Fragments from a War Diary, Part #87
As I write these words, I am on the train from Kyiv to Przemyśl in Poland. However I have bought a ticket only as far as Lviv, the beautiful and charming city in western Ukraine that at various times in history has served as a Ukrainian capital in different guises. The last few days have proven particularly frustrating, and I am wondering whether I should stay on this relatively luxurious train and cross the border out of military theatre. I have after all been here since late August, and it is quite a lot of time already. The last few days have been particularly frustrating, with an abortive trip to Kharkiv that resulted in some unnecessary nastiness directed against me which by all accounts thoroughly demoralised the international community in that city. As we say in England, “you’ll be hearing from my solicitors.” Anyway I have decided not to become unnecessarily dispirited, because the NGO world is a complex one and currently, in Ukraine, it is suffering dramatic contractions as the world’s attention focuses upon the conflict in Israel and donors’ attentions are diverted from the ongoing crises - military and civilian - in Ukraine. This is a reason not to leave yet, I decide; I am not about to board the next flight to Tel Aviv.
I prefer to enter conflict zones after the initial stages of panic, crisis and reaction, when a more contemplative and reflective mind is needed to try to address in a strategic fashion the problems facing a zone hit by conflict. The fact that the NGO world is suffering in Ukraine is because the Ukraine crisis is no longer perceived as a financial priority for the international community. The relationships between NGO’s are becoming more strained as they compete for resources. Some of the NGO staff present in Ukraine have been here too long, and they are resistant to the fresh thinking that is necessary. So I will spend a little longer in Lviv, to try to coordinate the activities and efforts of the international community in Ukraine and to see whether I can contribute to the dose of fresh thinking that I have identified may be needed. I have a lot of country-specific experience and expertise: far more, I have realised, than many of the people in the NGO community who tend to hop from one crisis zone to the next without always having regard to the specific details of the country or region where the crisis takes place. And as conflicts continue - and they tend to; wars are seldom over quickly - the “one size fits all” mould becomes decreasingly appropriate and regional expertise, including knowledge of the culture and history giving rise to the conflict - becomes ever more relevant. In crude terms, it becomes less important to know how to lift a sand bag and more important to know how to read a book.
These trains of comparative luxury that run between Poland and Kyiv via Lviv were designed to carry political leaders, diplomats and other dignitaries to Kyiv to meet Ukrainian political leaders during the war notwithstanding the lack of any flights because all of Ukrainian airspace is closed, save to a handful of Ukrainian military aeroplanes and, I hear, a few Helivac rotaries for emergency medical evacuations although there are very few of them and they are at risk of being taken down by Russian medium range surface-to-air missile systems. So if you want to meet President Zelenskiy in Kyiv, you have to go by train. These trains are not particularly luxurious but they are substantially above the quality of the old Soviet carriages with their relentless dull thuds as the bogies pass over the gaps between the rails. This train seems to go quite fast although the journey from Kyiv to Lviv is still slated for eight hours and it is really not that far. I suppose, as always, that there are a lot of stops. The train is mercifully half empty, and I can already feel a sense of relief that I am returning to the relative normality of Lviv. Even in Kyiv, all the incidents of front line struggle seem to be present, including crazy conversations, violent people, empty streets and visible human misery. Lviv could (almost) be another pleasant and ornate city in a remote corner of Poland.
When sitting on this modern European train, hurtling through the barren Ukrainian countryside on a bright but chilly day, I recall the contrast with the Kyiv metro that I used yesterday. The Kyiv metro is a study in grime and disorder. Once grandiose, in the post-independence period it was left to decay and, unlike the Kharkiv metro, its ornate art deco stations were not kept clean or renovated. There is dirt on the floors, the carriages are grimy and the ticket machines are byzantine and difficult to use without the assistance of a friendly local. In Kharkiv, by contrast, the metro has been preserved in pristine condition and yet Kharkiv is far closer to the front line, and it has been the victim of far graver aerial bombardment. The conclusion I reluctantly reach is that in Kyiv, people don’t seem to care so much about their public transport. I think the reason may be that the Kyiv elites - many of whom have now left the city or even the country - did not use the public transport and therefore political attention and the public finances were not directed towards it. By contrast in Kharkiv the metro formed the lifeblood of transport around the city in the post-independence industrial boom years, and Kharkiv, even in the impoverished state in which it now finds itself with a shrapnel fragment having apparently pierced the windows of every municipal building in the city centre, retains a greater sense of civic pride. The people of Kharkiv are calm, welcoming and overwhelmingly grateful for the international community support they have received. This is a recurrent feature I have observed in several other frontline communities, including Sloviansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Mykolaïv. Although elements of the international community may from time to time idiotically fight with one-another, the local people of Ukraine are very grateful for the fact that we are here at all. Once again I feel myself an Emissary of the West, bound to uphold the highest standards of duty, honour and respect both to the Ukrainian people, civilians and military personnel; and also to my colleagues in the international community, notwithstanding the petty squabbles I may occasionally experience.
How, I wonder, can we hope to show Ukraine the path to EU and NATO membership, and her integration into the community of Euro-Atlantic liberal democracies, if we cannot set an example in our actions and our words? So that is how I shall proceed, for now: with dignity, respect and decency towards all men and women, trying to keep the flame of international interest in the Ukrainian crisis alive amidst all the other pressing global matters vying for attention in the foreign media and in foreign ministries across the world. If I change my mind, then you, dear reader, will be the first to know and I will inform you in these diaries.