After 45 days of war, it’s the first day that a funky Kyiv cafe has reopened and I’m there with a man whose job it is to save lives. Paul Niland, the founder of Lifeline Ukraine, sits with me; I’m back in a city I often came to before the war. I want to mark the fact that most of my friends and family have survived the siege of their city. I want to hug them and hear them. Paul among them.
My coffee companion describes the “rule of one”. It’s what his suicide-prevention hotline is founded on. Australians were there at Lifeline Ukraine in its early days and it’s one of the connections between this ancient and now scarred place and the country I call home.
“Our focus is on the needs of each person who calls, no matter their circumstances or background or state of mind,” says Niland, an Irish expat with more than 20 years in Ukraine. “It’s about non-judgment. For our hotline counselors, it’s about being fully engaged with that one person in that one moment to save one life. ”
As air raid sirens went off, bombs fell, and suburbs were leveled by Russian military occupiers, calls to Lifeline Ukraine had increased by 40 percent since the start of the war. Service, though, was never interrupted as Niland and his team switched to remote locations, such as bomb shelters, and to having some calls answered by allied services in Estonia and Poland and Israel.
Niland, like hundreds of thousands of Kyiv residents, re-organized their lives. He split his time between running Lifeline, taking shifts with the voluntary patrol and Molotov production line formed at this apartment block, listening to the grapevine for which stores had bread on a given day, and Zooming his relationship with Nastya, a local journalist working near 24/7 to cover the war.
“Things have changed,” says Niland, who stood on Kyiv’s Maidan, or Independence Square, as part of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution. “People have been unprecedentedly and extraordinarily kind to each other to mutually survive.”
Perhaps it’s the “rule of one” in action on a grander scale in Ukraine, I wonder as we speak. People needing the personal and historical moment when at their most vulnerable. It is possible that some people may become more present in war?
Then Niland describes a call to Lifeline by a soldier of the invading Russian army. The crisis support worker who took the call deal with her client with “complete compassion, confidentiality and professionalism”. When she hung up the phone, though, she screamed, raged and cursed the Russian forces. Several of Lifeline’s staff are veterans of Putin’s first invasion of eastern Ukraine and they have now returned to military service.