Fragments from a War Diary, Part #63
It often feels in Ukraine that you can barely step out of your front door, or even the door of your hotel room, without something crazy or bizarre taking place.
Last night I was walking back home just after the curfew, which of course I should not have done but it is tolerated in Kharkiv. However there is a major disadvantage to going anywhere during the curfew: the entire city is pitch black; virtually everyone has turned out the lights. This is presumably to make it more difficult for Russian reconnaissance drones to spot potential targets for aerial bombardment at night. All the streetlights and turned off, and you cannot even see your hand in front of your face. You do not want to turn on a torch, as this might attract either the drones or the Police. Because the streets are full of potholes, you have to feel each step home with tender care and you want to be wearing sturdy boots. A short walk can take a long time.
This evening when I returned to my hotel, a series of journalists were checking in. After a drought of journalism, following the missile attacks upon Kharkiv city centre yesterday and the attack on the village of Hroza in Kharkiv Oblast the afternoon before, the journalistic community in Kyiv have suddenly transported themselves to Kharkiv together with their giant cameras, zoom lenses and video recorders, and their large and immediately recognisable bags of equipment. Now they fill my hotel and various other hotels in the centre, eager for a story to sell and broadcast to the world.
Earlier this evening, I had gone out for a quiet beer. I wanted some time to myself after a couple of days of constant socialising with the NGO community and not sleeping so well; and after having worked hard. I was starting to feel exhausted again, which is a good sign when you are living and working in a war zone that you need a break and some quiet time. I found my favourite Irish pub in downtown Kharkiv (there are several Irish pubs in Kharkiv), and I settled into my quiet pint. Alas, it was not to be. The bar was virtually empty, but when I arrived in my military jacket with a British Army patch I immediately attracted attention. A gentleman approached me, and offered to pay for all my drinks in stilted English. I immediately knew there was a problem. Then he offered to buy a litre of vodka, that he and I would both proceed to drink. I knew there was a serious problem.
This gentleman - and he really had a most refined nature - had a complex story. He was a “volunteer” assisting the front lines. He could prove it; he brandished a flimsy laminated identity card, peeling back at the edges, with the word “Volunteer” written in Ukrainian and a photograph seemingly of somebody else. He explained to me - without prompting - that he was not a gangster or a member of the Mafia. I was relieved to hear that. He explained that the reason he had blacked out his pro-Russian tattoos that fulsomely adorned his arms with yet more ink was because they were no longer fashionable. He was certainly right on that point. He offered to take me on a tour of various towns on the Ukrainian front line in free Donetsk, and he insisted that we communicate via the secure communications application called Signal.
It goes without saying that I will not be travelling anywhere with this particular gentleman. I made arrangements with the bar staff to pay my own bill, and then I left as soon as I could, so that he could enjoy his litre of vodka by himself.
I took a taxi to a restaurant, where I was due to meet some colleagues. They are journalists and NGO workers. They are decent people, with fine spirits and good hearts. I fear that some of them do not understand the situation in Ukraine as well as they ought to, but I cannot doubt their excellent intentions. I listened to their conversations, and I sympathised with what they had to say. These are kind-hearted, decent people, who have brought their skills and labour to a dangerous conflict zone and I believe they are trying to do the best for Ukraine. I hope they succeed, and I have offered them all the support that I can provide.
The restaurant itself was really rather luxurious. Although the missiles were raining down upon Kharkiv only yesterday morning, that does not prevent the wealthier citizens of Kharkiv from dining with style. The wine, champagne and beer flowed freely, people were well dressed, and even in the middle of war many aspects of life continue as normal notwithstanding the eccentric array of tank traps just outside the door. I noticed a slew of expensive cars parked up outside the restaurant. None of them exhibited any signs of war damage. There is another side of Kharkiv, where life carries on fairly normally, that I realise I have not yet penetrated. When you spend your time amidst NGO’s, you tend to experience the most difficult and taxing of problems. But there is also a whole middle class of wealthy people in wartime Ukraine, who are determined to carry on their relatively decent lives much as they did before war began.
Over dinner, I had a number of interesting conversations with the NGO and journalism community I had been invited to spend the evening with. I realise I could never be a journalist. The job involves rushing from one crisis to the next, taking a snapshot and then hurtling towards the next media imperative. I prefer to stay a while in a place, talk to people, understand in greater detail what is going on, and then pause for reflection. Even the interaction with this strange criminal-cum-gangster earlier in the evening had been informative. Whoever this man was, he had given me an insight into the continuing levels of corruption in Ukraine and the fact that organised crime remains a pervasive problem even amidst all the horrors of war.
He introduced me to his friend, who was English, and who had the same blacked-out tattoos as him. So did the Englishman’s girlfriend. I was delighted to meet them, naturally. It was time for a another walk home in the pitch black, amidst all those craters and potholes. I might even have the good fortune to fall into one of them.