Fragments from a War Diary, Part #98
Today I am starting a new and exciting position as a volunteer preparing food and meals for humanitarian purposes. I have spent the last week in meetings and doing things in the nature of office work, and I have been doing a lot of travelling on Ukrainian Railways which, while an admirable system, is very exhausting. I have had the good fortune to encounter a group of some of the nicest people in the NGO community in Ukraine that I have met so far, and they are undertaking good wholehearted admirable and straightforward work, preparing food and it seems building a new kitchen to feed the needy. Having tired a little of some of the political machinations involved in the NGO world in Ukraine, it is suddenly refreshing to meet a group of people who have no political machinations in their back pockets and just want to get on with the straightforward work of helping people in need. So as soon as I have finished penning these words, I am going off to work with them.
However before I go I thought I might provide you, the reader, with a short list of some of the things I have experienced in the NGO community that I don’t like.
One is NGO staff who come to Ukraine with a view to exploiting Ukrainian women. Unfortunately I have discovered that this is more common than it might appear. Last night I was sitting in my regular bar and I decided to get chatting with three enormous men, roaringly drunk after a short tour of duty, who had only one interest: getting to know the local girls and then going to a strip club which they politely invited me to and I politely declined. I suppose that getting roaring drunk is tolerable within limits, and they were spending a lot of money, buying everyone in the bar drinks. Hence we were all roaring drunk. However they were then making a nuisance of themselves with the girls and I concluded that they were basically sex tourists. They told me they were senior officials in a European government. I hope that is not true because if they were then they should be ashamed of themselves and the impression they are leaving with local people and with me alike as to the attitude of that government towards the conflict in Ukraine: as a source of sexual stimulation.
Unfortunately these are not the only people I have come across who are in Ukraine ostensibly for admirable purposes but who have come to the country to enjoy its sex industry. Ukraine has a history of post-independence exploitation and trafficking of young women by foreign men. It is one of the most disagreeable features of western participation in Ukraine over the last 30 years and we in the international community present as emissaries of the West and her values during wartime must not exacerbate this or exploit it. Of course sex and relationships take place during war. But every effort must be made to avoid exploitative behaviour or even being perceived as condoning it. So while Lviv is full of sex shops and strip clubs, for me these things are strictly out of the question.
The second thing I have noticed amongst some members of the NGO community that I really do not like is a hierarchical contempt for international workers who are not in the most dangerous or difficult parts of the country. Yesterday evening I received a tirade of electronic abuse from someone who had been reading my diaries - good morning, sir - whose grievance with me seemed to be that I had moved back to Lviv where it is relatively safe and I was to be held in contempt for not working in danger and basic conditions close to the front line. Well, I have done my time in the more dangerous parts of the country and I do not think it is a good idea that anybody risks their lives or places themselves in discomfort unnecessarily. There is nothing innately glorious in dying or risking your life. Should you do this, you are simply creating a problem for the Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the event that you are injured or you die and they have to repatriate your body and deal with consular issues. It may give you an adrenalin rush to be adjacent to the missiles when they detonate - and that has happened to me, as the readers of these diaries will be aware - but it is tremendously distressing for your family and friends back home to understand that you are in danger and long-term exposure to conflict zones can leave you with lasting psychiatric damage.
For this reason I was sceptical when a number of people suggested that they wanted to go to Kherson to open permanent accommodation there for foreigners. I think this is an extremely bad - no, stupid - idea, because Kherson city is known to be awash with Russian infiltrators who report to the Russian artillery positions south of the Dnieper River where foreigners are staying in the city, if foreigners stay the night. Then the Russians shell those positions. That is why Kherson has hardly any hotels left: the Russians strike them because they are tipped off that foreigners are there. This sort of project is pure bad behaviour on the part of the NGO community. Kherson is far too dangerous to spend the night there if you are any sort of foreigner and if you go there to help the civilian community or for any other region then you should go in and out on day trips from Mykolaïv, a city an hour away and outside Russian shelling range. Indeed this is what members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces themselves do. I am not saying there is no need for urgent humanitarian assistance in Kherson. I have seen with my own eyes that there is, and I admire those that wish to service that need. But the foregoing represents a sort of war tourism I do not believe in: deliberately taking risks with your life in search of an adrenalin rush.
Thirdly, I think that members of the NGO community, all facing financial restraints as their traditional source of donor funds, private generosity, dries up and the world’s attention is drawn to new crises, should stop bickering with one another. I have seen open outbursts of vitriol between NGO’s working ostensibly towards the same goals and between individuals with relatively senior positions in those NGO’s making fools of themselves by attacking and criticising other members of the NGO community. We are all here to do good. These political rivalries may be driven by competition for donor funds in substantial part; but competition is a fact of life in both the NGO community and lots of other parts of life and you don’t have to make it personal. The international community in Ukraine is supposed to be composed of well-intentioned volunteers with common goals of helping Ukraine and her people. We should not go round slinging mud at one-another.
And now I am going to join my new colleagues and enjoy a thoroughly hard day’s work, helping the Ukrainian people with those cabbages. I wish you all a very good day.