In December 2014, I went to Kyiv to help make a film about volunteers who are helping the war effort in Ukraine. It was a very short visit - only two weeks - but it was enough to convince me that a lot of the propaganda damning Ukraine as a fascist country is very skewed. During the trip, which was organised by a Ukrainian friend and shared by a French journalist, I went to the eastern front, met volunteer fighters with the Azov Battalion and talked to soldiers from the regular army. We saw shelling but also walked on the frozen shores of the Sea of Azov, its stillness a welcome contrast to the conflict raging a few miles away. War is always terrible but I was outraged by the Russian invasion. It was impossible not to take sides. Ukrainians say they will defend themselves, but they have very old weapons set against the Kremlin’s much deadlier war machine. Should we let aggressors trample on other people when we have the means to stop them? Is the West’s reluctance to get involved more about losing business than doing what’s right? Violence often - always? - begets violence, and I’m afraid of a third world war too, but does giving way to a bully solve the problem? I hope for a peaceful resistance in Russia itself but having seen some of the mayhem, sadness and waste, I can’t see this as an abstract question any more. It feels like a luxury for someone like me, far from battles in which people are dying, either being killed by shells, tortured or starved, to have the time to philosophise: for those closer to the immediate impact of war, it’s about survival.
Update: completely new to war zones, I found the experience totally devastating and realised how lucky Iwas to be able to return to relative peace at home. But I regretted not being able to make contact with any shepherds in Ukraine. After a few months, I started working again on my book about Romanian herders who migrated to the Ukraine and Caucasus a century ago. And then I had a stroke of luck: my friends in Kyiv offered to write to the only address I had which happened to be for a Romanian shepherd in Mariupol. Amazingly, their letter produced a result and thanks to our Ukrainian-Welsh-Romanian links we were able to put the family in question back in touch with their long-lost relations in Transylvania.
My friends taking a break at sunset on the snow-covered beach in Mariupol, a strategic port on the Azov Sea where we had seen shell fire that morning.