Return to Ukraine (Chapter Three)
Returning to L'viv after five weeks away, an update on the L'viv Alliance, and more commentary on the state of affairs in the war
For the entirety of the last five weeks, I’ve felt absent; not all of me has been where I was or attentive to the task I was doing. Leaving L’viv when I did was just the necessary alternative to my scheduled flight out that would have been a few days later. Under the circumstances, though, none of the business I had to attend to elsewhere felt as important as what I left behind in Ukraine.
Upon returning, I’m mentally prepared to be frustrated and disappointed and feel under-utilised. My hope, though, is that from time to time I might actually feel useful to people who really need it. I’m quite certain that I’ll be useful in those small every-day ways – be there for friends, support local businesses – but how best can I (we) help those who need it as much as ever. As I was reminded just now in the train station in Chop, on the Hungarian border, patience and flexibility will be requirements for the course.
Earlier today, I was up at 0600 to catch a direct train from Budapest to Zahony, on a morning when chilly temperatures and overcast skies replaced days of sunny spring-like warmth. Planning backward from arriving at L’viv, I needed to get to the border before noon to catch the now-less-frequent border train. Once at the Ukrainian border, feeling the occasional spits of drizzle, there were some small heart-warming scenes: men dressed in colourful clothes handing out stuffed animals; a Devonshire tour bus (complete with wrong-side drive) that called itself the TeddyBusz that had its windows lined, absolutely packed front to end, with stuffed animals. There were a lot of children navigating the train station, which while mildly chaotic for a small-town stop like Zahony, seemed organised well enough.
There is no walk-across crossing between Ukraine and Hungary, something I learned the long way about four years ago. So I think that must make coordinating efforts a little easier at this border crossing. There’s no constant stream like you get at the Polish border.
In main hall, which is quite small, there was a set of five signs – all in English, German, Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Russian – that apparently addressed the five FAQs, including how to volunteer, how to find emergency accommodation… The one that sticks with me, though, is “If you are a refugee and don’t know how to continue your travel…” How many people, five weeks ago, today, and five weeks from now are all asking the tremulous question of, “what now?”
I poked my head into the large mess tent erected out front of the station to find it was staffed and supplied by a combination of World Central Kitchen and Cesvi efforts, both providing food aid. I asked if I could pay for lunch, but realised that the locals weren’t going to accept it, and so just made an online donation while sitting down to some warm food. It was my first time as the beneficiary of a humanitarian aid organisation.
Arriving into Chop on the other side of the border and the Tisza River, the scene was even more different than before. Sandbags and camouflage netting surrounded certain areas. Soldiers armed with assault rifles of varying makes and models dotted the platform and inside the spacious train hall. They weren’t menacing or surly, and when I later asked one very young and handsome soldier which way to get to platform five, he seemed absolutely eager to chat and help if he could. In general, and I think many soldiers will agree, boredom is their most consistent nemesis. Second place might go to being asked questions to which no one seems to know the answers.
My train from Chop to L’viv was supposed to leave at 14:00 local time – I lost an hour crossing into the Eastern European time zone– and so when I got through immigration at 14:07, my very simple question was, “has this train left already?” I was told, from what I could understand, that it was coming in 30 minutes. It was apparently late without anyone actually saying as much, a point which I was unable to clarify with the assistance of GoogleTranslate. So I wasn’t convinced that the train they were talking about was my train, despite how likely it seemed a train could be late during wartime.. If I missed it, I knew I could hop a taxi and beat the train to a station 30 minutes down the track. The trains in this part of Ukraine are indeed that slow; not everywhere, but in Transcarpathia for certain. The aged trains on the aged tracks, massive locomotives of Soviet size, seem to plough more than they seem to ride. Methodical as a turtle, with no hurry, and no grace, lumbering and creaking and banging their way along.
So this is where that patience and sustaining low expectations is necessary. If I had indeed missed my train, I had plenty of time to get a hotel in a town 30 minutes away and just wait for tomorrow. So I waited. About an hour later, the train did show, and eventually it left about 95 minutes behind schedule.
The scene leaving Chop for Hungary, as there was a train returning to the west soon, was a bit more like what I witnessed five weeks ago than what a Ukrainian friend of mine saw a few weeks ago. (Victoria is now in Chicago, sending me sunset photos from the John Hancock Center on Michigan Avenue.) When she left Chop, it was probably at the peak exodus. That’s more just an educated guess on my part than substantiated by data. (Interestingly, she’s thinking she might end up going to Australia where she once worked as a dancer -- not THAT kind of dancer -- for a show that I think was based out of Singapore. She said she has no working permission in the US, to which I replied, “well, there are ways…” very common ways, indeed.)
L’viv Alliance Update
Now that you’re up to date and I have time on the train, let me shift gears to the L’viv Alliance, and what you folks have so generously done.
My primary accomplice in the L’viv Alliance’s “boots on the ground” is my friend Ihor Rud, partner to my Ukrainian bestie Olya, and all-around good bloke. He’s been feeling out our options in L’viv as far as suppliers and such. In the coming days, we’re going to assess the needs of displaced folks and get those supplies ordered and delivered. I'm aiming to spend about 50% of what we've collected so far.
