Belarusian journalist recounts trip to separatist stronghold in east Ukraine

Ukraine’s eastern city of Slovyansk seems to be under full control of the Russian military and separatists, a Belarusian opposition journalist has told a Ukrainian website. Providing a detailed account of his trip to this separatist stronghold, he described his two brief detentions in Slovyansk. The following is Miriam Drahina’s interview with Dzmitryy Halko entitled "10 hours in Slovyansk" and posted on the Ukrainian news and analysis website Ukrayinska Pravda on 23 April; subheadings inserted editorially:

A journalist of the [opposition] Belarusian newspaper Novy Chas, Dzmitryy Halko, has already been in Ukraine for a month and a half. He spoke with Ukrayinska Pravda about his trip to Slovyansk, its only [national] blue-and-yellow flag, his illegal detention, and the Ukrainian military who was guarding a roadblock under a Russian tricolour [reference to Russia’s national flag, which has white, red and blue stripes].

"Bermuda Triangle"

[Halko] Slovyansk is the centre of the Bermuda Triangle, which is now located in Donbass. We arrived there from Donetsk at around 0800 [0500 gmt]. At this hour, the city looked like a ghost town and quite spooky. There was no-one on the streets, and the streets were completely empty. There were only some people at roadblocks.

[Correspondent] What kind of people were they?

[Halko] It depends on which ones you are talking about. They were all different. It was unclear whether or not they were locals. They were dressed variously and armed with different weapons: some with clubs of some kind, others with catapults, and others with knives. And there were actual military units and military groups.

[Correspondent] Did those support Ukraine?

[Halko] No, no, nothing at all remains of Ukraine in Slovyansk, except the Ukrainian flag on the building of the Donetsk Pedagogical University. You cannot find Ukrainian policemen there at all.

The [Ukrainian] Interior Ministry issued some statement that there had been no witnesses to our detention and no witnesses to our stay in Slovyansk. This is altogether strange for me to hear, since no-one from the law-enforcement agencies contacted us, and there were no police at all there in Slovyansk. Accordingly, there could not have been any proceedings, an investigation, or anything else.

First encounter with military

[Correspondent] You mentioned the military. Did they have any identifying insignia?

[Halko] Of course, I cannot claim with absolute certainty that they were Russian military servicemen, but there were situations when we were able to exchange a couple of words with these people, so we asked them: "Where do you guys come from anyway?" One would think there was nothing wrong with it. But not a single person said that he was from Slovyansk. Only one responded that he was from Donbass, but everyone knows that Donbass is a big place.

Additionally, local residents, literally all of them, talked about these people like they had arrived from somewhere or had turned up out of the blue, but not as they were their fellow townsfolk.

[Correspondent] Tell me about your arrival in Slovyansk in more detail… [ellipses throughout as published]

[Halko] There was no-one near the city mayor’s office, it was barricaded, and no-one could enter it. We went to the building of the Security Service of Ukraine [SBU]. There was an impressive barricade there. It was protected by one man wearing camouflage with a Kalashnikov rifle in his hands, as well as by a plainclothes man with a beard, who was dressed in an orange T-shirt. So we addressed the latter and asked him if we could enter the building. He took the passports of the foreign journalists and said that he would go to his commander to find out what he could do.

By the way, the bearded man in the T-shirt said that his mother lived in Rome, that they stayed in touch, and that he was there to support Russia. So he left to see his commander and returned with him in a half an hour.

In my opinion, the commander was Russian, judging from both his dialect and his looks. He showed us around for 20-30 minutes. They had armoured vehicles there that had been seized or handed over without a fight – I do not know. The commander showed us the equipment with much pride, saying that it would cross the Dnieper [river] to defeat Kiev.

[Correspondent] What kind of armoured vehicles and how many of them did you see?

[Halko] In my opinion, there were four infantry fighting vehicles there. At that point, only two vehicles were manned. At the entrance to the SBU building, people dressed in black with modern weapons went past under a Russian flag. The commander categorically forbade us to photograph these people, saying that if we did so, they would begin to shoot.

