The Globe and Mail | Jul. 21 2014
LONDON — My friend Vlad met me just as my train pulled into Donetsk station this spring. He’d called ahead and wanted to know not just what time I was arriving, but which car of the train I was on.
Vlad grabbed me by the elbow as soon as I stepped off and walked me briskly toward the parking lot. “Don’t speak English!” he whispered in Russian with uncharacteristic fierceness. “There are people looking for you.”
Thus began my most recent trip to the Donetsk People’s Republic, which has been thrust to the front pages this week by suspicions the Russian-backed rebels shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Vlad told me that my name and photograph – borrowed from my Twitter profile – had been posted on the Russian social network VKontakte, on a members-only page affiliated with one of the angrier wings of the Moscow-backed separatists controlling the region. Along with several other foreign journalists, I was named as a kidnapping target, someone the rebels hoped to snatch, hold and later exchange for comrades who had been captured by the Ukrainian army.
I believed Vlad because he had fear in his eyes (which are normally mirthful, even while living amid the absurdity of the Donetsk People’s Republic), and because he himself had been held as a prisoner for three days and two nights inside the city’s regional administration building, which since April had been repurposed as the nerve centre of the armed pro-Russian uprising.
But when we reached my hotel, there was an envelope waiting for me at the front desk. Inside was a flimsy piece of paper with “Donetsk People’s Republic Accreditation Certificate” written across the top in bold type. The rebels’ official stamp – a rising blue sun over crossed mining hammers – had been applied that morning.
So was I a wanted man, or a reporter who was officially welcomed by the Donetsk People’s Republic?
Checkpoints, crude and unsettling
I spent the next week trying and failing to find out, in large part because the pro-Russian rebels who have taken over Donetsk and neighbouring Lugansk were never the unified entity they’re too often portrayed as in the media. There are three or more different types of separatists – often distrustful of each other – held together only by anger at February’s revolution in Kiev (which saw Donetsk native Viktor Yanukovych deposed by pro-Western crowds) and a shared belief that eastern Ukraine would be better off as part of Russia.
In the city of Donetsk, the rebellion has long had an almost surreal feel to it, as political forces that had always floated on the fringe of Ukrainian politics seized the administration building and declared themselves the “people’s government.” At first, most of the residents the rebels professed to govern simply gave the administration building – surrounded by newly built walls of tires, razor wire and handmade posters decrying the “Nazi” government in Kiev – a wide berth, and went about their lives as best as they could.
Those inside the headquarters were ideologues, including people who had written turgid essays and books about how the Donbass (a term that includes both Donetsk and Lugansk) was never meant to be part of Ukraine, and how the region’s destiny was to be once more joined with Russia, as it was before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
You could interview those trying to establish a Donetsk People’s Republic in the morning inside their increasingly squalid headquarters, and then go for lunch a few hundred metres away at the posh Donbass Palace hotel, where the pro-Kiev Governor, billionaire Serhiy Taruta, would still give occasional press conferences under the chandeliers. Donetsk’s raucous nightclubs and karaoke bars kept the party going, as if eastern Ukraine’s burgeoning civil war was happening somewhere else entirely.
But a short drive away, in the mining belt that surrounds Donetsk, the uprising felt very real. In Horlivka, a city of broken roads and shuttered coal mines, the residents I met were supporting the Donetsk People’s Republic out of sheer desperation. A Ukraine that signed trade deals accepting European Union standards, they feared, would be a Ukraine that closed the few coal mines and aging factories that were still open in eastern Ukraine. These were the rank-and-file of the Donetsk People’s Republic: locals hoping the revolt would take them not just into union with Russia – the only market that still buys what eastern Ukraine produces – but back in time to something like the USSR.
And then there was Slavyansk, the city that was the de facto military headquarters of the Donetsk People’s Republic until earlier this month, when the rebels deserted Slavyansk in order to concentrate their military resources in and around the city of Donetsk. Slavyansk was the city that Western journalists got nervous about travelling to, a place of kidnappings, disappearances and random gunfire.
The crude checkpoints between these places were the most unsettling locations of all. You would drive up to a wall of tires, and masked men with Kalashnikovs would stop and search your car. Often they seemed bored, or drunk. Sometimes they’d suddenly turn hostile. Were they from the main Donbass People’s Militia, who might then be impressed with your press credentials? Or the harder-core Russian Orthodox Army? Most feared of all were the mercenaries – Russians and even Chechens – who poured into the Donetsk People’s Republic as the conflict dragged on.
