Fragments from a War Diary, Part #82
The French-Ukrainian New York actress, Ambrealys Petonnet-Vincent, is well known for her admirable Ukrainian patriotism, her advocacy for feminism and women’s rights - something sorely needed in Ukraine, where women’s rights are often not respected as much as they should be; her love of cats; and also, like me, her occasional frustrations with Ukraine’s periodically frustrating railway infrastructure.
This being a war zone, my journey from Lviv to Kharkiv ran into an unexpected “technical problem”, as these things used to be called in Soviet times, about an hour into the train ride; and I found myself alighting at Kyiv for a short stay in the nation’s capitol to have certain technical discussions with my technical teams. I arrived after dark but shortly before the curfew, and checked myself into my usual Kyiv hotel. Alas I could not go any further on this train. These are the sorts of thing that happen in war. During wartime, all common sense is often lost. It was not that Kyiv was under bombardment, as it so sadly and disgracefully has been in the past; it is rather that there were … well, technical problems. And therefore I anticipate spending a couple of days in Kyiv before continuing my travels and my civilian and humanitarian engagements. These things happen during a war.
Having my journey frustrated reminded me of a couple of features of Lviv railway station that had particularly struck me when I had been there a few hours ago. (This was not one of Ukraine’s faster trains from Lviv to Kyiv; it had taken over eight hours.) A board exists in the station showing all the services that have been cancelled by reason of Russia’s occupation of Ukraine. Hence the trains from Lviv to Lysychansk, Mariupol and Donetsk are all shown on this board; where a train is reinstated because the Ukrainian Armed Forces have retaken territory formerly under Russian control or threatened by Russia, as with Mykolaïv and Kherson, the green letters - showing a cancelled service - are replaced with white letters - showing one reinstated. It is a poignant and remarkable symbol of Ukrainian determination to see her country reunited as one and rid of the Russian occupation. In time, I hope and I am sure, every one of the cancelled services on this board - and I have seen a similar board in Kyiv railway station - will be reinstated as Ukraine is reunited.
The other feature of Lviv railway station that I found amusing but really it is illustrative of the strength of feeling - is that the words “Russia” and “Belarus” have been erased from the railway map. For Ukrainians, those countries effectively no longer exist. Their behaviour has been so egregious - so appalling in the disregard for international law - that Ukrainians prefer not to see the names of these countries in their public buildings. I can appreciate their sentiment. So someone has just painted over the names of those countries on the international railway map in Lviv station, and they are no so-called black holes in the map.
It is really amazing that Ukrainian Railways are as effective as they are, and that technical problems are so rare on the railways. If only the international NGO community could be as efficient as Ukrainian Railways, and as determined with the limited and finite resources at their disposal to deliver aid and assistance ever more effectively to the deprived and under-privileged. These are the true goals for the NGO’s, and if they aspire to international acceptance and increased funding from public or private bodies alike then it is imperative that they act with the highest standards of professionalism and integrity. If you want to have substantial influence, then you must show that you are able and prepared to act with responsibility and a clear head, and not swerve and veer into bad decision making without adequate procedures or formalities. What governments are better at, and NGO’s are less good at, is thinking through all the different consequences of their actions and realising that any action has a variety of intended and unintended effects and that there are a variety of competing interests, rights and concerns to balance in the decisions you make, the way you spend your money, and the means by which you select, deploy and treat your personnel.
Ukrainian Railways is enormously effective in its use of what in many cases is a collection of dilapidated Soviet-era rolling stock. They keep their trains running on time, without technical problems of the kind that might beset other sorts of organisation, they work within clear budgets and their personnel are hard-working, committed, brave and responsible. They get the job done in exceptionally difficult circumstances without fuss, fear or fervour. Ukrainian Railways are one of the most reliable institutions in the country.
So I find myself being able to overcome my occasional frustrations with Ukrainian Railways. Although my journey this evening was cut short, and now I am sitting lonely in an anonymous Kyiv hotel room with only a chocolate bar and a bag of gherkins for my evening meal, staring out of the window at the deserted streets and wondering what went wrong, I know that tomorrow is another day. I will have some necessary business in Kyiv tomorrow, or on Monday perhaps, in consequence of my technical problems. Who is to say. Or maybe all the problems will resolve themselves miraculously. I often find that this is what happens.
Even in a war zone, sitting on your own on a Saturday evening and reflecting on your thoughts after another surprising and unusual day, it is possible to find space for a smile, if just to myself and to my readers. Tomorrow, it has been suggested, I should go to Church. I think I will do that. This will be an unexpected Sunday away from my professional obligations, and I should take advantage of it. I am trying to do God’s work, and I think that all the other civilian volunteers I have met in Ukraine are trying to do the same thing. God bless you all, and Goodnight.