"Not authorized"

[Correspondent] Was it a black uniform? Like the one worn by [the Russian Federal Security Service’s special operations forces] Alfa?

[Halko] Yes, it was some uniform of special units.

The commander showed us around for an hour and a half, said that the audience was over and that we needed to go. He looked like an important officer, almost like a general. And I asked him whether he could give us permission to go peacefully around the town and take pictures. He replied that he could not, that he was the commander only in this small area, and that his command did not extend to the rest of the places.

I had an interesting observation. People who were standing there and whom we simply wanted to ask who they were and why they were standing there, responded in a military fashion: "We are not authorized."

We could talk to anyone in Kiev who was inclined to chat, and no-one ever responded: "I am not authorized." Everyone came to the Maydan [pro-EU, antigovernment protests centred in Kiev’s Independence Square] with his own truth and thoughts of his own, but here people were responding in a purely military manner.

These people are fully copying the Maydan. They have the same barricades as those at the Maydan. They also try to serve you tea and some kind of food in exactly the same way.

There were women there who began to chase away the drunks after learning that we were foreign journalists. There is a fairly large number of drunks there. They began to hiss at them and to drive them away, go away, they said, do not spoil the picture! They served us tea and coffee, and we had a good time and relaxed completely. It was very much mistakenly, as it turned out.

After that we wanted to see a district densely populated by the Roma people. We wanted to find out whether pogroms had actually taken place. We walked for a very long time and talked to the people whom we met on our way there. When we were crossing a big bridge in Slovyansk, we took a picture of a sign saying "Mines". We did not take pictures of anything else, even of the roadblock which we had passed.

But then people in camouflage showed up. I call them "amateurs". They are not military men. One was armed with either a musket or a sawed-off shotgun. Another was armed with a knife, while a third one with I do not remember with what.

They approached us, told us that we were spying and that we were carrying out some kind of secret filming. I told them that we were not doing anything of this sort and offered them to take a look at our photos. However, they answered that we needed to wait and that a vehicle was coming – there would be an investigation.

The vehicle arrived, we were squeezed into its back seat and taken away to a third roadblock.

Change of attitude

[Correspondent] And who was with you?

[Halko] I was with Italian photographer (?Cosimo Attanasio), as well as with French journalist and photo correspondent (?Paul Gogo), who are both freelancers.

They brought us in, and there the vehicle was surrounded by a group of 10 people, who literally stuck their mask-covered heads into the windows. They asked us who we were, what we were doing, demanded that we hand over our cameras, and threatened to seize them and smash them. In short, they behaved very unpleasantly. The guys were really scared, and so was I.

[Correspondent] Did the guys speak Russian? Did you translate for them?

[Halko] No, they did not speak Russian at all, I was also translating for them.

They seized our passports and cameras to check them. They dragged us out, without any documents and equipment, telling us to "stand here". They gathered at approximately 15 m. from us. This was a group of people dressed in military camouflage – not like the "amateurs". They were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, to all appearances, but of a new model. I am not very familiar with these matters, but Cosimo said that they were not ordinary AK-47’s, but some sort of a new model of Kalashnikov that was only in the inventory of the Russian Army.

By the way, when the atmosphere became a little less tense, we asked what kind of weapons they had. They said that they had been issued for temporary use, but provided no further details.

At some point, as if at someone’s command, they abruptly changed their attitude toward us. It was as though someone had given them an order, or as though they had found out that this was the policy of behaving with foreign journalists. In short, they suddenly became concerned with their reputation. And they decided to show us what white and fluffy bunnies they were: "Please excuse us, you understand, martial law and all that." Then they released us.

Second detention

[Correspondent] Did they give you back your passports and cameras?

[Halko] Yes, they returned everything to us. And thinking that now everything was in order, we set off along the same route, across the bridge. But we were stopped at another roadblock on the other side.