My role in assisting our body armor manufacturers is on-going with nothing really to report. Sourcing materials that can be delivered in a timely, cost-effective manner is a challenge for all of us. The preferred steel provider, for example, just has nothing for us. It’s unclear to me who might be the other buyers out there, and if we’re just competing with others supplying goods to Ukraine. Nowhere is information isn’t up-to-date, and stories change quickly, even with the folks I’m trying to help.
In the case of the helmets, I’ve been able to identify suppliers for the parts that go into the suspension of the helmets, but it’s not yet clear if those work with the Kevlar shells that we can make in-house.
These problems aren’t unfamiliar to me in the manufacturing sense. It’s the timeline and haste with which we’re trying to find solutions that's the unfamiliar challenge. Some manufacturers won’t even supply to us if the parts aren’t going to be purpose-built with on-going support, despite our insistence that we won’t hold it against them if the result is suboptimal. Such things perplex all of us here.
As I hope you’ve all seen, we’re just over the $10,000 mark on fundraising. That’s from our several sources. I’ve done this website ( https://tomgallagher72.wixsite.com/lviv-alliance) and the social media accounts (Instagram: tom4ukraine) so that folks feel more a part of the process and hope it might encourage others to contribute more. This mission isn't anywhere near its end.
In that light, here’s a list of donors that I put into three groups based on who is on the asscoiated hryvnia notes. If you’re at work while reading this, now is a perfect time to look up the faces on the Ukrainian currency. I should repeat, however, that it’s not so much that I value any one donation over another, because my job here is really just putting your money to work for you. I'm humbled by the scale of the efforts around me, and have no illusions of making great waves. Rather it's about the precision with which I can work between the cracks. Having said that about the size of the donations in regards to me, and maybe I’m wrong, I think it’s fair to acknowledge those who have given very generously to the cause, in a ballpark way.
Volodymyr Vernadskyy Level
Steve Gallagher (Denver CO)
Walter Jacques (Oklahoma City OK)
Ted Noyes (Boulder CO)
Rici & Michael Peterson (Tucson AZ)
Tom Gallagher (wherever)
Lesya Ukrainka Level
Karen Cicchineli & Mike Capilo (Berks/Chester Co PA)
Ellen Gallagher (Reading PA)
Lisa Laughlin Schneider (Austin TX)
Martha Richardson (Reading PA)
Barry Kyper (Reading PA)
Juli Manring (Key West FL)
Jan & Peter Newman (Fremantle WA AUS)
Christine & Peter Leinbach (Atlanta GA)
Marlene Harlow (Reading PA)
Steve Myers (Manchester ENG)
Samantha Johnson (Seattle WA)
Jessica Beghtel (Amarillo TX)
Michael Allen (Memphis TN)
Jenna Bristol (Boston MA)
Matthew Rudy (Easton CT)
Morgan Bailey (Tucson AZ)
Constance Blevins (USA)
Taras Shevchenko Level
Elizabeth Green (NY)
Donny Mark (Minneapolis, MN & Tivat MNE)
Rick Stoudt (Reading PA)
Dr Ryan Krch (Phoenix, AZ)
Stuart Wilson (Geelong VIC AUS)
Kirk Lawrence (Reading PA)
Jill Trasatti (Chicago IL)
Michele Rest (San Diego CA)
Susan Paprcka (Milwaukee WI)
Julie & Dale Stern (Reading PA)
Beverly & Christian Malinowski (Reading PA)
Marienne Boston (Grand Junction CO)
Dora Csornyei (Gyor HUN)
Ivana Vukicevic (Bar MNE)
Amber Penland (Lancaster PA)
Lucinda Manges (Lancaster PA)
Judie Austin (Greensboro NC)
Janet Barr (Hamburg PA)
Donald Dickerson (Houston TX & Reading PA)
Russ & Virginia Frey (Reading PA)
Andrew & Margaret Gallagher (Fredericksburg VA)
Kim Galley (Reading PA)
Jake Poinier (Phoenix AZ)
Chris Barr (Cincinnati OH)
There's plenty more room to add to this list, folks. So keep spreading the word to friends and family. As the war slogs along, it's really critical that at least we continue to build awareness. The Russian military is still lobbing mountains of munitions imprecisely at Ukrainian homes and infrastructure despite their claims to being refocusing on smaller areas. This is a truly nasty and indescriminate war.
my Continuing Commentary and the Surrounding Discussion of the war
As you may have picked up over the last month, I’ve been in favour of US (if not NATO) direct involvement in the defense of Ukraine. To a degree, one could argue that it hasn’t been necessary, since continuing US-led support of Ukraine over the last eight years has contributed to Ukraine's military being among the best prepared in history. I do contend that much of the death and destruction could have been avoided with direct involvement months ago, but there’s no real need to make that point since the pressing questions now all pertain to present actions and future results. In this light, I found President Biden’s concluding remarks in Warsaw – that Putin cannot remain in office – honest and relatively meanigful.
