Before a trip to the “Wild East” – advice from ODF correspondent
For the past two months, I was working in the east of Ukraine as an Open Dialog Foundation (ODF) correspondent. During that time, peaceful manifestations around me were transforming into riots, administrative buildings were being stormed and recaptured and, finally, war operations were going on. Two separatist People’s Republics were created – Donetsk and Lugansk – and an anti-terrorist operation started; to be conducted by the Ukrainian army. All these developments were presented differently by different media – from pro-Russian “journalists” no one even expected any reliable information. Their task was to create a picture – useful for the Kremlin propaganda – of what was going on in Ukraine. Not always could the Ukrainian media fill this gap – mainly because they were not allowed to access the necessary areas. Because of that, it was so important for the ODF mission in the east to continue, despite a potential threat to which journalists could be exposed at places controlled by separatists. During the course of my work, I managed to be at places where important things were going on and provide up-to-date reports not only to the Foundation but to other Polish media with which the ODF worked. Each time, I returned safe and sound, establishing valuable contacts, thanks to which I am constantly updated regarding developments in different places gripped by the conflict.
Hence, many people are asking me to give advice on travelling in eastern Ukraine, particularly in the context of the well-known and disturbing abductions of journalists at work. Some of them were released but many are still being kept, and there have been fatalities too. Clearly, one cannot anticipate and plan everything. However, discussions with journalists, the abducted ones and those who managed to avoid that, indicate that many of the people who got into the separatists’ hands, got there partially due to their own faults.
Mistakes made by journalists /observers of the conflict in the east of Ukraine:
1. Lack of knowledge of the situation and mentality of residents in eastern Ukraine.
The situation in Donbas is very tense. Because of the specificity of the understanding of the functions of the media by one of the parties to the conflict (pro-Russian one), journalists are deemed to be participants and not observers of the conflict. Hence, a journalist’s ID card is no guarantee of safety in the region, quite the contrary. While the conditions for Russian journalists amongst the separatists are made easier (even though the nature of this work can be disputed), European journalists are treated with suspicion and reluctance – at best. I witnessed on several occasions, attacks against journalists by followers of the separatists upon attempts to take photographs or record footage. Importantly, the naive journalists were attacked not by armed men, as one could expect, but by female old-age pensioners who considered the photographers to be “spies” and “fascists”.
Advice: It’s best to “blend into the crowd”. This is how I managed to gather most of my material. Poles tend to have a Slavonic type of appearance which can certainly help. I suggest that you do not expose your Polish passports because the separatists remember well that Warsaw is supporting the “fascist junta” in Kiev; insisting on your objective attitude toward the situation hardly ever helps.
2. Getting right into the middle of the conflict and “fraternising” with the separatists.
This is one of the journalists’ favourite practices which often helps to get good material. I must admit, it forms part of my strategy too. But it worked mainly during the first month of the conflict when the separatists themselves were not sure who was who amongst their troops. Over time, it increasingly has an opposite effect; strangers attract attention and frequently trigger aggression. This is true of journalists in particular and my experience shows that presenting as an “observer” or even ”traveller” only raises suspicion. It helps if you are from a state which (as separatists believe, at least) support’s Putin’s policy. But then, you risk being shot at by the Ukrainian army which is more and more active in its anti-terrorist campaign in all areas occupied by the separatists.
It’s better to be discreet and bear in mind that too close a contact with the separatists often ends in having one’s identity documents checked, then being interrogated, and often beaten up and detained. It’s better not to risk one’s life to get better material. The truth is that work is usually better along the second line of the front than the first, which was a recent experience of one of my friends, a photographer: during a fight, he found himself between the shooting parties and was unable to raise his head high enough to take a decent photograph. Not to mention all those who lost their equipment or were abducted having been near inappropriate people at an inappropriate moment.
3. Incorrect behaviour upon detention.
Not everyone is lucky enough to look “local” enough not to be inconspicuous. Besides, a film camera or professional photo camera do attract attention. Generally, reliance, upon detention, on one’s status of an observer /journalist /international activist has not helped anyone yet. The worst possible option is to try an escape. In the first place – it may end in the person being shot dead. I witnessed such a situation in Donetsk when a New Zealand journalist I knew nearly paid the price of his life for an attempted escape – ultimately, someone managed to cut his way off before the snipers who had targeted him, decided to fire. That saved his life but raised suspicions amongst the separatists who tried to detain him and then beat him up and took his equipment away from him.
It’s best to behave in a non-aggressive way, not trying to prove anything. It quite often helps to pretend to be a “naïve” European journalist. I myself, in a potentially dangerous situation try to talk to separatists in their own language, that is trying to communicate that I know what he is fighting for and what is important to him. This raises trust and relaxes the atmosphere. Because one of the chief beliefs of “file and rank” separatists is anger because “Kiev does not hear Donbas”, often listening with respect to what they have to say is a way out. It only requires the skill of shifting the attention from oneself to the interlocutor which journalists usually know how to do.
In conclusion, a few words on bullet-proof vests and helmets. I am often asked whether it’s worthwhile putting them on. I do not wear them myself. I try not to be conspicuous. I talk to people, approach them, rather than do interviews. I never provoke them and take care not to provoke aggression (armed civilians are more unpredictable that professional “greens” or “Chechens”). I do not stay in the zone of direct war operations, where a helmet and a vest are indispensable. Equally interesting material can be obtained at the back of the frontline.
And one more message, not really addressed to journalists but to adventurists who, without knowing the situation, the realities and the language are eager to go to the Wild East to …. well yes, to do what? I talk to people who want to go to Ukraine only to experience a life adventure.
In actual fact, it’s a tragedy going on there – people from the same state, often neighbours, are standing, with weapons, each opposing the other and, what is worse, they are using those weapons. Effectively. When I was observing the elections in Odessa, a friend of mine was organising the transport of corpses and funerals of our other friends who had been shot dead during the conflict.
Before anyone decides to go on an “expedition” to Donbas or Azov region, they need to give it a careful thought. And then prepare well.