DONETSK, September 27 (RIA Novosti) - The civil war in eastern Ukraine has already claimed the lives of five Russian journalists. Our colleagues paid with their lives for the right of their audience to know the truth. But war is not only tragedy. It can give you a fun and unique experience you never get in times of peace.
Drinking beer while under fire and living on instant noodles – nothing brings people together like “romantic” work on the front lines.
INSTANT NOODLES AND POOL WATER TEA
Russian politician, currently the head of the Russian Nanotechnology Corporation Anatoly Chubais once said, “The Russian Army is getting a new lease on life in Chechnya.” It’s hard to say if the Ukrainian army will be reborn in this conflict. So far, it appears to be only dying.
However, for Russian journalists the events here represent a kind of baptism by fire. Enduring suffering and hardships, they gain invaluable experience that is matched by nothing. Above all, they learn how to keep a cool head and sympathize with both sides of the conflict.
More than anything else, eastern Ukraine is a plentiful source of colorful characters (Shooter, Bogeyman, Demon, Motorola etc.), and of breaking news.
How romantic it was to work in besieged Slavyansk! Instant noodles three times a day. Sleeping in the basement of the Ukraine Hotel, the most popular shelter for journalists. Charging iPhones, Macs and other devices from the only power generator. Water for tea and soup from a fountain on the central square. It is not something you can forget.
The journalists still remember the fabulous “people’s mayor” of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, and his press secretary, Stella Khorosheva, a resident of Italy who immediately came to Slavyansk to help the militia. Who else would, answering a call from a journalist about the current situation, begin reciting her own poetry? “The people hoist the Donbas flag, to save the land from seeds that NATO sowed.”
When asked to comment on the alleged arrest of OSCE observers by the militia, Stella would usually say, “Why don’t you care about the fate of the arrested militiamen? Call Kiev!”
I also remember an episode when, after a press conference with Ponomaryov on some important issue, Stella suddenly appeared on the stairs of the Slavyansk City Executive Committee before journalists and announced, “Okay. Everybody stay where you are. I’ve lost my camera. No one is going anywhere. If I don’t find it no one will be allowed in here again.”
The journalists, many of whom were foreign and Russian photographers with huge lenses, looked at each other and did not even know how to react.
Luckily, two minutes later, the press secretary reappeared on the stairs, no longer angry. With an apologetic but happy smile, she said, “Found it!” The journalists were relieved.
In early July, the self-defense forces led by Igor Strelkov from Slavyansk suddenly retreated. By the way, they forgot to warn Russian journalists about it, in particular, Rossiya Segodnya photo correspondent Andrei Stenin (who was killed a month later near Snezhny) and Lifenews correspondent Semyon Pegov, earlier put on the wanted list by the Ukrainian National Security Council. Here you have a good example of cooperation between the Russian media and the militia, the cooperation that the Ukrainian media keeps harping on.
The journalists, who now risked being captured, found out about the fleeing by accident, thanks to Pegov’s habit of starting each day with a swim in the river. As Stenin recalled later, Pegov burst into the hotel room moon-eyed and shouted that the city was empty and the Ukrainian army would be there any time soon.
After that, the center of the conflict moved to Donetsk, the capital of the “freedom-loving Donbabwe,” the nickname Kiev gave to the self-proclaimed republic. In such a big city as Donetsk there were no problems with accommodation.
We had two options. The first was to check into the hotel where most of the journalists lived. This also meant you could make arrangements to live next door to the international experts who flooded Donetsk after the MH17 crash. In Donetsk, these were the pompous Ramada and Park Inn hotels.
This option had two advantages. Firstly, you could look out for experts, follow them and talk to them on the sidelines. Secondly, it was safe. The last place the army would attack was a hotel full of OSCE people.
Finally, in bars and the lobby there is a “stock exchange” of rumors, contacts and news. You could find a companion to rent a car together, or an interpreter. Or a drinking buddy to relieve stress with over a beer.
BEER AND WIFI
Speaking of beer. First and foremost, wherever they go, the multinational journalist community will find a café with WiFi, good food and a bar. In Slavyansk, the place was Slavny Gorod (Lovely City), where even in the days of bombings you could get food and an Internet connection.
