Chou-Chou the clown is good, better than anyone could expect. Her audience is 20 or so kids (and their mothers and fathers) who can never go far from their kidney dialysis machines. If they move from their current home, the basement of the dialysis unit at Kyiv’s Children’s Hospital, they may die. If they stay, thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s killing machine, they may die.
Chou-Chou, which means “Crazy,” is a young woman in classic red nose, braids, silly blouse and skirt. One girl, 12 or 13, sits on a stretcher, her face, like all the other children in the basement, a sour yellow color because of kidney problems. She is enough of a teenager to know that clowns are for younger children and the clown’s patter is obviously silly. I tell Chou-Chou and the kid that I am from London. In English, Chou-Chou offers me a bun, breakfast and tea.
The kid on the stretcher starts to smirk. What is your name, I ask her.
“Elon,” she says, or something like it.
“Elon Musk,” snaps Chou-Chou and at this, the idea that Mr. Tesla might be here, both the kid and I start to snort with laughter. Chou-Chou is on a roll. I turn to her and say, on reflection, too patronizingly, “Actually you’re rather good.” Chou-Chou is, in fact, absolutely amazing.
On the next stretcher along lies Angelica, 14, who chats to me in her excellent English while two nurses plug her veins with medicine; a machine nearby beep-beeps; kids laugh. I tell Angelica that when she gets out of this, she will come to London and meet my granddaughter, and we will see where the Queen lives. She gives me a thumbs up. Courage under fire, grace under pressure: It’s the Ukrainian way, and behind my mask I am starting to tear up.
Chou-Chou has wriggled past me and is doing a routine involving a phone that is driving a small boy weak with laughter while his mates snigger. Even a mum, sitting on a stretcher, smiles along and waves to my phone camera. For my Twitter followers I record a quick piece to camera, Chou-Chou in the background.
I am a 63-year-old war reporter. I have covered wars and madness in Rwanda, Burundi, apartheid South Africa, the Romanian revolution, former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, Albania, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe. I have seen babies with hacked limbs, an old man with his eyes blown in by an artillery shell, people with their lungs sucked inside out and a man with his brain sliced with a machete, and there is nothing more heartbreaking than watching kids smile in war, watching the aristocracy of the human soul.
When I get back to my rented apartment in the center of Kyiv, I start grazing TikTok and Twitter, where I see a video of three Ukrainian farm boys towing an abandoned Russian gun behind their motorcycle sidecar. I suddenly find myself laughing hysterically at these lads, the best warriors on earth.
Are the Ukrainian fighters good enough to stop Putin’s military machine from killing the kids on dialysis in the hospital’s basement? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know one thing: They are doing their damndest. Seeing that, and knowing the innocent lives they are trying to defend, they too are part of the aristocracy of the human soul that Putin wants to destroy.