Putin’s goal: disorder
The allegations of Russian involvement in the Donetsk People’s Republic were always easy to prove but hard to quantify. Some of the masked men acknowledged they had come from Russia to join the fight. Their rapidly growing arsenal – including Soviet-era tanks that were filmed driving into rebel-held Ukraine from Russia last month and, we now know, mobile anti-aircraft batteries – also pointed to the rebellion’s foreign sponsor.
But this was not Crimea, where well-trained Russian troops – masked, and with the insignia taken off their uniforms – were on the ground even before the peninsula’s controversial March 16 referendum on joining Russia. As surreal as Crimea was, there was a sense that the Kremlin was ultimately in charge of the situation, anxious and able to maintain a semblance of order while it captured what it saw as lost Russian lands.
President Vladimir Putin’s goal in Donetsk, I’ve always believed, was only to create disorder. He wasn’t seeking to annex the region as he did Crimea, he was looking to create an angry mini-state inside Ukraine, akin to the breakaway Trans-Dniester region of Moldova. The conflict Mr. Putin nurtured would be Moscow’s way of maintaining influence over Kiev, and making sure Ukraine’s applications to join the European Union and NATO never looked very attractive.
But, as we can see now, remote control isn’t enough control when you’re talking about masked men with heavy weaponry.
Masked men with guns
Desperate to figure out if I was in any real danger during my visit, I called a young man named Alexander who worked as something of a foreign media liaison for the Donetsk People’s Republic. Alexander was from the first category of separatists. He had been a Russian literature student at Donetsk National University before all this began, and Alexander told me he had gone to the first “anti-Maidan” (opposed to the February revolution in Kiev) demonstrations “out of curiosity.” But he says he had always seen Ukraine as a “Frankenstein monster” of a country, an unnatural creation that was doomed to break apart.
When the anti-Maidan protesters swept in and took over Donetsk’s regional administration building on April 7, Alexander followed the crowd inside. Then, when the foreign media arrived and started asking questions, he suddenly discovered a role. He was the only one inside the building who spoke any English, so he was thrust in front of the television cameras, tasked with explaining the Donetsk People’s Republic to a confused world.
We met at a coffee shop halfway between my hotel and the separatist headquarters so I could ask him about the kidnap threat. I wanted to know: Was I safe in Donetsk?
Alexander’s answer told me something about the Donetsk People’s Republic that the rest of the world has learned over awful hours and days following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. He told me I had nothing to fear from the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic. If they had a problem with me or my reporting, they wouldn’t have accredited me.
But when I asked him if should feel comfortable travelling through checkpoints, or visiting Slavyansk, Alexander sighed. He clearly didn’t want to feel guilty later for saying yes. “I can’t speak for all the groups,” he said finally.
In other words, there were masked men out there in the Donetsk People’s Republic with guns – and anti-aircraft weapons – and no one was in charge any more.
I Was Snatched at the MH17 ‘Morgue’
Reporters who stopped at the Donetsk morgue looking for clues in the downing of the Boeing 777 were arrested by rebels anxious to impress them with their anger—and their blades
The Daily Beast | 07.20.14
DONETSK, Ukraine — An hour had passed by since our detention; we still did not know if we, two female writers and one male writer from American and European publications, were doomed to spend our Sunday and who knows how many more days in jail.
Our interrogators, a group of militiamen from the security service of the Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR, as it’s known, wanted to tell us why America is to blame for the civil war tearing apart town after town in Donbass, the eastern Ukraine.
The rebels are not alone in these beliefs. Many people in pro-Russian Donbass are convinced that the United States orchestrated the anti-Russian revolution in Kiev, supported Ukrainian military forces fighting the war against pro-Russian separatist troops; and now it is America accusing them of shooting down the Malaysian Boeing 777 on Thursday that cost the lives of almost 300 innocent people.
For four days, the militia of the self-proclaimed republic has been collecting “evidence” to prove that it was a Ukrainian missile that shot down the plane, so that the world would believe them, they told us. But, the rebels wondered aloud: Where were the Americans? Why didn’t they come to Donetsk to see for themselves? Then the rebels answered their own questions: “Because America hates us.”
