Fragments from a War Diary, Part #93
This afternoon, taking a short rest in my hostel of a sort, I looked up at the ceiling and I realised that this is not a hostel at all but a converted museum. The ceiling is in a baroque style and most ornate, and there is an enormous museum description sign on the wall in my room discussing the history of the building. Unfortunately it is in Ukrainian, so I cannot quite tell what it is all about.
When I first arrived here, I thought there was something a bit unusual. This accommodation, that calls itself a hostel, has no dormitories. Actually it only has a handful of rooms, none of which are en suite and a series of toilets and shower facilities are collected down the hall. There is a large open plan kitchen area, and the rooms are all bunched in one corner. And this afternoon it occurred to me that this is the layout that a floor of a museum might have. My room is long and thin, and the wooden flooring looks quite old, as though many thousands of feet have tramped across it. The room is too thin for a double bed, so there are two single beds placed head to head. There is a tiny long thin table along one part of the long wall. I imagine that this room was either a corridor where people would hang coats and collect tickets, or that it exhibited a series of works of art that hung from the walls in a thin gallery format.
I should have known. This is possibly the most central address in the city, and it is certainly not a place where one would expect to find a youth hostel. This must be one of the oldest buildings in the city, and it overlooks the statue of Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko. It’s the Lviv equivalent of staying in a youth hostel on Leicester Square. I never see any people although I don’t think I am the only guest. Occasionally furtive bodies slip in and out of the door as though determined to avoid all human contact. The museum plaque in my room contains long incomprehensible descriptions of the history of Lviv and old photographs and paintings of Lviv through the centuries. I am sleeping in a piece of history.
The hallways are full of strange statutes and sculptures. My bedroom is next to an office that offers graphic design services. This isn’t a hostel or a hotel. It’s a museum that has been expropriated by someone for whatever purposes might seem appropriate. I feel as though I am in a surrealist movie.
I step out to my favourite local bar in my brand new puffy camouflage jacket. A friend and colleague told me I look nice in it, so I feel flattered and handsome tonight. The streets are extraordinarily busy for a country at war. I have flashbacks, recalling my experiences in Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaïv, Sloviansk, Kharkiv and Kherson. Everything here is so normal, everything I experienced only train rides away so extraordinary. I slump myself in my usual seat at the bar, and I strike up a conversation with two retired US military veterans, now working in a kitchen in Lviv preparing food to supply to the front line. At least, so I suppose. The front line is a long way from Lviv. Are these kitchens really supplying soldiers? I don’t know the answers to these things. The front line is a 12-hour nonstop drive, at the very least, from here. Presumably by then the food will be cold.
I realise why my favourite bar is always busy: it is open later than all the rest. I want to stay and chat to foreign volunteers and the idle youth of Lviv, but fatigue is overcoming me. I cannot stay to the end. The barman keeps trying to flog me his favourite variety of homemade Limoncello. Presumably he has an additional mark-up on this. I don’t have a sweet tooth. I stare away at the ground in response to his repeated approaches.
It’s all so strange. Like the lady holding a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile in the photo accompanying this essay, I feel distinctly out of place, surrounded by unusual people talking about strange things. I realise I have become a fount of knowledge. People in this bar ask me about my experiences of and risk assessments for Kherson, because they are headed that way to deliver civilian food aid to the rural areas. This all sounds strangely familiar. I was there doing precisely that, just a few weeks ago. I tell them my stories of Russian artillery firing on positions close to our convoy.
My listeners look distinctly uneasy. I wonder why they are having to learn this elementary intelligence from a random stranger sitting in a bar in Lviv. Is nobody briefing them as to the dangers? Apparently not. I realise I am one of the few international civilians to have experienced Kherson first-hand in recent times, and yet my repository of knowledge is available only on a select and randomised basis to anyone who comes to ask me about it. In the contemporary war in Ukraine, there simply is no system of centralised intelligence collection and sharing amongst and between the people who need it. Everybody is proceeding on an ad hoc basis. It is disorganised and dispiriting to see different parts of the international community unable to coordinate the information they have in their possession.
If you want to learn what conditions are like in Kharkiv, Sloviansk, Mykolaïv or Kherson, then you need to have the good fortune to bump into an imagined veteran of these places such as me. And it seems that seven weeks makes you a seasoned veteran; many of the international community volunteers come only for ten days to two weeks at a time. In my view this is not long enough. People ought to commit to longer periods, so that they can learn; NGO’s should also commit to their staff and treat them better, so that they can enjoy the benefits of properly trained staff over longer periods. Now we are in a situation in which casual war tourist volunteers are coming into military theatre for only a week or two, each time needing to relearn the difficult lessons of life on the front line that I have learned over a longer period and I keep recounting to different rookies in Lviv bars.
I have been invited back to the front line, but we need funding to deliver essential supplies. We need to pay for the cost of the gasoline. The funding problems with international NGO’s and volunteers supporting the Ukrainian war effort are getting as difficult as that: we cannot afford the gasoline. I have this sense that the whole system is breaking down. It’s going to hell. Maybe I need a short break from military theatre. Maybe I need the Carpathian Mountains. Maybe I need a dozen different things and my soul is screaming out from my body for a piece of normality. In war, you live from hour to hour, day to day, enduring the obscene, the inspiring, the curious and the bizarre. You need a break or something in your head goes soft. I don’t know whether I am yet at that stage; I will decide tomorrow. It is time once more for that universal panacea, the solution to all problems: sleep. Good wishes, dear reader, and Goodnight.