Fragments from a War Diary, Part #81
I don’t know why I keep doing this. I had almost been ripped off by a ticket inspector on the crumbling Lviv tram to the railway station, who demanded I paid a fine (without receipt) because I hadn’t stamped my ticket in the ancient cast iron ticket punch machine (I had). Then I had actually been ripped off by the lady in the station shop when I had bought two beers and a bottle of Sprite for the ride. She removed the price of the beer from the display when I ordered it and then demanded a suspiciously round number. Lviv is the only place where I have been ripped off, apart from once in Kharkiv, but foreigners can be seen as easy pickings: a remnant of an old post-independence Ukraine best rapidly forgotten. And now I found myself standing on one of Lviv station’s enormous platforms, on a beautifully sunny day in mid-October, waiting for the train staff to let us file up the steel ladder onto these industrially styled trains with dozens of carriages, to undertake yet another enormously long journey to the other end of the country in close proximity to the front line.
Again it is time for a sanity check. I am in second class. There is in fact only one second class carriage on this train, and no first class ones. The rest of the train is third class. The difference between second class and third class is that the second class carriage is modern; there is an electricity socket; and there is a sign indicating air conditioning although it is far from clear that it is currently turned on. My colleague has given me a cracked plastic bottle of stinky dark red vinegar to take to Kharkiv, and it has leaked all over my luggage. I am wondering whether to have it with my dinner of bred, cheese and seaweed caviar. My train will arrive in Kharkiv at 5.45am tomorrow, and then I will go to my hotel and straight into work.
I think I fail the sanity check, but somehow I enjoy it. The compartment in which I am sitting has a mother and her son in it, and a quiet lady of about my age with a worried brow on a video call with a man in a car who might be her husband or other loved one. People in Ukraine, if not on the front line, spend a lot of time worrying about friends, relatives and family members who are on the front line and I can only sympathise with their constant anxiety. The carriage itself feels like a mobile family. Everyone is chatting and starting to get to know one-another. As always, I am the only foreigner on the carriage and therefore I am something of an object of interest with my black rucksack with a giant US flag on the back, and my military jacket which, including the British and Ukrainian flag patch adornments, now sports an American-Ukrainian dual-flag patch. It is quite the most colourful military jacket one could imagine with all these distinctive patches on it, and it is definitely not for use in proximity to the front line.
A beautiful silver-steel bullet train style of electric train sporting Ukrainian Railways insignia is also in the station at the same time as this grunting Soviet colossus that I have boarded. Those are the trains Ukrainian Railways sends to Poland and other European cities, to show off as a symbol of national pride. They also ply some of the express daytime routes between Lviv, Kyiv and Kharkiv. For the rest of us, the Ukrainian Railways rolling stock is mored aged and the carriages grunt and groan as the train very gradually accelerates out of the station.
This is certainly a better train than the monster that originally departed Lviv to transport me to Zaporizhzhia in a mind-numbing 26 hours, in a hot uncomfortable compartment with three soldiers returning to the front and drinking vodka. I am getting the hang of these trains, instinctively getting to know which are likely to have a higher calibre of people on them. I have also learned not to take the daytime so-called “express” trains; they are uncomfortable, very busy and not any faster at all as far as I can tell. The compartmental “sleeping” trains, by contrast, even if you don’t plan on doing any sleeping on them, have more space as four people are fitted cosily into a small room with a door that you can even lock. This prevents the hoi polloi from interfering with your tranquil comfort. Just make sure you are sharing your compartment with women or families, not liquor-swilling troops.
I have been reflecting further on the international community in Ukraine, by far the majority of which comprises the NGO sector as neither foreign governments, international organisations nor private investors have any interest in being in Ukraine at the moment: it is all perceived as too dangerous, too risky and uninsurable. These perceptions may be mythical or at least over-exaggerated; but they serve as effective deterrents from any foreign presence except NGO’s and these are therefore the principal tools by which foreign assistance is being provided to the country. Nobody seems to know how many NGO’s are present in the country, not least because the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in registering a foreign NGO officially with the Ukrainian government is prohibitive and the vast majority of NGO’s do not do it. Therefore most international community efforts in Ukraine are entirely “off the books”, and this contributes to a sense of chaos in the administration of NGO assistance. The Ukrainian government has no idea which NGO’s are operating, or where, or what they are doing, but I estimate there to be well in excess of 1,000 foreign NGO’s operating in some way, shape or form in Ukrainian military theatre. There must inevitably be inefficiencies and overlap in their operations, and I wonder what can be done to streamline their operations with the finite funding in existence. This gives rise to a series of reflections on my part about how to recruit volunteers, how to fit them within the right NGO’s, and how to allocate funding between them.