I cannot describe this as arrest. They simply caught us, and we showed them the photos which we had taken at the third roadblock. We said that we had been seen, checked out and authorized to go on our way. And we received the answer: "We do not know who checked you out. We will do so for ourselves. If you do not have permission from our authorities – take a hike! Or go and get it from the city council!"

Here is something regarding the city council: I have heard from many journalists, including from Paul Gogo, who had tried to get into the building three days before this, but had been unable to so, that it was impossible to secure permission. During the same attempt, a Moscow Times journalist, Oleg Sukhov, was arrested as a member of [the Ukrainian far-right movement] Right Sector. He was even taken into some kind of room where opposite him sat, evidently, previously arrested Ukrainian journalist Serhiy Lefter. His hands were bound to the chair, and he was guarded by a "little green man" [reference to unidentified armed men in green uniforms with no markings who first appeared in Crimea and then in eastern Ukraine and who are reportedly linked to the Russian special forces] with an assault rifle.

Therefore, we naturally did not go to seek some kind of bogus accreditation. This is laughable – there is no authority there, but who knows what.?

Also, when we turned around and were walking back from the second roadblock near the bridge, a jeep painted in the colours of the Russian flag pulled up alongside us on the road. In the jeep sat people in a brand new military uniform, wearing masks and carrying weapons, and, let me put it this way, they looked at us very sternly. This was the last straw. We decided to get out of there while we were still in one piece.

Complete control over city

[Correspondent] And were the jeep’s numberplates Russian or Ukrainian??

[Halko] I believe that this jeep had no numberplates at all, but I could be mistaken. But it was painted all over in the colours of the Russian flag.

Speaking about the numberplates, not far from the SBU building, I noticed a vehicle with battered numberplates, but with some kind of Russian decal on the window – a proof of vehicle inspection, I think. A piece of paper with the Russian flag on it was stuck to the glass.

Moreover, it was not a sticker, but something official. And in the city I noticed several police vehicles, apparently Ukrainian ones, in which armed people wearing the same camouflage were sitting.

In other words, they are in complete control of the city. Slovyansk is occupied.

Secrecy and penchant for beards

[Correspondent] What do these armed men call themselves?

[Halko] They did not introduce themselves. They had signs everywhere saying "Donbass People’s Militia". But no-one introduced himself to us. No-one said anything about himself.

The only person who spoke to us was a civilian who was standing at these roadblocks with a St George’s ribbon and without a mask. He was some kind of a hardcore Orthodox fundamentalist. Only with him was it clear who he was, that he was a local. He even showed us his passport. He has kept a Soviet passport in which there was a column for nationality. It was written in it: "Russian". He was proud of it. And he said that we were all Orthodox Russians here. That means, we do not want this "European plague".

Only he spoke with us in a normal way and told us about his motives at least. By the way, many of these people have beards, but not because they have not shaved for many days, but really long beards, as if they were some kind of an Orthodox brotherhood. Many said they were from Slovyansk, I do not know.

There are a lot of people of a frankly antisocial appearance – drunks and criminal elements. This is the second group.

And the third group is represented by military people. They are usual military types, with the military bearing and all the other attributes.

Discerning weak support for Ukraine

[Correspondent] So this is the Russian army on Ukrainian territory?

[Halko] Yes, I believe so. I am afraid so, yes. If they had wanted to deny this, they would have told us this. But they said nothing about themselves, they did not show their passports, and they did not introduce themselves. They could not even bring themselves to say that they were from Slovyansk.

What is one to think in that case?! Only one conclusion remains, especially since the local residents do not regard them as their fellow countrymen.

[Correspondent] But do they support them?

[Halko] You know, their attitude to the occupiers is as if to some kind of bad weather. Look – a thunderstorm, a tempest, or a gale has hit. What can you do about it?! They do not support this, they simply have to resign themselves to it.

