Tom Nicholson in Donetsk -
The first thing to do for journalists in Donetsk these days is to arrange press accreditation at the headquarters of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a 10-storey Soviet hulk that used to serve as OGA, the Donetsk regional administration office. On September 4, at 10am, the time the accreditation centre was supposed to open, there was already a crowd of angry babky berating the two rebel soldiers who guarded the door with slung machine guns.
My attempts to draw the attention of one of the guards drew angry words from the sturdy older women, protective of their place in line. Finally, one of the guards pointed to a sign on the wall listing a number to be called for the press office. The number was constantly engaged for the next 30 minutes.
I left to look for a bank to exchange money. After 15 minutes driving, the only branch open was at the downtown Oschadbank, where dozens of people were waiting outside in line. I stood with them for a few minutes before giving up. A woman behind me explained what was going on. “Oschadbank is the only bank still open in the city, and there are only three or four branches where you can get money. You also can’t withdraw money from outside Donetsk, so many people who leave the city are forced to keep coming back when they run out of money. Not everyone has a credit card, especially old people.”
Back at the OGA building, the crowd at the door was still surging and arguing. Two men in black bandannas, black gloves and military fatigues approached the doors with purpose. My appeal to them – citing the over 2,000 kilometers I had travelled to get here – seemed to make an impression, and within minutes a press office woman emerged to take me upstairs.
Inside, the wind in the empty halls was almost as strong as the breeze on the square before the building. There were no lights, no office doors open, no people. On the seventh floor, posters of ousted president Viktor Janukovych blocked the sunlight from the grimy windows. A hostile young woman issued a press pass, not noticing that my media credentials were more than a decade out of date.
Outside, the turmoil had increased. From the car park I watched as a soldier guarding the building pushed an old woman to the ground. She picked up her bags, but did not leave.
A smartly dressed 30-ish woman walked off the square into a side street. At first she refused to speak to me, but out of sight of the soldiers, she explained the chaos in front the Donetsk region headquarters. “Those old women, they are pensioners trying to get their money, but the DNR (Donestk People’s Republic) doesn’t pay. They are desperate,” she said, giving her name as Natasha. She herself had been to the building – unsuccessfully – to get administrative approval to change her place of residence outside the rebel-controlled territory. “Nothing works here. You can’t talk to them.”
“There’s a war here”
Donetsk airport – the prize the rebels boasted on September 2 they were within “days” of taking from Ukraine troops – was blockaded by a rebel military outpost. A junior militiaman ordered me to stop, his older superior sauntered over with his forearms resting affably on his gun. He asked questions that I was to hear several times that day – “who are you, where are you going? Ah, journalist? Go ahead.”
Was it safe to drive to the airport beyond their checkpoint? A warm litre-bottle of beer and a pack of Malboro Light changed hands. “Ohhh,” said the guard, his delight almost comical. He passed the beer to his junior and pocketed the cigarettes. “Safe? There’s a war here. The Ukraine army is on the other side. It’s your own risk. Stastlivo!” He waved us through.
We drove tentatively over the railway bridge and past bomb-damaged buildings. The windows had been blasted out of the Porsche showroom, three green ammunition boxes were stacked near the gutted Mitsubishi dealer. The Toyota outlet, improbably, was undamaged. Light standards and tram cables lay tumbled in the road, which was pockmarked from small rounds. The entrance to the airport was blocked with concrete barriers and felled trees.
A dead dog lay in the leaves, stiff and buzzing with flies. No one walked, no cars drove. Back at the barrier, the he older officer raised his eyebrows from a lawn chair, a half-eaten apple in his hand. “Let them go, we already checked them,” he told his advancing troops, before getting up to offer a clumsy but courteous handshake – his apple-moistened fingers curled in a fist to avoid wetting our hands.
My companion was anxious to visit his family in Artemovsk, 40km northeast of Donetsk. He had called at least 50 times in the preceding days, but no one picked up the phone. Soldiers and taxi drivers we had asked said that Artemovsk was “wild”, that there were dead bodies in the fields being eaten by dogs, and that the region was trading hands unpredictably between Ukrainian and rebel troops. We set off towards Maklivka, some 25km north-east of Donetsk, resolving to abide by the advice of soldiers at checkpoints.
The first barricade at a roundabout near Maklivka was a chaotic ragtag of unevenly sunburned men in caps and not, wrestling with their Kalashnikovs and frowning over passports as if they actually could read what they were holding. No one seemed to be in charge; each guard waved cars through or stopped them according to some inscrutable logic.
Further along, the ritual was repeated. No one challenged us, nor was anyone quite sure if we were allowed to proceed. At a more serious-looking roadblock, and after a close inspection of our documents, a 40-ish militiaman in a piratical striped shirt opened the rear door of the car and climbed inside. Asbuk tattoos circled his fingers as he gripped the front seat. “It’s not a good idea to go to Artemovsk,” he said. “It’s not clear what is happening, but you will have to go through the Ukraine army to get there.” Told that we intended to try, he hopped out after a kilometre and slammed the door with the now-customary handshake. “Stastlivo!”.
We followed the rural track he had pointed out for another kilometre until we hit the last rebel checkpoint before Ukraine lines. And there our journey ended. The checkpoint was staffed by eight soldiers, all of them in proper fatigues. No pretence of pointing guns at the road: these guns were aimed at us and our car. As I drew up, I saw a youth of maybe 17 staring at me with deadly concentration, pointing his Kalashnikov at my chest. I had one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding my passport, but I didn’t dare move.
A portly superior intervened and took our passports. The muzzles of the guns didn’t waver. As they remarked on the car’s foreign license plates, we heard the commander on the phone, “Call Tyson”, an apparent reference to someone else’s nom de guerre. The car was searched, a soldier went through my computer case and my camera. “Turn it on,” he said. The commander came back. “On zurnalist ty durak” (he’s a journalist you idiot), he said, and the tension eased. The man inspecting my camera lost interest. “We’re not taking pictures of military installations, no soldiers’ faces,” I said. “Well why not?” he said. “Take a picture of us.”
Back at the Ramada Hotel, journalists – the only guests – were starting to filter in from their assignments. A group of military-looking men sat on the terrace in the fall sunshine. I asked them for a cigarette, and then asked them for an interview. “Which of us do you want to talk to,” asked one man in fluent, Russian-accented English.
“Whoever is willing to talk.” He translated to his comrades, who smirked. “I think the man you want to talk to is right here,” he said, indicating a portly, balding man in his mid-forties who was avoiding my eyes, his back to the wall. It was Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the pro-Russian Vostok battalion of Donetsk, formed in May.
“He doesn’t want to talk right now, he’s not in a good mood,” said my interlocutor. “Maybe tomorrow, give me your room number.” As the night deepened, Khodakovsky sat with his companions, drinking tea and looking out over the city his soldiers ruled so chaotically.
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