The day following the refugee centre We had an interview lined up with a Doctor who had been working in Slaviansk during the rebel occupation and subsequent Ukrainian liberation.
He had been very cautious about the interview and insisted we send him a copy of our questions so that he could look them over. We met him at the designated cafe and exchanged pleasantries before sitting down to begin setting up the interview.
What we had not foreseen however was his accompaniment by a rebel media officer and 3 plain clothes soldiers who he spent some time with before, obviously running through his answers. This interview had obviously been prepped to insure that no spurious statements would be uttered by the Doctor.
As predicted the interview was fairly benign and just re iterated things we already new, miraculously the press officer and soldiers, who had been 1 table away talking loudly, left as soon as the interview was concluded. This was yet another example of how media and representation are playing a massive part in this conflict.
Sandro had invited us to go to his friend Nastia’s apartment, this was where he had been staying and as we had met her a few days before, we thought it would be nice to and interview her and her family to help get the perspective of one of the many normal families living in the middle of this conflict.
Her house was in a separate town tom Donetsk but still only 20 minutes from our hotel, these sprawling industrial cities seem to have bled into each other in this region creating metropolises only different by name.
As soon as we arrived at the bus station you could feel the atmosphere was different, this area was much closer to the outskirts and so was subject to shelling and had sustained more damage than the centre. A clearly drunk man approached us asking for money, everyone here was trying to get to Moscow and safety, but a ticket cost around $100 and was out of many people’s price range. We made our excuses to him and moved on to Nastia’s apartment.
The apartment was located in a typical soviet style housing block with a communal courtyard in front that was shared by several blocks. A woman was changing a light-bulb near the ancient (and tiny) lift when we entered and asked Sandro to replace the bulb for her. It turned out that the wiring was faulty so the bulb did not work, “Leave it in” said the woman, “At least then I have done something.” A good attitude to have which also seemed common from our experience in the east, a hangover from the communist values of togetherness. We then squeezed into the tiny ancient lift and made our way up to Nastia’s apartment. Nastia let us in and we were introduced to her grandmother who seemed quite anxious about our arrival. She was clearly at ease with Sandro, but did not know what to think of us.
We asked for an interview but she declined, “My grandmother is very scared.” Said Nastia. She agreed to be recorded using a dictaphone and told us of her opinions on the current situation. She was very well educated with 2 degrees and obviously had a measured and objective attitude about the conflict.
There was more fear here as it was closer to the front, indeed they only had water for 2 hours in the morning and 2 at night due to the pump station being hit by an errant shell. They told us how a few days previously when there was fighting at the airport they could see the explosions from their balcony.
After we recorded the audio she began to relax a bit and told us how much she loved English people, a welcome change after the last few days. She then offered us tea and the situation relaxed completely as we sat around, and with the help of Nastya’s excellent translation skills, chatted with her grandmother. She told us some amazing stories of her upbringing as she was born in Russia near St.Petersberg and was brought up as a child to hate the Germans that occupied the area she lived in. She even witnessed a German soldier get shot as he was giving away clothes and toys to some of the local Russian children. “I felt very sorry for them” she said.
We had wanted to got to a local military recruitment centre so we set out with Nastia and she directed us to the right location. Nastia was afraid of coming too close, she quite rightly feared the soldiers as they were less disciplined in this area. A local man had been detained for recently as he had been suspected of being involved in dealing drugs, apparently he was approached whilst playing football and simply taken with his friends and family unaware of his whereabouts for 3 days. We left Nastia to return to her house and headed towards the recruitment centre.
The entire front of the building was encased in sandbags, it looked more like a bunker than a recruitment centre. As we approached the steely eyes of the guard tracked us right up to the entrance. As soon as they realized we were journalists the guards relaxed but unfortunately explained that the commander was out and they could not give us an interview without his permission. Defeated we slunk back to Nastia’s apartment to spend a few more great hours talking with her family, we had never felt so welcome in somebodies home.
After Sandro had arranged his things (He was leaving for Moscow that evening) We decided to head down to a local checkpoint to see if we could finally get some footage of one. It was a large checkpoint with multiple entries and we were watched by every soldier as we approached the commander.
Sandro explained that we wanted some footage and that the press relations ministry had sent us here, (not strictly true.) After some discussion the commander agreed we could film but only from a distance and no faces.
We walked away about 20 metres and began filming, getting some good shots, before the commander pulled up in his badly DIY spray painted camouflage jeep (which were very common). The jeep was full of 4 heavily armed angry looking separatists who began asking us pertinent questions about our identities. He asked for a passports and passes and then sat in the car inspecting them and making calls. We were there for about 20 minutes when a more senior officer arrived and also began inspecting our documents.
We returned to Nastia’s apartment for yet another warm welcome. Her mother insisted we ate even though we had to leave in 20 minutes for Sandro to catch his train. Food was brought out, a delicious soup, cutlets, biscuits, bread and home made apple juice. It was the best meal we have had since we have been here and all the better for the company we were with. They gave us a bag full of tomatoes and cucumbers which had been grown in the garden and even a gigantic jar of homemade jam which we will be enjoying for weeks to come.
We said our goodbyes, to this wonderful and hospitable family headed to back to the bus station to see off Sandro on his way back to Moscow, we have recently been informed he made it without any problems and hope to link up with him again in London soon. The day had been less productive than others but much better for it, as we had got to know Nastia and her wonderful family. We sincerely hope that we can go back and visit them in the future if not just for the food then for the amazing warmth and hospitality we received.
It is also worth noting in the last few days as we have been sorting out certain administrative tasks and trying to organise more interviews, the city of Donetsk has apparently been surrounded by the Ukrainian troops who want to take it back in the next few days.
The atmosphere here in the city is extremely a strange, the outgoing and incoming bombing has intensified 10 fold. Over the weekend artillery and machine-gun fire could be heard every 10 minutes or so even though many sounded very distant a few seemed pretty close.
On Monday it was if the city was not at war, there were families and children out and about and quiet a few cars on the road. The only difference really being the odd guy with a machine gun walking around or a few drinking a coffee in a cafe. This is particularly strange as monday was the day many western news companies were reporting how the city was just about to be taken by the Ukrainian forces.
We still have no idea how the people here decide when they will go out and when they will not, as some days there is nobody and others seem almost normal. We know that many families have been spending a lot of time at home as most of the factories and shops are closed. We also know that many people here have not left their homes either because they have nowhere else to go, or because they are scared to leave their houses as there is a high possibility of them getting looted and losing everything in the time that they are gone. The problem is people still need to run errands and sort certain things out, whether it’s trying to find a cash point that is still functioning (nearly impossible) or stocking up on supplies. There definitely still is a very high level of civilians living in the city. This means the Ukrainian forces will have to be very mindful when planning their next move.
People gathered outside a bank waiting to try and take out some money earlier today