Fragments from a War Diary, Part #99
It was a gloomy cold dark and moody October day today, with light freezing drizzle and hoods pulled over people’s faces. Nevertheless I was happy, because I was starting for work a one of Lviv’s enormous military kitchens, preparing ration packs to travel far across the country to the Ukrainian military on the front line. There are several of these kitchens in the centre of the city, and although they are well known to local people their locations are not advertised. After all, in the early stages of the war Lviv was the victim of long range Russian cruise missile attacks and a site providing non-lethal support to the Ukrainian military was an entirely viable target. Now Russia has apparently run out of these long-range missiles, Lviv is effectively immune from bombardment - at least so we hope - and hence it is a hub for the war effort. It is too far away from the front line for the Russians to strike.
My new place of work is vastly more efficient than the places where I have been engaged previously. Dozens of workers are filing in and out of a site that is open twelve hours a day for the staff preparing food and 24 hours a day for those tending to the enormous cookers. I cannot guess accurately, but this site must be making thousands of meals a day that are then distributed across the front line using entirely domestic networks of logistics. This seems to me the most rational way of distributing aid: prepare everything necessary in a place of relative safety, and then distribute it using the local vehicles that are criss-crossing the country all day every day.
I spent the day on my feet with a mixed group of domestic and international workers from all over the world. The atmosphere is extremely laid back and the tasks to be undertaken are straightforward - the sorts of thing everyone does in their own kitchen - but the scale is vast. There are onions, peppers, tomatoes and cabbages to be chopped. Enormous quantities of potatoes need to be peeled. There are warehouses and storage boxed full of different sorts of food everywhere. The net result after all this cleaning cutting chopping and cooking is vacuum packed nutritional meals that can be moved en masse in regular vehicles and that do not require refrigeration. They will last for a long time. All the soldiers on the front line need to do to prepare the meals is to add hot water. It is simple and straightforward and for that reason it is one of the best systems of food aid distribution that I have seen in the country.
We all make light conversation as we work away on our enormous task of meal preparation. The conversation is friendly and engaging. There are no egos at work. We talk a bit about Dutch politics, as a number of the people working today are from the Netherlands. There is no fixed commitment in terms of time - we are all volunteers - but I have decided to set my days at six and a half hours of solid work without taking a substantial break. This is quite enough to be on your feet and by the end of my shift I feel as though I have had a good workout. This is a popular place to work and I can see that the people I am with are well-intentioned and decent hearted. Most of the foreigners have not been here as long as I have. Many are here just for a couple of weeks and are horrified or shocked by my casual stories of front line life. Nevertheless what these people are doing here, cooking on a mass scale in Lviv, may be more helpful in terms of contributing to the war effort than my tramping up and down the front line in search of adventure.
This is not a place you can find to work at by searching on the internet. While it does have a social media presence, it remains very discreet. This is a place that you learn of only by word of mouth. I feel comfortable and at home, and I have a sense of satisfaction that in giving these people my hours of labour I am making a real contribution.
And then, when it is time to go home, I just step out of the front gate and into Lviv’s beautiful cobbled streets as the earlier winter dusk approaches. The ornate, twisting spires of Lviv’s historical churches are presented to me at every angle. I drift through the Old Town, and despite the miserable weather I see young people gathered outside in one of the city’s squares, laughing as they drink one of these disgusting cocktails out of paper cups for which Lviv appears famous. They seem to be a mixture of vodka and berry syrup and I did once try one in Odessa but never again.
By the time I get home I am exhausted. I have some sundry shopping to do but I am not sure I am ready for anything except lying on the bed. There is a social event with my new colleagues tonight and I am determined to go to that because they are all such a pleasant group of people. Quite frankly they are much nicer than the people I was working with before. Away from the front line, people become less peculiar. They are less paranoid, less questioning, less suspicious and less opinionated. Lviv is almost a normal city, although it does have its quirks and without doubt the infrastructure is poor as the periodic infrastructure failures demonstrate. It is also a difficult place to get things done. I can never find the groceries I want. The Police came round the Old Town last night, closing all the venues early. There is seemingly an ongoing question as to how strictly the curfew ought to be enforced in a city which is essentially at peace. Public transport doesn’t run to schedules. Rather ominously, several people are complaining that their gas supplies are failing them. If that were to become a trend then it might mean a deeply unpleasant Ukrainian winter.
You don’t need a front line / red zone paper map and magnetic compass in Lviv. Life in western Ukraine is a civilian affair. Nevertheless the city has been irreversibly altered by the conflict in the east which the people of Lviv and their foreign supporters now serve to support. I am reminded of this fact, as I walk back to my temporary home, by the giant concrete slabs surrounding the city government’s offices. This is still a regime of martial law. Even amidst all these unusual things, I continue to feel good about what I am doing to help Ukraine and her people.