Fragments from a War Diary, Part #50
The loneliness, solitude, exhaustion, anxiety, trauma and tedium of living through war are themes I often return to. Because most regular economic activity stops during war, as the activities of people reorientate themselves to the things necessary to continue the war, everyone in theatre loses a substantial amount of personal freedom as a result. The country has become a nation of volunteers, whether those in active military service or those supporting them. All of us, including the foreigners present in Ukraine to support the Ukrainian people, end up as volunteers supporting the military efforts. Yet this war has no end in sight. This creates anxiety in us all, as nobody knows when the bewildering chaos of living through war will end and the regular routines of life will return - if ever.
Everyone I meet is permanently tired. Because wars are fought seven days a week, both the military and the entire civilian population who are supporting the work of those fighting can never relax. There is always something to worry about, whether it is a question of how I will feed myself the next day, or whether my friends or relatives have been injured or killed in a reported attack, to the question of whether any particular air raid siren is a cause for alarm, to observing the stresses and tensions in others and deciding to what extent I can cope with those people or to what extent I must give them a break for my own mental wellbeing.
Everyone seems to sleep badly. We all go to bed early because there is nothing to do. Those of us who do not may be drinking heavily, and this is typically a bad thing. Alcohol numbs thought and gives us an artificial sense of optimism - until the hangover the next day. If you go to bed early, you wake at the crack of dawn - or earlier, if disturbed by air raid sirens, attack warnings or miscellaneous whistles and bangs. After a few days of sleeping short, and spending the nights awake wondering what to do, the fatigue overcomes you and you start falling asleep in the middle of the day. Because no day is truly a day of rest, your body and mind do not find time to rejuvenate as they do in the course of a normal working week. Some people absorb this toll better than others. Some feel guilty in every moment they are not doing something productive towards the war effort. This sort of thinking is more common than you might imagine. Others try to structure their days and their lives in a way approximately resembling civilian living, but this never really works. War is something quite different to the way we all expect to live.
People start to acquire unusual and eccentric corpuses of knowledge. I have been learning about different types of Russian and eastern bloc anti-personnel mines, missiles, laser-guided bombs, assault rifle rounds and unexploded ordnance. I carry two sets of playing cards with pictures of various items on them, for quick identification in the event of a crisis. This sort of knowledge is mostly worthless outside the context of war zones, but it can also be addictive and interesting. That may explain that people who engage with conflicts, for whatever reason, find themselves going from one conflict zone to the next - as have I, in the course of my career.
Everybody gets used to living on their own. I don’t think I have met many people who don’t live on their own. Some people are lucky enough to live with their families. In Ukraine, a man with three children or more is exempt from military service so if you fall into this category, you can live with your wife and children and, provided you can find a reasonably paying job (and there are very few of those left in Ukraine - many people scrabble around for income becoming ad hoc taxi drivers or performing other occasional work), you may be able to continue a relatively normal life. Nevertheless every Ukrainian is doing something to contribute to the national cause. But closer to the front line, there are no family units left. Families have been fragmented by emigration and displacement, and people are living on their own and finding whatever social relationships they can on a daily basis. You become friends with strangers much more quickly during a war.
As a foreigner, you soon appreciate that you are contributing to the economic survival of the Ukrainian people simply by being here and spending your money. Foreigners drive quite a lot of the minimal economic activity that exists in a war zone. They may take a disproportionate number of taxis, or eat full meals in restaurants whereas local people may only have a coffee. They are the only people reliably renting accommodation and paying for it. Many hotels have occasional visits from soldiers but I do not know whether the soldiers receive discounts or pay at all. Many hotels accommodate refugees, who in all likelihood pay very little but I have never been so impertinent as to ask. Everyone seems just to pay what they can, and hence the cycle of money flow becomes severely stunted. Government has foreign-sourced budgets for various specific military activities, but much of those funds disappear in corrupt cuts to people so that people may survive.
The way these things take place can be ingenious. To help a petrol station attendant or their families, a government petrol bill at a refuelling station may pay for 10 parts of gasoline but only receive 9. The balance is siphoned off and may help keep the workers and their families alive. This is only one example but this sort of small scale corruption is endemic in Ukraine and actually it always was. Unfortunately we are currently faced with the dilemma in which such corruption is both necessary to maintain the population and the economy; and essential to stamp out if Ukraine is to have a European future. Nobody has a solution to this problem, least of all me. I can get very upset when I am being ripped off, and I find it very hard to swallow. Sometimes I accept it, and sometimes I walk away. There is a perception that visiting foreigners, even thought they may be volunteers, have limitless resources compared to the Ukrainians; and for the most part those perceptions are quite right.
You can tell the newcomers to military theatre amongst the foreigners, as they still find everything thrilling and dangerous and they have not yet slipped into the daily routine of anxiety, sleeplessness, boredom and duty. I am now in this second phase, and the only way to deal with the relentless toil in your head is to take each day at a time. I wonder what will happen to me today. There will be some unusual event or other, and provided I am still alive I will write to you about it in these diaries.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.