booking.com accommodation options in Sloviansk, a frontline town in free Donetsk Oblast. I need a good slap in the face.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.