The overwhelming response to his closing exclamation, particularly here in Europe, seems to be critical, some calling him a diplomatic liability. Those voices often justify themselves by stating their goal is peace, which sounds magnanimous enough, except this isn’t a war for peace. This is a war perpetrated by an aggressor (call him Putin or it Russia) after economic and political alternatives to exerting their will upon Ukraine failed. You don’t stop a war like this with diplomacy without the victim giving in on demands that were previously unacceptable. To me, it’s irresponsible to call on Ukraine to give up sovereign rights because innocent people are dying. That was always going to be the consequence of fighting: people die, lives are destroyed, possessions lost. The goal, on the other hand, is to preserve freedom, self-determination, and surviving lives that are richer not just from the sacrifice, but from the resulting society in which they will live.
Typically in a fight like this, the sides punch it out until they’re fatigued and realise that their objectives cannot be met militarily. Right now, neither side has gotten to that point. If you’re Ukraine, you want to beat the Russians all the way back to the border so you’re negotiating from a position of strength on all fronts. You keep what is yours. This is why it’s so critical to keep supporting their military and providing safe havens for the civilian population. Reducing civilian suffering during this time reduces the collective “fatigue” that percolates up to Zalenskyy and the Verkhovna Rada, giving them more time to improve their negotiating position.
It’s also why I still suspect that more aggressive involvement by the US (and possibly NATO) would hasten favourable terms for Ukraine and reduce the number of civilian deaths. I don’t see that Russia has the conventional military resources to expand the theatre geographically, and there seems to be no more likelihood that Putin would “go nuclear” (or chemical) if he loses in four weeks or four months. I do see, however, how more robust US assistance would reduce civilian deaths and suffering en route to ensuring Ukrainian sovereignty.
But be that all as it may, and getting back to Biden’s concluding bluntness, most folks recognise that the WW1 Armistice led to the more hateful and destructive WW2. I see the same happening with an armistice signed with Putin remaining in power in Moscow. We can’t reward Putin for calling a ceasefire, not unless we want a worse repeat of the last few months several years from now. Similarly, with serious on-going sanctions, the economic and political future of 150-million Russians is dire. If you want to bring Russia back into the global community, which is necessary for international stability, I think, we ”cannot have that man in power”. That’s not to say any outsider physically removes him, but it certainly can be a condition of the removal of sanctions and the implementation of other treaties.
This is all well down the road, but I think it’s important that we don’t cloud our vision of the objective with the veil of diplomatic niceties. If no one in leadership is willing to say what Biden said, then how do you bring it out in negotiations later? Be consistent, be assertive, be clear, and for the future of humanity, don’t keep kicking this Putin can down the road.
Resuming the Trip
There’s only an hour of daylight left as the train ploughs and plods through the Carpathian Mountains, which themselves maintain a majestic feel in the mist, and rain, with long stretches of snow everywhere on the ground. This part of Ukraine seems unmoved by war. The green-grey ridges reach long and high into the clouds and give a sense of staid permanence. Whereas the anti-tank Czech hedgehogs at the road crossings, speak of an anxious unease.
At the Hotel in L’viv
Once on the relatively flat land immediately south of L’viv, the train gathered some smoothe momentum, and we rolled into L’viv station around 22:00, the beginning of curfew. After some frustration with Uber and Bolt apps and the failings of a smartphone screen in the rain, I bought a sandwich wrap from a vendor who was about to close, and walked the 30 minutes to my hotel in the chilly rain. The streets became increasingly quiet deeper into the curfew, but on the whole didn’t look any different than before, except in places. In those places, things look very different. Sandbags stacked blocking basement windows and stacked high around monuments. Armed guards, none questioning my purpose being out after curfew, loitered purposefully at various entries out of the rain. A less purposeful gent seemed to be keeping an eye on the international media’s satellite up-link truck and their fleet of vehicles outside their hotel. He seemed more concerned about the rain and his phone than the equipment outside.
My hotel for tonight is elegant and spacious and still rather affordable for what you get. My rucksack seems tiny in the space of the room (photographed on the chair on the right), and yet it has all of my things in it for the coming weeks/months. The guy at the reception was very pleasant and welcoming and nowhere does there seem to be an irritability among the residents. I’m staying at various hotels here in L’viv because there’s still a family in my apartment from Kharkiv, and they can make better use of the space better than I can. In return, they’re paying a portion of my hotel bill in L’viv since some of them are able to keep working “from home”.
“Home” is going to be one of those questions that gets redefined for millions of people whose structural homes have been rendered unlivable. Will they return to Kharkiv or Kherson or Mariupol in anywhere near the numbers that were there before the war? Will cities like L’viv, Uzhhorod, and Chernivtsi retain more people after the war? Our mayor, and others like me, believe so.
The next update won't be long in coming, but I wanted to get this out now. It's long enough, and the boss is probably wondering what you're up to. So I'll end this here. Please keep spreading the word.