In Donetsk, one of the popular places was called Yuzovskaya Pivovarnya (Yuzov Brew House). Donetsk used to be called Yuzovka, a derivative from the Welsh coal miner and founder of the city, John Hughes. Yuzovskaya Pivovarnya was a big bar with cheap, good food, fresh beer, but most importantly, it was a five-minute walk from the regional administration, the headquarters of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Many journalists hung out there. A couple of times we had a show. The “people’s governor,” Pavel Gubarev, would appear with his armed bodyguards. You should have seen the stares from the “glamorous customers.”
In late July, saboteurs killed one of Gubarev’s assistants, Alexander Proselkov, a muscleman with the face of a child. In his funeral photo, I recognized him as one of the bodyguards I was drinking beer with the night before. It is a weird feeling, to remember someone alive and healthy and suddenly know he is dead. Well, this happens all the time in war.
Also at the end of July, Yuzovskaya Pivovarnya closed for an indefinite time for security reasons. The last time I stopped by, an electricity bill was stuck to the door sign.
Still, I was lucky. On the last day before the bar closed, when it was empty and nobody even came to watch the final match of the World Cup (fights were going on right on the outskirts of the city), I got a stock of beer, three liters. Soon I had to part with it, as I gave it to my Romanian colleagues, who saved me from gunfire in Shakhtyorsk.
Journalists with limited means or those who stayed longer preferred Liverpool, a so-called art hostel, with a night club, a bar, a budget cafeteria and brightly colored rooms with photos of The Beatles.
The night club closed first. Not a good time for concerts in Donetsk. Finally, on a nice morning, some armed men in fatigues knocked on the doors and gave the journalists five minutes to pack (ten minutes for Russians). Now the hostel was turned into a dorm for self-defense fighters.
The “polite people” apologized only for the money the journalists had paid in advance. Well, the hostel owners apparently had a bigger loss.
SMALL JOYS OF LIVING UNDERGROUND
But there is also a disadvantage in everybody living together. Hotel residents are always in plain sight of the militia, who can pressure disloyal journalists. For example, recently they detained a CNN freelance reporter. If the Ukrainian National Guard seizes the city after all, the hotel residents will be the first to be purged. Their passport data from the reception will get into the hands of the Ukrainian National Security Council; and, who knows, they could be next on sanctions lists.
So the second option was to rent a flat. In this case we could be closer to the people, plus it is more convenient and cheaper (the rents dropped dramatically in Donetsk). And you could choose which neighborhood to stay in. The coolest thing was to rent a flat opposite the regional and city administration or the former National Security Council building, and watch everything from the window.
A colleague from a news agency rented a flat near the railway station, where the militia was fighting with the army. It was scary, of course, but he could write news like “more shooting over Donetsk” sitting on his couch.
Unfortunately, there is no single center in the DPR that would collect all information about the unrecognized republic, and especially news from the front lines. This makes our work more difficult.
The self-defense fighters have real problems with data exchange. The DPR’s press center can barely help arrange an interview with a militia “celebrity” or leaders of the republic.
There are lots of jokes about it. Once, our colleagues needed to urgently find out the details of a battle. They called the head of the DPR’s press center. “Well, I know nothing,” she replied honestly. “I’m home, making borshch (Ukrainian national beetroot soup-Ed). Want to come over?”
Therefore, it is very helpful to have personal connections between journalists and militiamen, which often grow into friendships. Though, in this case it is very easy to step over the thin line separating journalists from their objects of research and turn from an onlooker into a direct participant.
You have no idea how many times I have been asked to help with creating a website, send out a press release or share intelligence information. At some point you find yourself thinking that you’re risking to become a spy or a “Russian consultant,” as Ukrainian propaganda claims.
I have even been asked to bring money from “a friend in Moscow,” since I was going to Russia and then back to the front line. How could this be classified: as a favor for a friend, or as “funding of terrorism”?
AN INCIDENT IN MARYINKA
The situation in Donetsk was getting from bad to worse. Most residents had left; explosions could be heard in the city center. Journalists were risking becoming not just eyewitnesses, but figures in criminal reports. This was often the case. For example, a car was accidentally attacked right in the center with local journalists from First Republican Channel and Oplot TV inside. Two correspondents and the driver were injured.
I started having strange feelings. The first one was when you hear a shell being fired in your left ear and an explosion in your right ear. This means the shell is flying right over your head.
