Fragments from a War Diary, Part #61
When you are living or working in military theatre, you see an extraordinary range of unusual things. As I was planning my route to work yesterday, I walked through a square where what my colleagues and I subsequently established more likely than not to be a Kalibr cruise missile with a fragmentation warhead had struck a residential building in central Kharkiv early that morning, causing moderate structural damage but heavy surface damage over several blocks. In all likelihood the cruise missile had detonated its warhead before impact with the building, to maximise the destruction caused by a fragmentation warhead.
We established, from one witness who had seen and heard the missile fly past his window on the way to its target, that in all likelihood it was launched from the east or northeast which means it came from Russian territory rather than from Russian-occupied Ukraine (which lies to the southeast). We established it was likely a Kalibr cruise missile due to the fine targeting and the smaller warhead, and the whistling sound. The Iskander cruise missile, by contrast, is far larger and detonates a huge warhead. The other explosion in central Kharkiv caused far more substantial structural damage and we surmised that this was probably an Iskander. These are the sorts of things you learn when you live in Kharkiv in the course of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Who is to say why the Russians targeted the buildings they did. It seems increasingly likely to me that these were assassination attempts of some kind, perhaps directed against Ukrainian military or political officials they believed to be in the buildings that were struck. In all likelihood the targets were selected on the basis of one or more pieces of intelligence material, whether signals, infiltrators or something else, that indicated the desired victims were inside the buildings in question. The other people who died or were injured, in the Russian view, were presumably collateral damage. But all this is really speculation. Someone may know who the intended victims were; perhaps the targets themselves do. We don’t know whether the intended victims were in the buildings or whether they were injured or killed. All we know is that this display of violent Russian pyrotechnics caused chaos and still further damage and ruin to central Kharkiv.
Should I feel guilty about going to see the site of the impact, observing the First Responders at work, and watching people clear up the mess? In my case it was hard to avoid the scene; it was only 150 metres from my hotel. Nevertheless a number of foreigners and local people went to these scenes, to see what had happened. Many took photographs or videos, and a number of journalists arrived. Now you can find those photographs and videos on social media and elsewhere on the internet. I did not take any photographs. I found that somehow tasteless.
Nevertheless it is impossible not to be both fascinated and appalled in equal measure by the things you experience in wartime. You also become nonchalant about them. After observing the wreckage, I casually went to work and the team I am in worked all day on our tasks. By the evening the international newswires had picked up on what had been going on and I realised that the story was all over the global newspapers. For me it was just another day in a war zone.
“War tourism” is a deprecating phrase used to criticise people who go to war zones to have stimulating experiences. I don’t think it is a very useful phrase. Being in war zones is dangerous, and people who travel to war zones are taking risks with their lives. Virtually every foreigner in Ukraine is doing something useful and valuable to contribute to Ukraine’s war effort and resisting Russian aggression, even if it is just spending money (and thereby helping the moribund wartime economy) and showing moral support for and association with the Ukrainian people. The greater majority of the foreigners present here are providing their time and labour gratis, for whatever civilian or military goal to support Ukraine. We are not war tourists, and neither are the Ukrainian people when they go about their daily lives.
A number of us may have expertise in war, from all sorts of different backgrounds. Indeed it is advisable, before making the decision to enter a conflict zone, to have significant experience either in the military or in a civilian role in wars, in order to know what precautions you need to take and the issues you need to think about. Every war is subtly different in the sorts of missiles or bombs you might see destroying buildings, the types of tanks and other armour, the terrain, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless many of the things you need to know to stay tolerably safe and effective in a war zone are common from one war zone to the next. You need to know not to step off the tarmac in frontline areas; to have a sense of the dangers associated with the front line; it is useful for everyone in a war zone to have received basic medical training; and so on and so forth.
It is exciting, in a way, to live and work in a war zone but it is also gruelling and exhausting and an emotional rollercoaster every day as you have to deal with a range of different people you might never normally bump into in the ordinary course of life with backgrounds and experiences quite different from yours and you will be frequently placed well outside your comfort zone. War can also be highly mundane, involving the daily repetition of mindless tasks and schedules and a lot of waiting around. You have very little time for yourself. Right now I hammer out these words on a Saturday morning with great haste, rushing to make my work obligations and wishing to God I could spend an extra hour in bed but I cannot without letting down the people with whom I work. Also the horrific and bizarre start to become ordinary and unremarkable. Because I have seen a lot of war damage in my career, the events of yesterday in Kharkiv were nothing remarkable to me. But they were appalling to the families and loved ones of the dead and the injured and to those made homeless and those who had their livelihoods ruined by the destruction. They were also terrifying to the citizens of Kharkiv who were tense all day and, unlike me, have no easy way out. I can leave this war zone whenever I want. They cannot. Only in that sense, I suppose, am I a “war tourist”.