The NGO and foreign assistance informal capital of Ukraine is Lviv, and a colleague has kindly offered to help me find an apartment there. I wonder whether I might end up living in Lviv at some point soon. Maybe; but this is a war, and in war there are no certainties. I might likewise be called off somewhere else at short notice to undertake some other function. I just don’t know. In war, it is hard to plan anything more than one day at a time.
My train shudders to an ugly halt, the squealing of iron breaks against steel wheels piercing my ears and shuddering my spine. Maybe this train isn’t going anywhere today. Or maybe it is about to jolt and shudder back into life. The air conditioning certainly isn’t working. I’ll be sure to let you know what happens next.
I have drafted a set of questions that I think are appropriate for people considering volunteering in Ukraine in the NGO community or elsewhere, that might help both putative volunteers in understanding what may be in store for them and also in helping NGO’s. I hope they may find their way into common usage and circulation at some point; but for now, here they are in draft and I welcome all comments upon them.
1. How old are you?
2. What is your gender?
3. For how long do you think you may want to volunteer in Ukraine? You might consider the minimum period as two weeks and the maximum as 90 days.
4. What is your nationality?
5. What is your country of residence?
6. Do you have Ukrainian nationality or residence?
7. Do you speak Ukrainian or Russian languages to any significant extent? If so, then please indicate your level of proficiency.
8. Do you have any experience of serving in the military? If so, then please describe the nature of that experience and the period of time you served in the military.
9. Do you have any experience of working with the military? If so then please describe that experience.
10. Please describe the highest level of education you have attained.
11. Have you ever travelled to the countries of the former Soviet Union (excluding Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia)?
12. Have you been trained to drive vehicles larger than an ordinary car? If so then please say which sorts of vehicles.
13. Have you been trained or worked as a chef or cook in a setting involving the preparation of large numbers of meals?
14. Have you ever travelled to a country experiencing civil conflict or in the immediate aftermath of such a conflict?
15. Are you comfortable travelling to cities or towns in which you may hear live fire, for example artillery, missiles or gunshots?
16. Do you have any experience as a builder or in the construction of buildings?
17. Do you wish to fight, for example in the International Legal of Volunteers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces?
18. Do you have experience of office work, administrative work or management work?
19. Have you travelled in countries in which standards of living and transport may be below European averages?
20. Have you experienced crossing difficult international borders or encountered police or military checkpoints?
21. Are you comfortable travelling long distances by train, including overnight journeys?
22. Are you comfortable sleeping in basic accommodation, such as hotels without en suite facilities, sharing rooms with people you do not know, or sleeping on mats or in sleeping bags?
23. Do you have any training in first aid? If so, please describe the nature and/or level of this training.
24. Do you have any medical conditions that might be relevant to your health in a war zone? If so, then are you able to carry with you sufficient medications for the entirety of your stay? If you feel able to share with us the nature of any relevant medical conditions, that would be useful but we do not insist upon it.
25. Do you suffer from anxiety, depression or trauma, or any similar psychological conditions?
26. How would you describe your principal profession?
27. Are you able to interact with people of very different backgrounds from your own?
28. Can you afford your own travel expenses to and from Lviv in western Ukraine? Do you feel comfortable travelling to Lviv without assistance? If no, would you like us to arrange transport or a guide to accompany you from a neighbouring country? (Please note that we charge a fee for this type of assistance.) Please identify the city and the country from which you would like support or accompanying.
29. Do you anticipate being disturbed or concerned by repeatedly hearing air raid sirens?
30. Are you happy to undertake manual labour?
31. Are you content to travel to areas which may require daily security briefings and debriefings to ensure volunteer safety?
32. Do you think you may be able to raise funds to support any NGO for which you work? If so, then how much (just in general terms) do you think you may be able to raise?
33. Will you be able to cover your own accommodation expenses while you are a volunteer in Ukraine?
34. Will you be able to cover your own travel expenses while you are a volunteer in Ukraine?
35. Will you be able to cover your own meal and beverage expenses while you are a volunteer in Ukraine? (Note: many NGO’s provide some but not necessarily all meals for volunteers. Alcoholic drinks are always at the expense of the individual volunteer.)
36. Are you comfortable making friends and relationships with others quickly and easily in difficult or unusual circumstances?
37. Are you content passing periods of time on your own and making your own entertainment?
38. Please describe your level of physical fitness. Are you strong enough to lift heavy items?
39. Please describe any physical disabilities you may have. Are you comfortable travelling in a war zone notwithstanding any such disabilities?
40. Do you have any objections to providing material assistance to the Ukrainian Armed Forces?