I heard various people utter the phrase: "Everything was okay before they arrived." In a certain sense, this can be assessed as support for Ukraine. Naturally, it is weak. A person will probably not fight for this and will even submit to it if the territory is occupied.

But nevertheless, I did not meet a single person who said: "Yes, they are my protectors, they are standing up for us here. And just you get out of here, European villains!"

Not one person said this.

Roma plight

[Correspondent] Did you meet anyone else?

[Halko] We crossed the bridge without any problems, hailed a taxi, went to the station, and there, completely by chance, we met the last Roma left in Slovyansk.

This person was terribly scared. He had come back to fetch some children’s things and was in a state of genuine terror. I stopped him and asked him to tell me what was going on.

It turned out that a day before this, the entire Roma community had left the town en masse, because, as he explained it, their homes had been fired on from the street. And all representatives of the community had received threats that they would be destroyed en masse, including their children, unless they fled.

This man said that the armed men wanted only Russians to remain in the city.

This has affected not only the Roma. For example, he cited the example of his neighbours, who spoke Ukrainian in everyday usage. They have received similar threats, too.

The person from the Roma community asked us to help him to somehow get to see [Ukrainian tycoon] Rinat Akhmetov. He said that he wanted to talk to him.

That is to say, Rinat Akhmetov is viewed here as some kind of arbiter and a de facto ruler. Although, for example, the separatists in the Donetsk regional administration regarded the fact that at the last Dynamo-Shakhtar [football] match there were Ukrainian flags in the stand of the Shakhtar fans. They believe that in this way Akhmetov betrayed them. But nevertheless, they see him as a tsar and as a prince.

So we missed the train, took a taxi, and went to [Donetsk Region’s city of] Kramatorsk. On the way there, at some roadblock on a country road, there was a group of frankly marginal types, who said that we were spies for the EU and found fault with the passports of the Italian and the Frenchman, even though it was the first time that they had ever seen what an Italian or a French passport look like.

And later, 16 km from Donetsk, I saw a very strange roadblock at which seemingly Ukrainian military men were standing under a Russian flag and a flag of St George along with so-called volunteer militiamen.

Slovyansk unravelling

[Correspondent] I want to clarify one thing about the military: did they have identifying insignia?

[Halko] Yes, yes, they had Ukrainian insignia. This is simply amazing. What kind of antiterrorism operation is it possible to speak of?

This is a Bermuda Triangle. Slovyansk is unravelling on all sides. And it is necessary to do something about this urgently. Otherwise, things will be bad.

[Correspondent] How long were you in Slovyansk?

[Halko] In total, we spent around 10 hours in Slovyansk. And we were detained for no longer than two hours.

[Correspondent] Were you beaten?

[Halko] No, at first they grabbed us by the arm, but things went no further than that.

[Correspondent] Have you been in Ukraine for a long time?

[Halko] I have been in Ukraine since 8 March. I was first in Kharkiv, then Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, Kherson, Zhytomyr Region, Novohrad-Volnynskyy, Kiev, Kharkiv and Donetsk. This is a kind of circle.

Pro-Ukrainian stance

[Correspondent] And have you been to Crimea?

[Halko] After a "conversation" with the SBU in Donetsk at the beginning of March, I understood for myself that my position is very pro-Ukrainian. It is a very clear position, despite the fact that I am a journalist. Therefore, I understood that it was better for me not to poke my head in Crimea, especially since I had met guys who had been held in captivity for two weeks in Crimea, and who had remained in Kherson for operations.

In Donetsk an episode happened to me – I was detained by the SBU. I lived in the same room as an agent of the [Russian] Main Intelligence Directorate. At that time, it was still Ukraine here. And this detention by the SBU, well, I do not know, it was on the whole a nice affair. I was actually reassured that some kind of services were working here, that they were exposing some people and detecting some kind of bombs.

But what is there now, it is difficult for me to say.

Source: Ukrayinska Pravda website, Kiev, in Russian 23 Apr 14

 

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