We waited in the courtyard of the massive, solidly barricaded complex of the Ukraine Security Service, the SBU, now controlled by DNR forces. The building is a base for hundreds of edgy militia: deeply traumatized escapees from the recently fallen city of Sloviansk, the former stronghold and heart of the rebel resistance.
We were put on a bench surrounded by five gunmen trying to decide our fate. Their bearded commander’s half-closed eyes suggested increasing anger as he described the horrors of war in his home town of Sloviansk and accused biased American journalists for his pain. They were “paid for telling lies” about the real causes and consequences of the war destroying civilians homes and lives, he said. “An American bomb leveled my own house,” he said, turning pages in the American passport of my colleague, Time magazine correspondent Simon Shuster.
Earlier that day, we had gone to the Donetsk city morgue looking for bodies from the Flight MH17 catastrophe that had been collected from the site of the crash. Two gunmen waiting outside the morgue ordered us to follow them as soon as we got out of our taxi. “Get in the car,” said one of them, pointing at a Lada, after checking our documents.
Later we learned that he, a 20-year-old rebel sniper, was a student who dreamed of becoming a teacher, but now he was following orders. He said he had been commanded to grab every journalist showing up at the morgue. Journalists weren’t to poke around among the bodies.
Now five of his militia comrades, aged from 20 to 48, stood around our bench and breathed hatred, speaking of their thirst for revenge as they talked about “pro-American Kiev” sending well-equipped forces to kill them. They told us that the war had gone too far: “Imagine how many people in Luhansk, Snezhnoye, Sloviansk and many other towns in Donbass dream of bombing Kiev or Lviv, so they would pay for the deaths of our loved ones,” the bearded commander told me. Then the militia took Shuster away, inside the prison—he was arrested.
More camouflaged gunmen approached. Their weatherbeaten faces seemed to carry prints of desperate lives. Earlier this month, the friendliest of them, 31-year-old Denis, told us they were given very short notice to evacuate Sloviansk. Denis rushed to collect eight members of his family who had been hiding in a basement for a month, and drove them away from the quickly advancing and attacking Ukrainian forces, escaping along a “humanitarian corridor” across the border to the Russian city of Rostov.
Tears fill Denis’ eyes as he shared the memories: “One night I heard knocking at the door: a man and a woman in their mid 70s were standing behind it; she had a nightgown on, he just pajamas, they were both bleeding.”
Another militiaman, a tall, bearded gunman in the group crowded around us, spoke about his knife with a Caucasus accent; then he proudly showed us the shiny steel of the blade. Soon enough, other knives were drawn and passed from hand to hand—the rebels were comparing the lengths of their blades, in front of us, their captives. One of them stared at my Italian colleague, Lucia Sgueglia, and wondered aloud how long it would take her to teach him the Italian language, suggesting she would be kept in detention until he was satisfied.
Reporters from Russia Today, the Russian government English-language television station, walked out of jail while we were there. The cameraman, Anton, had spent the night in a single cell without any chance to let his station know where he was. That Russia Today is loyal to the Kremlin didn’t seem to matter.
Later in the day, after all of us were released, including Simon Shuster and a detained BBC crew, we attended a press conference by the DNR prime minister, Alexander Borodai, who said he had something to tell us about the Flight MH17 catastrophe investigation.
Anton, from Russia Today, asked Borodai why he had to spend a night in the SBU jail. Anton said that while he was in there he saw 50 detainees who had been waiting for days to have their cases heard. Borodai just joked: “If you have not spent a night at SBU, you are not a real journalist.”
The rebel official told us that he never tried to limit access for international observers and investigators to Donbass and the crash site. In a way, he was in a situation to the detainees Anton asked him about—nobody was coming to hear his truth. For four days, he said, he had been expecting professional international investigators to arrive in Donetsk to look at the fragments of the plane and “boxes” his militia collected on the site of the airplane crash.
Borodai insisted that the victims’ bodies are being kept in refrigerated train cars in the town of Terez, and not in the morgue as many of us had thought. He said all the “needed material” for the investigation was waiting for Western professionals. But Kiev, according to Borodai’s theory, deliberately did not let them come, claiming there were safety issues. Borodai appealed to the press, asking reporters to help him build direct contacts with international experts, and make the case for a visit. For once, we seemed to be needed here.
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