We thought there was more to be found at the refugee centre so decided to go there the following day as many people seemed desperate to share their stories. It had been the heaviest and most continuous bombardment of the city we had experienced so far, starting early in the morning and continuing throughout the day. It created an extremely surreal and tense atmosphere as we left the relative safety of the hotel to the accompaniment of explosions in different pockets of the city, some distant and some felt like they were only a few streets away. We met Sandro near the bus station and headed over to the refugee centre.
When we arrived we were immediately greeted by the soldier, Ruslan, from the previous day. He took us upstairs to the aid distribution centre, which from what we could work out was where refugees could receive financial aid from a pool donated by the Donetsk peoples Republic. There was a queue of people snaking down the corridor. We met an impassioned woman who was in charge of the complex operation. She was very emotional and you could hear the frustration, sadness and anger in her voice and she continually switched between shouting and crying at the camera, “How can we help all these people, there are too many and everyday more arrive.” Things began to get heated as due to our interview we had stopped the processing of the refugees, some in the queue began shouting and we felt we should leave before we caused any more trouble. The lady then pleaded with the frustrated people in the queue “Please be patient and let us show the world the suffering caused by this fighting, it is important for people to see how we have been forced to leave our homes and our lives”. As we were leaving we were completely swamped by people who wanted to share their stories and their views on the situation. An elderly lady pushed through everyone presenting a small child saying “These are the terrorists, these are the people who are getting killed and whose lives are being destroyed”. It was especially tense for us as everyone believed we were Brazilian journalists working with Sandro and although most of the people were simply upset about having to leave their homes, there was a continual and very strong Anti-European and Anti-American sentiment in their words. Many believed that it was the influence of the west, for the purpose of money and resources who created this conflict and who were responsible for their suffering. We tried to keep speaking English to a minimum but were increasingly worried due to the amount of attention we were drawing upon ourselves that another soldier may want to see our passports, our genius plan was to speak bad Spanish to each other.
The previous day when the soldier had asked for identification, Sandro had presented his press pass and passport and said he was a Brazillian journalist. Our press passes had been enough for the soldier and everybody had simply assumed we were all from Brazil working together. Although our Russian was of a similar level to that of a cat, it was easy to hear the soldier presenting us as a Brazilian film crew and we had many people gesturing our tragic loss to Germany during the world cup.
We eventually decided to make an exit as politely as possible and continued with the soldier upstairs where we came across a woman and her young child sitting on a table in the corridor. She was keen for an interview so we began to film. She educated us on the destruction that has been meted out by both sides showing us a photo taken on her phone of what she believed to be phosphorous being fired on her home town. Using phosphorous on densely populated areas is classed a war crime under humanitarian law. Bombs thundered outside the woman visibly wincing as each shell struck, inside these dark dank corridors you felt so helpless against the danger outside, one errant shell and the building could be destroyed. This is the reality for these people every day.
A shot of what she believed was phosphorous being used over eastern Ukraine
Her son then began to speak staring at the floor no emotion showing on his face. He spoke of the horror he had suffered at such a young age, for 10 minutes he talked non stop in a flat monotone obviously emotionally damaged by what had happened, the casualties of this war will suffer long after the fighting stops.
Other children had begun to crowd around us that were all playing, laughing and fighting in the corridors, a small taste of normality in this extraordinary circumstance. The woman had a lot to talk about and as the crows began to gather a second time we asked if we could see the basement where residents would go if shelling was to hit close to the vicinity. Ruslan took us down the the dank and dark basement which did not seem to contain any supplies and was partly flooded with an inch or so of water.
We then got lead out to the courtyard, but not before being accosted by a few babushkas (grandmothers) who wanted to have their say. A few had been set to leave for safety in Russia that day but had been prevented by the heavy shelling, the women were visibly anxious as they just wanted to get out of the city and to safety, however due to the constant bombardment it would seem that would not be happening any time soon.
Ruslan was flanked by 2 little girls, they were obviously close, living in such proximity resulted in unusual friendships. Sandro wanted to ask Ruslan some pertinent questions regarding the conflict. Ruslan insisted we move away from prying ears so we made our way to the other side of the courtyard escorted by the girls.
Ruslan re iterated how Brothers were fighting brothers and that he didn’t see a peaceful resolution to the conflict. “We must keep fighting” He said, “Otherwise all this loss will be for nothing.” A sobering declaration, showing the dedication and drive some of the separatists have.
As we were getting ready to leave, We looked over to see Ruslan affectionately playing with his little followers. The girls wanted a photo so they posed with Ruslan. “He is our protector.” They said, “He will save us”. The refugee centre was a microcosm of the Ukrainian conflict, Ruslan wasn’t a soldier any more, he was the protector of these refugees, they had become his family. This war is not about politics or ideals, it is about people all trying to live their lives, helping each other any way they can.
We retired to a cafe to regroup and meet up with a separatist press officer, he was arranging for us to interview a doctor who was working in Slaviansk when it was under Seperatist control but unfortunately it would not be possible until the following day. We all gave a sigh of relief as we were extremely tired after the stressful day and the minimal amount of sleep we had had the previous night.
Our relief was shattered however when we received confirmation that Aleander Borodai, the prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, was going to give a press conference. We quickly returned to the hotel showered and made it to the conference at the government headquarters just in time.
The lift would not stop after the 7th floor for security reasons so we had to trudge up the 3 flights of stairs with all our equipment to the 10th floor to enter the briefing room. The 10th floor was in stark opposition to the rest of the building. After being intrusively searched by massively over armed guards we entered.
Although John got in relatively easily, one soldier seemed amazed and confused about Elliott’s passport photo and spent an entire minute looking from it to Elliott’s face seemingly sure it was not the same person until he eventually let him enter. We entered the waiting room adorned with works of art and memorabilia of Donetsk’s past. The hard wood floor squeaked as 50 journalists jostled to get close to the conference centre entrance..
After a short wait the press conference began in the main room. Photographers buzzed about as Borodai entered and sat down with a man dressed in military fatigues. It turned out that Boradai was resigning and handing over power to the man dressed in fatigues, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, a local from Donetsk. This had been rumored for a while so it was not really a revelation to anyone present.
Boradai also added that he would agree to peace talks if the Ukrainian forces left the Eastern Oblasts entirely. A very unlikely event but a step in the right direction at least.
We said goodbye to Sandro and made our way to a local cafe for some overpriced food. Most of the places that still remained open were fancy eateries that catered to the richer clientele of Donetsk. This particular cafe, Banana, had been appropriated by the separatists as their hangout, armed men lounged around drinking vodka and talking loudly about their recent victories. Emmanuel had told us an English journalist working for Russia today had been deported to Poland by undercover Ukrainians as he spent a little too much time here hanging around and talking with the separatists. Fortunately due to the high price and low quality of their bacon sandwiches this is not something we need to worry about.
Just before our food arrived we heard a car screech up and stop next to a man on the pavement, 4 burly soldiers got out and forcefully bundled the man into the car. They then screeched off into the night with many people around not even noticing what had just happened, it’s frightening to think how often this could be happening in the conflicted city of Donetsk. It was a fitting end to a very surreal and difficult day.