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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #9

It is not straightforward to persuade civilians of any kind, whether volunteers or government workers, to travel to active war zones. It is not even easy to persuade them to travel to post-conflict scenarios, which might be a better way of describing much of free Ukraine away from the front lines where the fighting has for the most part stopped. There is a lack of creature comforts, a series of restrictions on one’s liberty (curfews, martial law, travel restrictions, constraints on electronic communications and similar) and an omnipresent sense of anxiety and danger. For many civilians, and indeed for anyone other than inured professional soldiers, visiting a war zone is a gruelling exercise and requires an elevated level of the customary phlegm.

For these reasons the workers prepared to deliver humanitarian assistance in a conflict zone, particularly on the front line, are few and far between. The peer group tends to be confined to a handful of people with prior experience of civil conflicts, or who have worked with the military or been trained by them, and are not bothered as much as typical people by physical discomfort, war risk, or experiences that would discomfort many people. One of those experiences is the delivery of humanitarian aid to the poor and dispossessed afflicted by the horrors of war.

The four principal kinds of humanitarian assistance in a civil conflict are safe shelter; clothing; food; and medication. In all cases the delivery of these commodities to civilians in a war zone is a matter of impeccable logistics and efficiency. For the most part I have been involved so far in my experiences on the front line in Ukraine in the delivery of food in rural and suburban areas where the war has compounded unspeakable poverty. The goal on each day has been to deliver hot food to the starving. War compounds pre-existing economic misery because it contracts daily economic activity and there is no flow of money. Wealthy people, stimulating the economy from above, have often left military theatre because they had the opportunity to do so. Governmental social security networks have broken down as government activities have been redirected to focus upon the war effort. Because modern armies are cognisant of how difficult it is to seize a large city in the face of a mobilised opposing military force, much fighting in modern wars takes place in smaller settlements. This means that while life in the cities may go on approximately normally, even if bombs and missiles are periodically raining down, the economies of suburban and rural settlements are disproportionately undermined and this is where the phenomenon of mass starvation or malnutrition is most likely to occur.

Supplying these settlements with food is an exercise in massive mobile catering. You may be trying to deliver up to 2,000 meals to any specific site in a single day, with a team of fewer than ten people. The constant daily pressure upon the workers engaged in the hard manual labour necessary to deliver a hot meal to such large numbers of people is significant. Vehicles and cookers need to be cleaned. Indeed everything needs to be kept permanently as clean as possible: a monumental exercise. Food needs to be kept fresh: a particular challenge in hot weather. (Ukraine remains remarkably hot even into September, and then plunges into the icy depths of winter by December, becoming particularly chilly in the south by reason of proximity to the Black Sea.) The process of transport of food, unpacking, preparing, cooking, preparing plates and delivering the food to what is often an unruly mass of hungry people requires meticulous preparation and execution each day. And it is hard work. Everyone involved in the exercise is typically very tired by the end of the working day.

The routine is different each day, to take into account the daily risks. Military risks by their nature tend to vary, and local intelligence gathering is essential in planning one’s work. Arrangements may be made, cancelled or modified at the last minute. A particular priority may suddenly emerge; another imagined priority may be assessed as too dangerous. Coordination with the authorities is required, as best as is possible. The Police forces, that in Ukraine have become semi-militarised, will often be present. The aid convoy may need a military escort, depending on precisely where it is going. All this requires planning, flexibility and hardy people.

It is very hard to find these people, and there is a limit to the time commitment one can expect of such people. Although in theory Ukrainian immigration law permits most foreigners to enter Ukraine for 90 days, in practice this rule is not being enforced for aid workers and foreign soldiers who are free to stay for as long as they like. Just like soldiers, aid workers get burned out if they are in military theatre for too long. Three to six months is perhaps the maximum that should be attempted without a substantial break. Some aid workers find that they just cannot cope with the daily stress, danger and uncertainty, and leave soon after arriving. Some cannot cope with the constant sense of camaraderie required between often very different people with very different skills. Turnover of aid staff is an inevitable fact of life, which is why foreign governments should include this on the list of issues they focus upon in providing support to Ukraine in her ongoing conflict with the Russian Federation.

It is a humbling experience to deliver food and other essential supplies, that may include everything from ad hoc medication to children’s toys to fruit juices (high in nutritional content; malnutrition is a recurrent problem in war zones) to so many people every day. The desperation in the faces of the dispossessed is depressing and it requires mental fortitude to be able to put one’s personal emotions to one side and continue with the process of getting the population fed. Crowds of hungry people may become pushy and angry, as they are desperate to take food supplies, living as they do on the brink between existence and starvation. There is a constant risk of being overwhelmed by angry, desperate or frustrated people, and they may exercise their frustrations against one-another. Keeping order in a process of feeding up to thousands of people per day is essential, and it requires a cheery disposition, a firm hand and, if necessary, assistance from the local Police.

At the time of writing, this exercise takes place seven days a week, each day under the intermittent blare of air raid sirens and relentless attack warnings by Russian ordnance. By the time the team returns to relative safety, currently in central Zaporizhzhia (itself not exactly a haven of peace and sanctuary but safer than the rural and suburban communities closer to the front line), everyone is hot, tired, dirty and exhausted. Teams of people undertaking this kind of work get to know one another extremely well over time. Although relations are not always easy, there is a sense of common purpose that binds together aid workers and military personnel alike. It soon becomes difficult to abandon the common cause, committed as you are to mitigating the misery of thousands of different people every day. You cannot help everyone; all you can do is your best.


Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.


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