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It felt odd to be interviewing people in a flak jacket, as if my life was worth more than theirs. I was jotting down notes as a group of men dressed in cheap track pants and light coats, their faces ruddy from the sun, told me how they had advanced on soldiers at the airfield in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, with nothing but improvised clubs. As they spoke, machine-gun fire rang out. I was the only one who ducked. Some nearby soldiers were just shooting into the air to scare back the crowd.
I had flown into Donetsk the day after pro-Russian protesters seized the regional administration building and declared a “Donetsk People’s Republic.” I was on assignment to cover the events for The Guardian. In some ways, it seemed like my life experiences had been leading up to this moment: childhood in small-town Wisconsin, where I yearned to get out and see the world; four years studying Russian in college; two years covering business at The Moscow Times; and a year as a freelance news reporter.
When 2014 came around, Russia was never off the radar: The takeover of Crimea followed the Sochi Olympics like a storm that reinvigorates a dying hurricane and takes it in a new direction. But Sochi had felt like a giant press junket, and I had worked on the Crimea story from the Moscow end.
Now I was here, in eastern Ukraine. The protests and violence were to be a kind of trial by fire. It was my first time on the ground, covering a conflict, even if that conflict was dwarfed by the geopolitical battle around it. For years I had worked to become a foreign correspondent, and this would be my first truly big story.
The reality didn’t resemble what I had read in books like Michael Herr’s Dispatches, or had seen in movies such as The Bang Bang Club, Under Fire, and Reds. This was not the Vietnam War or the Bolshevik Revolution, but rather a motley crew of angry teenagers, fringe activists, and Russian army vets, with no real political program beyond an ill-defined referendum on the region’s status. Instead, I caught glimpses of the immediate banality of historical events and experienced the difficulty of reporting them on the ground. I learned, once again, that real life has little of the glory of later retellings. It was just long hours of work, confused narratives, mental exhaustion, and voyeur’s guilt.
I arrived in Donetsk from Lviv, a city in western Ukraine of nearly 800,000 people. It is the heartland of the Ukrainian nationalists, whom the pro-Russian protesters claimed were bent on the destruction of Russian culture and language in Ukraine. Lviv is all Austro-Hungarian architecture and picturesque coffee trucks, while Donetsk is a gray Soviet city of coal miners and metalworkers, and three-fourths of the surrounding region’s residents speak Russian as their native language. The protesters at the administration building ripped up paving stones; stacked them in piles, for ammunition; and built concentric rings of barricades with tires, sandbags, and barbed wire.
Within a day, my clothes reeked from wood-fed barrel fires just like the ones that had warmed the Euromaidan protesters in Kiev last fall and winter, when they toppled Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, a Donetsk native. Now the Donetsk protesters said the result of what took place in Kiev was a CIA-sponsored “fascist junta” that was leading Ukraine into ethnic strife and economic ruin. Photoshopped pictures hanging in the occupied administration building depicted Barack Obama as a monkey; others, in a feat of gender-bending artistic inspiration, showed him with a Hitler mustache and the blond braids of pro–Western Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko.
The protesters’ complaints were based in reality—in neighboring Dnepropetrovsk, I saw ultranationalist leader Dmitry Yarosh announce the creation of an eight-hundred-man militia to join the fight against “drunk separatists and Russian tanks”—but had been blown out of proportion by the Russian state-controlled media that they watched on television outside the Donetsk barricades late at night. Friends of mine who worked at one Russian state channel told me their bosses had announced a “war mode” of anti-Kiev coverage. But the Ukrainian media was no better, describing the eastern Ukrainians as “terrorists” who had been bought by Russia. This information war of competing narratives meant that no body count, description of troop movements, or announcement of negotiations could be nailed down as entirely true.
A few friends and I were among the first on the scene of a shoot-out the day after a group of armed operatives dressed in green—known as “little green men” because of their mysterious origin—seized the police and security service buildings in the Donetsk-region town of Slavyansk. Cars were riddled with bullet holes, and there were traces of blood on the ground. A man who introduced himself as a city council member was waiting for us with cell-phone footage of the attack’s aftermath: a man in camouflage cursing and holding his abdomen; another, all in black, slumped against a car, blood streaming down his front.
The story this city-council member told us was ludicrous, all the more so because someone named “Seryozha” kept calling, and his wife, standing nearby, was constantly berating him for “not telling it right.” But what he told us was this: Four men in black drove up in a sedan with Poltava plates and opened fire on seven infantry vehicles filled with Ukrainian soldiers. “Why would they do such a thing?” we asked. He claimed it was all a “provocation” by unknown forces. But the man in black was more likely Ukrainian special forces, killed by pro-Russian rebels.
The Donetsk protesters’ hatred for the American-backed regime in Kiev and the pro-Ukrainian news channels extended to a general hostility toward the Western press. In Luhansk, a large city in easternmost Ukraine, close to the Russian border, I asked to interview one of the hulking masked men who was directing the militia that occupied the security service building. “You want to know our demands, talk to the people,” he said, dragging me before a few dozen eager protesters. Then he yelled out that I was an American journalist, which drew jeers from the crowd. The masked man identified himself as a member of Yanukovych’s shock troops, the Berkut riot police, who had fought against the Euromaidan protesters in Kiev. As proof, he lifted his shirt to show a scar down his belly.