Fragments from a War Diary, Part #85
I don’t think I’ve been having a good day. I got back to my hotel in Kyiv early this evening, just after dark but well before curfew, in order to have a quiet meal, a light beer, and to go to bed. But it seems that matters were not destined to turn out that way.
Sitting at the bar of the hotel, the only other customer in there in fact, was an intense American volunteer with the International Legion and a large bushy beard. My, he wanted to talk. He was a member of a Special Forces team that had been penetrating the front lines and organising ambush attacks on Russian defensive positions. I will not say where he had been, as a matter of military operational policy and out of respect for the individual. But he had seen some rough things. He had been almost dead, with fatal wounds, twice. He told me what it feels like to die. After the pain and suffering, he said, and as the blood starts rushing out of your body and you get the sensation that you are about to pass away, the pain stops and you start to feel numb. You have a sense of peace, and then your body feels cold (the warm blood is draining out of it). And then you wake up on an operating table in a military field hospital with a Ukrainian military surgeon screaming at you, “how the f@ck are you still alive?”.
This happened to him twice. Tomorrow this gentleman is returning to the front line.
He was a very agreeable fellow, but I could not get a word in edgeways. He wanted to tell me about all the vehicles he had been in that had been blown up by enemy fire - while he was in them. He had detailed descriptions of various pieces of shrapnel and how close they had been lodged in his body to various vital arteries. We discussed how safe it is to be within various ranges of Russian artillery targets where the shells have high explosive warheads. (The answer is: it is not safe at all; but he seemed to think that within 500 metres is tolerable.) He told me about all the various pieces of his body that had holes blown in it. He spoke with a rapid rattle to his conversation, overwhelming me with gory details while all I wanted to do was prattle around with the news websites on my mobile phone. He turned eagerly in my direction, pinning me with his stare. I knew there was no getting away.
Nevertheless he was good natured, and amiable, and I found his stories fascinating and engaging if horrifying. Quite what a US volunteer is doing as a member of a special forces unit on the front line, I do not know. This gentleman appeared to me to be past retirement age from the US military, and I suspect he was doing it for the kicks. I realised there was no point trying to talk him out of going back to the front line tomorrow. He wants to die, and that is probably what is going to happen to him. He finds it exciting to die. He told me of all the friends he had who had been in bars, drinking with him, and also working in special forces on the front line, who are now dead. They died just a few days later after drinking beer with him. And that is what is going to happen to him. He will go back to the front line and there he will be killed, because that is what he wants. Otherwise he would not be going back a third time.
Still I had great cause to be grateful to this amiable if unhinged American hero. The next guest at the bar was somewhat more unsatisfactory. An extremely drunk Ukrainian non-commissioned officer, palpably suffering from shell shock or some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, staggered into the bar, reeking of vodka, still wearing his military fatigues and leaving a couple of enormous military rucksacks amongst the sofas in the reception area of the hotel. He came in and put his arm around me, saying something incoherent in his rudimentary English, and then swiped my beer from me and sat down, having turned the bar stool the wrong way round, and drank it for himself. He then showed the American man a series of videos on his mobile phone, apparently of boxers beating each other to death. I did not participate in this ritual.
When the American man went to the bathroom to escape this lunatic, he directed his attentions back towards me. He started screaming at me in Russian, which I thought unusual for a relatively decent hotel bar in Kyiv. I could not work out what he was saying - I doubt even he knew - but he was raising his fists and I realised he was threatening to beat me to a pulp.
These things are fine. They are just part of the ordinary course of war. I remained calm, I exchanged no eye contact with him, and I just looked at the face of the barmaid to judge his actions, who was becoming increasingly alarmed and agitated as his fists got ever closer to my face. In such circumstances it is best not to react in the slightest way. I just kept reading the BBC news on my mobile phone, oblivious to his menaces. Eventually the American gentleman, who at least was polite, came back and sat between the two of us. The barmaid asked me whether I wanted my meal in my room, but I showed the British customary phlegm and insisted that I eat my meal and finish my new beer in the bar in front of the maniac. He then went to demonstrate to the hotel staff his physical strength, using the military rucksacks as dumbbells. He went around shouting that he was a Colonel. He kept disappearing for cigarettes outside and then coming back, screaming about something or other. Internal security types of people arrived surreptitiously in the bar. I just remained calm.
There comes a point amidst all this chaos that it ceases to be entertaining and just becomes tiresome. That moment arose for me about twenty minutes before writing these words, when I silently but calmly retired to my bedroom amidst the nonsense going on around me and I opened my laptop to record yet another extraordinary and unusual day in the middle of this horrific war that distorts all common sense and reason.