Fragments from a War Diary, Part #78
Today I met a colleague in a historical Polish cafe in central Lviv. The atmosphere was from a bygone age. Elderly ladies sat at aged oak tables and the walls were lined with wood and with old photographs showing the city of Lviv in an earlier age. My colleague and I drank delicately prepared coffees with slices of Viennese chocolate cake and Tiramisu. Outside the cafe the original signage advertised the coffee house in Polish, Ukrainian and Hebrew. This venerated institution still opens its doors to customers in the midst of the current war, just as it has done for decades and indeed for over a century.
To experience a small piece of Habsburg civilisation in the middle of a war zone is a most exquisite thing. It reminded me that even amidst the bloodshed, conflict and horrors of Ukraine’s contemporary crisis, people have a sense of history and continuity and culture and refinement. The cafe may now have WiFI and a few dim electric lights but otherwise it has barely changed since the early nineteenth century. The same can be said for much of the architecture in central Lviv, which remains untouched and fitting of an earlier era. Were it not for the dull roar of the traffic, central Lviv could be a museum of Austro-Hungarian, Polish and Ukrainian cultural history.
Aside from in the Baltic States, I have never experienced so quaintly cultured city as Lviv in the former Soviet Union. The Stalinist brutalism that dominated Soviet architectural styles during the reconstruction period after the end of World War II bypassed Lviv, that was not reconstructed with tall and now crumbling hideous concrete breeze blocks as took place in huge suburbs. Because Lviv changed hands between the Poles, Soviets and Nazis without significant street fighting, the city escaped the tortured Soviet style of broad avenues and identical cross streets with identical ugly grey tenement buildings puncturing every corner. Unlike virtually every other city in Ukraine with the possible exceptions of Odessa and Kherson, central Lviv contains a warren of side streets and pokey corners with little cafes and restaurants like this. Within these nooks and crannies, a sense of history and culture has been preserved.
Nonetheless the scars of war remain around every corner. One experience that has traumatised me during my few days in Lviv is the prevalence of amputees. A lot of soldiers serving on the front line lose their legs in shelling or landmines or vehicle strikes. Many of those soldiers end up in military hospitals in Lviv, and for them the war is over and their lives are irreversibly changed. Now they must learn to live their futures mutilated because they were unlucky in the war. There is no rhyme or reason to the callous injustices of war. You are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you may lose one or more of your limbs. That is all that can be said, and then you will spend the rest of your life with this disability. War is unfair, non-discriminatory, and entirely unjust.
Providing care and support for amputees is one of the major challenges facing the Ukrainian Armed Forces and it should also properly occupy the attention of the international community. We need specialist in dealing with amputations, together with specialists in prosthetic limbs and also specialists in dealing with the psychiatric consequences of these sorts of life-changing injury. None of these specialities are available in sufficient quantities in Ukraine, and the funds flowing to the military are not being prioritised for this sort of essential medical treatment. Counting deaths in a war is one thing; counting life-changing injuries is quite another and the latter typically entirely outstrips the former. At the end of the war, Ukraine will have regiments of amputees and other permanently wounded former soldiers in virtually every town and city. We will then be faced with the question of who is to care for those people, because the types of care they require are substantial and these people are heroes and patriots and they must not be forgotten.
I see amputees and other critically injured soldiers on every corner in Lviv. Some of them are being cared for, if they are lucky, by close family members and friends. Others may have little support beyond the basic assistance and healthcare supplied by the military. This is an area in which international community funding and expert volunteer assistance could make an enormous difference. The Ukrainian healthcare system has lost a lot of expert professionals abroad since the war broke out and even before, as Ukraine’s economy plummeted after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Those doctors, nurses and other medical staff have not returned and Ukraine’s system of military medical care is even less substantial.
Injured veterans are likely to form a large part of the political landscape of post-war Ukraine, and a significant constituency. They must be reintegrated into civilian life: something else that requires expertise lacking in what was always one of Europe’s poorest countries. I do not understand where the aid funds designated by foreign governments for Ukraine is being diverted to. Foreign governments tend to prefer funnelling their aid moneys through established large international NGO’s; but those organisations are remarkable by their invisibility in contemporary Ukraine and you never see them whether in vehicles or in the field or near the front lines. The only United Nations specialist agency which appears to have some sort of significant presence in Ukraine is UNICEF; it appears to be almost exclusively staffed by locals. I do not know where all the international expertise has evaporated to.
At the end of World War II, the world’s Great Powers agreed to form the United Nations and its specialist agencies to serve as a repository of expertise to assist benighted countries afflicted by catastrophes such as wars, natural disasters, economic collapse and other hazards of a global nature that cause hardship to so many people and in particular where they present a hazard to international peace and stability. It seems that this international system again is failing us in Ukraine. The much-needed international expertise is not making it to Ukraine. A range of NGO’s of variable skills, expertise, funding and commitment are doing their very best to fill the gap by multinational inaction. But far more is needed. The international community needs to do more than hold intergovernmental conferences about the civilian aid crisis in Ukraine. It needs to send people and money and supplies and logistics, where necessary building upon the groundwork that the NGO communities have established but in palpably insufficient quantities because they do not have sufficient funds to grow to meet the colossal demand.
I stroll home to collect a few bottles of food oil from a colleague. I am taking them to Kharkiv on the train tomorrow, to help provide a volunteer kitchen that is working to serve malnourished civilians in the Kharkiv region. This is how we are doing logistics in Ukraine: volunteers are taking bags of essential supplies with them on the railway system. Why are we dealing with a countrywide crisis in so haphazard a way? Because the international community is not stirring itself towards the sort of concerted intergovernmental action necessary to address this monumental and ongoing humanitarian crisis.