Fragments from a War Diary, Part #73
After a working morning, this afternoon I found myself sitting in a vegan cafe in Lviv opposite a pleasant lady discussing volunteering and the NGO sector in Ukraine. The circumstances that had led to this meeting were a little unusual, but then lots of things are unusual in wartime Ukraine. Somebody had been posting messages on chat groups suggesting that there was something suspicious about me - and, yes, the insinuation was that I had something to do with the “R” word. Does this sound like a repetitive theme? Well, it is. As I have already observed, the “R” theme is one that the NGO community in Ukraine can border on being obsessed with. It’s beyond silly, but this lady, after being alerted to the fact that I was obviously suspicious, had taken to reading my diaries and, she told me, she had enjoyed reading them. So we met up for a cup of vegan coffee in a beautiful historical square in central Lviv.
I will confess now that I have never had a vegan coffee before, and I don’t think I have ever even been to a vegan restaurant. And here I was, in the middle of a war zone, enjoying a vegan latte in central Lviv.
Whereas most Ukrainian cities have suffered terribly during the war, being stripped of their fleeing populations and left as hollowed out shells awash with war damage to the buildings, Lviv has enjoyed the opposite and there has been a renaissance of culture and population. It is the only city in Ukraine that I know of where the streets are chockablock with people both during the day and at night. I can see the city’s main square from the window of my room, and there are always people passing by. If you know where to look then the bars stay open past the curfew of Midnight and the whole city has a pleasingly buzzing feel to it. Lviv’s population must have expanded substantially in consequence of the war, as soldiers come to the city for training, recuperation and medical care; foreign volunteers use the city as a base for meeting and socialising, and planning their next mission; and refugees have flocked to the city from elsewhere in Ukraine.
The streets in the cobbled historical centre are jam packed with restaurants, bars, modern shops and cozy boutiques. Only the old town MacDonald’s remains closed, apparently because MacDonald’s central management insist that staff and customers use air raid shelters whenever air raid sirens sound. Air raid sirens are so frequent in Ukraine that this really isn’t practical, and therefore except in Odessa the MacDonald’s restaurants of Ukraine remain shuttered. I reflect that this probably isn’t a bad thing for my waistline, which I also observe while here, having put on some clothes I left in Lviv on the way into Ukraine in lieu of my typical front line garb, appears to have shrunk dramatically. Maybe I can add a few inches back on by eating and drinking in copious quantities while I remain in town.
The lady with whom I had coffee shared many of my feelings about the strengths and shortfalls of the influx of volunteers and the NGO’s that are meant to host them. Many of the volunteers who have arrived in the country know virtually nothing about Ukraine, her culture or the monumental problem of corruption that often makes simple tasks in the field of humanitarian aid and assistance so difficult. Many volunteers have no idea of what it means to enter a country at war. They do not understand the problems of landmines; displaced people; scrambling of electronic communications; working with soldiers in tense and dangerous situations; malnutrition and emaciation; and all the other troubles and horrors associated with war zones. Sitting in Lviv, supping on a vegan latte, it is easy to imagine that none of these problems exist. But indeed they do. We also shared some humorous exchanges about foreign visitors’ obsession with the “R” word. Of course it is an issue, but Ukrainians have been living with Russia as their neighbours for centuries.
I relayed to my new friend my experiences of Lviv when I first came here on one of those legendary Ukrainian trains from Warsaw in 1994. Then the city was still known as Lvov (the Russian name for the city) and it had been a western Soviet outpost, much neglected during the Soviet Union period despite its culture - or perhaps for that reason. Lvov was not industrially important, and for the Soviet authorities industry was more important than potentially separatist Ukrainian culture. So Lvov was left to decay. Only in the last few years has an effort been made to preserve the city’s historical buildings in the beautiful city centre, and to instal vegan cafes such as this one, selling vegan ice cream and vegan deserts. How does one make a vegan cheesecake? I’m sure there is a way. Lviv has become positively sophisticated.
I can see how the international community has become stuck in Lviv, using it as a base, because life here is so much more pleasant than the experiences you have when you head to the front line. My friend and I chat about the fact that international NGO’s often do not know how to transport aid around Ukraine, a huge country. They often ship food in from outside Ukraine when it makes far more sense to produce food here (agricultural products are cheap) and distribute it as aid without the logistical problems of international transport and all the obtuse paperwork that causes. Even driving an empty vehicle over the Ukrainian border is a mind bogglingly complex affair. Transporting one full of food, medical supplies or military equipment is even more byzantine.
My vegan friend encourages me to keep writing. We discuss the most valuable way of spending my time working for Ukraine. We reach no firm conclusions, but I sense that after a few days here it is time to head back east - at least for now. That is where the real need is. It is where the soldiers need meals, and where the civilians in the villages are starving. It is uncomfortable, awkward and potentially dangerous; but I came here to make a difference and not to sit indefinitely in Lviv, as beautiful as it is. On the other hand, I could always change my mind tomorrow. This is a war zone, and chaos is the norm.
We step outside to say our goodbyes, and we are approached by a beggar in military uniform, with injuries to his legs, hobbling and pleading with us for money to go to hospital. Because he hears us speaking in English, he thinks we are ripe for a donation. The military hospitals in Ukraine are free, and he does not need money for that. Nevertheless it is a saddening sight, and it reminds us both that even in Lviv we are on the edge of a terrible and cruel war. My new friend and I each turn our heads, and part in silence in different directions.