Fragments from a War Diary, Part #76
It may seem strange to say that I spent this evening in a bar in Lviv with a group of girls and boys dancing to techno and trance music. How can this sort of thing be happening in a war zone? The answer is that in Lviv, people are trying to forget the war on their doorsteps and, notwithstanding the curfew and martial law, they are doing their very best to carry on their lives without even thinking about the war. They are all drinking too much. They are flirting with each other. Studious men in spectacles are playing Chess in the corner. But life goes on.
Having spent the last several weeks on the front line, in bombed out, empty and vacuous cities, trying to find glimmers of life, hope and optimism amidst the craters in the pavements and the smashed glass in the windows of various cities infected with the horrors of war, all of this came as something of a surprise to me. What are all these people doing here, drinking and partying and chatting and laughing? Don’t they know what is going on out east? The short answer is that no, they don’t. I feel like a moody, depressive character in a war movie, sitting at the bar and reminiscing with my gloomy war stories, while all these young people carry on, pretending that nothing is happening.
They order shot after shot of vodka, tequila and limoncello. The drinks they stuff and bulge down their necks look increasingly disgusting as the evening goes on. I feel incensed, in a way. How can these people treat the fact that their country is in a state of war so casually, dancing in lines to pulsating and repetitive beats and goofing around wearing sunglasses in a bar decorated with images of Vladimir Putin in the sights of a sniper rifle? The whole thing seems more than vaguely absurd.
But then I realise that I am thinking quite wrongly about all these things, and these young, pleasure seeking people are in the right. Why should they have their lives ruined by this useless and futile conflict driven by a clique of maniacs in Moscow? Why should they have their youth taken away from them? They want all the things I had when I was a young man: alcohol, sex, fun and frivolity. These things are normal. They should not be obliged to have their very best years stolen from them by politicians and by the brutal dynamics of armed conflict.
As the evening went on, I remained calm but observant as ever more eccentric and eclectic people - young and old - slid down the steps of this unusual bar to escape the daily realities of what is happening in Ukraine. The liquor flowed freely. Strangers approached me with unwelcome questions about why I am here and unusual propositions. I should meet this girl or that girl. I should go to this place or that. I felt a bit stupid. I am here to help in a war, and I am surrounded by drunkards with their silly plans to spend my money in dumbfounded ways. Why can’t people be serious about what is going on?
And then I realised that I have become too infected by the psychosis inevitably associated with war. Those who spend substantial time on the front line, dealing with shells, missiles, deaths, bereavement, trauma, destruction, rage and resentment, forget what it is like just to want to live a normal life. These young people in Lviv - and they each have a different story - just want to have fun. I am a miserable old grump. I came here to do good works, but somewhere along the way I lost sight of the fact that the youth of Ukraine do not want this war and do not care for it.
It seems that I am part of the “in crowd” in this bar. Strangers I had never encountered before approached me and wished me all the best. Pretty young things gave me their ‘phone numbers. I was invited for drinks and food even after the official closing hours. The whole thing felt abhorrently normal. I could be in a bar in Poland, just 100 kilometres over the border, with no curfews; carefree youngsters; and a beautiful girl waiting for me (or so I might imagine - perhaps I have spent too long in a war zone). I am not sure what I think anymore.
Seldom do I reveal in advance my movements, but I have decided to go back to Kharkiv this weekend. It is a horror of a train ride, but I have got used to them. I don’t think the Russians are going to start lobbing cruise missiles at Ukrainian trains just because I am writing my diaries. The people I know in Kharkiv are salt of the earth. I hear on the networks that Kharkiv has been the subject of renewed aerial bombardment. So what, I think. I have been there before. I was in Kharkiv when the Russians tried to assassinate somebody of importance by directing their top-end Kalibr cruise missile into a residential building scarcely 150 metres away from me early one Friday morning. These sorts of things do not frighten me. Oddly enough, probably by reason of repeated experiences, I have no adrenalin reaction at all when such things take place.
So in the knowledge that the Russians are busy launching their ordnance into Kharkiv once again, and irrespective, I have decided to go back there, at least for a while. These crazy techno bars full of young people undergoing a pretence of normality with their imitation designer sunglasses in a dark subterranean bar in central Lviv are a wonderful respite from the daily grind of the front line, and I have just slightly lost my marbles as a result of spending too long in those edgy environments. It is a wonderful thing to have one extra limoncello and to take a girl’s ‘phone number, who I may or may not ever call. Who’s to say. This is war, and all bets are off.
I stumble home - before curfew, despite the protestations of miscellaneous drunks that I should stay out with girls until 3am - along the historical cobbled streets of central Lviv. I think of the horrors and shocks afflicting the people of Kharkiv as Russian missiles rain down upon them while I am quaffing my final draught of limoncello. The whole thing seems intensely incongruent. I feel strangely guilty. But why? None of this is my fault; and you, the reader, are drinking that limoncello while you read this.
Enjoy your drink. Just as I get back to my front door, a Police car pulls over, lights flashing, and a series of aggressive officers alight with their assault rifles for some ill-defined purpose. Their target is not me, and I just walk on by. I get home, and I write these words as I hear an air raid siren scream through the window.
This morning just past the water was cut in central Lviv; mobile telephony was restricted; and the city was tense. On a good day, Lviv feels normal; on a bad day, it is but another detail in the continuing nightmare that is Ukrainian military theatre.