The second strange feeling was when you arrive at a shelling scene to record the destruction and victims, and it starts again. Shells never hit the same place twice, you think, but it feels really weird.
Once we came to Maryinka, a village southwest of Donetsk. Several residential buildings were destroyed by an artillery attack there the day before. We went into an apartment and started taking pictures. Out of the blue, we heard familiar flaps. Mortars. “We have to go,” said the photographer who was with me in the same car. He left the building but I stayed behind.
It was an ordinary Soviet-type apartment. The owner was apparently a child of the nineties. Posters of Nirvana, Metallica and the local football club, Shakhtar, on the walls. It looked pretty familiar, except that the apartment was missing one wall, which had been destroyed by a shell. I think it was possible the owner didn't even known what had happened to his flat. He had probably been evacuated.
I took some more pictures and went down to the car. But the photographer was not there. The shooting continued. We started panicking. “He was with you. Where did you leave him?” “No, he was the first to leave, he went to the car!”
We tried to call him. He didn’t pick up. The mortars were exploding closer. All the other cars with the journalists, rescuers and policemen had left. Locals were hiding. The driver was sitting next to the car, white as a sheet. Later, it turned out that “before the war,” he was a producer who made two movies that are popular in Ukraine.
Finally, the photographer picked up. “I’ll be right back,” and hung up. Five minutes later (or one or maybe ten, it’s really hard to tell when you’re under fire), he still wasn't there. I called him again but he could not explain where he was.
Finally, we could talk. “I ran in the wrong direction. I ran for ten minutes then realized I don’t know where I am,” he explained. It is impossible to tell where you are in an unknown city. And shells kept exploding.
Suddenly, there he was, running from around the corner. “I got lost. I had no one to ask for directions. Then I saw some old man. I asked him where the destroyed buildings are and he told me.” He was panting.
So everybody left. We left too, but the brave old man remained there, walking around his native village and refusing to panic.
A GUN INSTEAD OF A NOTEBOOK – AND RIGHT INTO THE BATTLE
Krymsk and Crimea, Biryulyovo and Pugachyovo, South Ossetia and the Bulgaria ferry. Everywhere I go I meet the same company of the best Russian journalists specializing in war and emergencies. The same happened in Donbas. It was different though. The conflict here lasted much longer and involved many of them personally in one way or another. Some had Ukrainian roots or friends in Kiev. Many turned out to have Ukrainian passports. Some just really believed in the ideals of Maidan or, conversely, those of the “Russian Spring.” It is very difficult to remain objective.
A popular columnist with patriotic views would post a tip-off about a liberal journalist on his Facebook page. “Militia, beware! There is an instigator among you!” This is not just a cute Facebook argument. The portrait of the “instigator” would appear on the doors of the Donetsk Regional Administration. If the journalist in question pays a visit there, he risks being brought to the “basement.” The local militiamen are far from learning the intricacies of relations inside the Moscow journalistic mix.
The liberal camp would respond in kind, handing down a list of the most active and ideologically biased Russian journalists to the Ukrainian National Security Council. They would immediately get included on various sanctions lists.
The events continue for so long that some journalists even change their fate. A journalist from St. Petersburg meets her love in Ukraine, and like in a good drama, he is a Maidan activist. First he drives her around the rebellious east, dressed in a Ukrainian national embroidered shirt. Combined with a Kiev license plate, this is true bravery. Then she marries him; but not only because she loves him, but also in order to get a residence permit in Ukraine. Now she can work here without obstacles.
A correspondent from a Russian TV channel gets disappointed in its editorial policy. She emails her office, “I quit,” and immediately finds a job right here, in Donetsk, at a Kiev TV channel.
Another colleague, from a Russian provincial city, gets into the spirit of the ideals of the people’s republics, joins the local self-defense unit and stops answering calls from his office. He picks up a submachine-gun instead.
It is very hard to stay objective and cool-headed, hard not to catch the virus of hate, not to celebrate the murder of the “enemies” and treat crazy rumors with distrust. But we will try.
Once at a press conference, I asked Andriy Purgin, deputy prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, how long he thinks the “transition period” would last. “What do you mean?” he asked. I could not help but joke. “Let me rephrase the question. When are we going home?” He only laughed in response.