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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #62

This morning I spent my time carrying large sacks of potatoes and onions from one location to another. The more difficult Ukrainian autumn weather has set in, and the cold rain is beginning. It is essential that the vegetables do not get wet, or they will rot. Therefore they need to be put in a cellar or under a tarpaulin. This was not a long day’s work, but it was physically exhausting. It is the sort of elementary task that needs to be done in wartime. There are no large container stores for the work we are doing in Kharkiv, and no automated machinery. Preparing food, as with the preparation of all other essential supplies, is a job undertaken by hand.

We had a team of people to stand in a chain to undertake this task. One person picks up a huge sack of potatoes or whatever it may be, and they then balance it in their hands or on their back and they pass it to the next person in the chain. They then manage this massive weight, and pass it to the next person. So the process goes on until all the huge sacks of giant potatoes are down the stairs in the shelter and safe from the elements and the icy rain that may start any minute.

Amidst this working ritual, the team of men (lifting sacks of potatoes really is working undertaken principally by then men in our team, as the women are relatively petite) shared jokes, silly stories and funny anecdotes. We made jokes about potatoes and onions, and how we hoped the Russians wouldn’t strike us with one of their cruise missiles and we would be dead amidst a series of bags of potatoes. We compared the different sorts of sacks of potatoes. Some are heavier than others; the white dirty sacks carry more potatoes than the red netted sacks. The red netted sacks are liable to spill open and you end up with potatoes all over the floor. We have wooden boxes to fill up with potatoes once too many of them have ended up all over the floor. All morning it was potatoes, potatoes, potatoes. And onions. And squash. And the biggest pumpkin I have ever seen. Are pumpkins a kind of squash? I asked this question but nobody seemed quite certain. There is an issue between British and American English in here, and we were all confused but we all laughed.

My real point is this. I am working with good humoured, good natured, calm, relaxing and reliable people and this makes all the difference when you are undertaking hard work in a difficult environment. Inevitably there is a degree of tension in the air after yesterday’s Russian cruise missile strikes on Kharkiv, and we are working right in the centre of the city. But we remain a calm and patient group of people, albeit all of enormously different backgrounds and with vastly difference skill sets. We are also people from every age group. Some of us are Ukrainians; others of us are from countries from all over the globe. In another world, we would have nothing in common with one another at all. Here in Ukraine, at this moment, we were helping one-another lug around sacks of potatoes. And it was satisfying work, and it felt good, and it emptied the mind of daily trivia and the ordinary concerns of life, and we worked well and in harmony.

When you work as a volunteer, you learn to respect other people with whom you may have no natural connections in the ordinary course. In a wartime environment there are compelling imperatives and these are generally to survive and to assist others in their daily needs. With good management and supervision, with which our team is fortunate enough to be blessed, we all work together and in harmony. You find things in common to laugh about, and you are polite and friendly with one another. There are no secrets or subterfuges. There are no conspiracies and no politics. The last thing you want when working with volunteers is a sense of constant political intrigue and tension, as different volunteers form cliques and conspire one against the other. If this sort of thing is happening then it is bad management and those sacks of potatoes will not get moved as quickly or efficiently as they should.

Although in any team there are people you like more or less, one of the key skills to teamwork is toleration of difference. You might not like everyone you meet equally, but you manage to rub along with them anyway. This process is assisted if you have a calm and agreeable boss who explains procedures clearly and unambiguously. Political intrigue is fatal to common cooperation. There should be no politics in moving potatoes. It is not a political subject.

Although charities and NGO’s do have politics, it is best if with clear but gentle leadership they focus upon their stated goals and keep harmonious environments amongst the volunteers and other workers devoted to delivering the aid or whatever the work may be. Fundraising is the other imperative: to keep the funds coming in that allow the teams on the ground to perform their tasks. In some cases management may focus too much upon the fundraising (which generally takes place outside the country where assistance is provided) and insufficient attention is given to management of in-country teams, where harmony, kindness, generosity and spirit and patient understanding are all essential.

If you want to get those potatoes moved, you need enlightened managers and harmonious team mates. I believe that if people are treated properly and with consideration, you can get the most out of anyone, no matter what their skills or background. We were all happy to lift those sacks of potatoes today, and we all did it with a smile and with a sense of fun and good spirits. I look back upon this short working day with satisfaction. It is important to understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of the people you are working with, and to be sensitive to those issues in staffing any task that requires common endeavour. That is what I learned from moving my sacks of potatoes today.

Outside our cozy working environment, the war still goes on. I walked home past an ornate church, whose stained glass windows had been smashed out and whose walls were punctuated with the scraps of metal typically emanating from a fragmentation warhead attached to a cruise missile or laser-guided bomb. The Russians, it seems do not even spare or give a thought to religious buildings. We are dealing with an army that, for whatever reason, has stooped to barbarism.


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