We were picked up first thing in the morning by Katya and Guido, the taxi was taking us to a rebel training base not far from the centre of Donetsk. As we arrived at what had formerly been a cadet training academy for the Ukrainian security forces, we realized that it was nestled in a densely populated civilian area. Locals chatted amicably with the rebel soldiers outside the base and as we waited we saw countless adapted, vans, cars, APC’s and trucks pour in and out of the heavy front gates.
After waiting for half an hour, Katya’s contact Andy, came out and said we were allowed to enter. The training complex was not too large but had various training apparatus strewn about. The first man we were going to interview was a local battalion commander, he had come from the Urals in Russia and was from a part that was mainly Mongolian descent. His reasons for joining the conflict had been Ukraine’s interference in the internal struggles of Georgia, a country with many of his kinsman. A crowd gathered as we interviewed, all chiming in with their own opinions on the conflict. Everyone was interested in what we were doing but were obviously cautious about what they said, as we finished up the interview a line of new recruits filed out into the courtyard. They were all quite young and were inspected by a clearly un- impressed drill sergeant.
We were told that we could have an interview with Alexander Khodakovsky, the Vostok battalion commander and a regular feature in global media. He had in the past made some slip ups whilst being interviewed, indeed he was the commander that confirmed it was the rebels who had shot down flight MH17 before quickly retracting it after a reprimand from his superiors.
We were informed that we would be joined by a Chinese news team which we were surprised to learn consisted of a woman from Leicester and a Frenchman. They were very amicable and we agreed they could go first and interview Khodakovsky alone so we didn’t crowd him.
Kate, the English woman was married to the french cameraman, he had been involved in a nasty car crash near Slaviansk a few weeks before, so his right arm had been pinned and was pretty much useless. He said he insisted they use pins so he didn’t need a cast and could carry on working, he still appeared to be in quite severe pain from the injury. Crashed cars have been a common sight in Donetsk mostly because of the Separatists, you can spot a car being driven by a Separatist from a mile away without even seeing the driver, as it is normally going at full speed down the middle of the road.
As we were waiting we spotted a very young looking soldier, we asked for an interview and it turned out that he was only 15. His father trained the battalion recruits and his mother was fighting at the front, so he had been encouraged to join up. He had gone straight from school to the recruitment centre and despite his professionalism, seemed out of his depth in this world of fighting men. He claimed to only be involved in training the troops, but this would not matter when the Ukrainians arrived, they would kill him just because he was holding a gun.
Afterwards we went in to interview Khodakovsky, he had set up his room with the usual flags and literature along with his heavily modified AK47 which he seemed very proud of. He was quite a charismatic figure and Katya seemed to like him quite a lot. Khodakovsky had previously been in the special forces and seemed to know a lot about tactics and strategy. He was very well spoken and despite not understanding him, from what Katya translated later he made some very sentient points on the conflict. After an hour and half of talking (he did like talking) we left and were told it was time to leave the base.
It had been an interesting day so in the evening we all met up again to discuss it, we again went to sun city and partway through we were unexpectedly joined by Rudolf the media officer, who strangely liked to drink straight gin. All was fine until a shell landed quite a distance away, it must have done something however as the power went out and we were forced to leave. (We don’t think we will go to this bar anymore)
Having been in Donetsk for 3 weeks filming we were able to get some access to the inner workings of the military of the Donetsk Peoples Republic. After a long and difficult wait we received a call early Sunday morning from Katya, to report to a local division headquarters, finally we were being allowed to see the Militia from the inside. Over the last few weeks shelling had intensified with many civilian deaths and the encirclement of Donetsk by the Ukrainian security forces. The water supply was close to cutting out, there was no way to withdraw money and people were starting to feel truly besieged in this city with still well over 500 000 inhabitants remaining.
We arrived in the baking hot sun to find Katya was not there. She had kindly arranged for an officer to look after us, and after a short wait we were told to hop aboard a modified Van for a lift to the training range. The Chinese news team was there also with their own car, we chatted to them a bit more and learned the French cameraman had been blown up by an RPG in Lebanon, we began to see a pattern emerging here.
The van was a classic VW transporter which had been very badly spray painted to try and imitate camouflage and would be an interesting site if it survives the conflict. The Separatists have the right to take any civilian car or phone at any time for use in the war effort. It was quite disconcerting, hitching a ride with a ragtag group of separatists, the van was filled with arms, a recoil-less rifle was insufficiently camouflaged with a roll mat. Elliott asked if it would be possible to take some photos but unfortunately was not permitted to do so. The door to the van was left open to insure visibility with us framed in the open doorway feeling very exposed.
As we weaved our way between the checkpoints and concrete defenses, we began to realize that we were leaving the relative safety of Donetsk proper and heading to the much more insecure outskirts. Indeed the soldiers riding with us began to become much more serious the further we got from the city, scanning the horizon and placing their rifles to secure firing points out of the open door. The Ukrainian army had been closing in on this bastion of the Donetsk Peoples Republic and the distance between the front and the city had been getting smaller and smaller.
We were following the local commander, barreling along in front of us in a similarly badly camouflaged lada. We soon left the main road onto dirt tracks and weaved through a vast graveyard. The soldiers removed their hats and crossed themselves as we passed the array of gravestones, religion being a small solace to them in this most unpredictable of conflicts.
Eventually we came upon a steep track flanked on either side by piles of rough stone topped with several armed separatists peering down into the valley below. Pulling up next to another group of vehicles we were told to disembark and proceed towards the firing range atop a massive slag heap. On the way we ran into 2 Spanish recruits who had come to fight in the war, they stood there laughing carrying a massive Basque separatist flag, they were obviously looking for a war and felt this one was the most accessible to them.
The war had drawn volunteers from all over the world, particularly the Ukrainian Azov volunteer battalion. This battallion now contained the formidable ‘Swede’ an ex special forces officer who after serving in Ukraine was planning to fight in Syria for Assad’s forces. This conflict was attracting men looking to fight, a disconcerting development with the supposedly moral goals of each side.
We approached the firing range by scrabbling up the slag heap and were told to wait for the 3rd group of trainees, who were happy to be filmed. The recruits were a ramshackle collection of young men, clothed partially in fatigues and partially in sports clothes. The drill sergeant ran through the shooting positions with variable results. Their skills left a lot to be desired with one recruit somehow managing to hit a pile of rocks 10 feet to his left.
After waiting for the ranks to file through we were finally allowed to film the group, which also contained the Spaniards. They were significantly better and proceeded to fire off rifles, heavy machine guns, grenade launchers and a wide array of armaments in order to impress us. They always had a wry smile for the camera after the latest round of firing. A quick edit of what we filmed that day:\
This went on for some time; all the while the Ukrainians had been shelling around the site which was close to an old soviet power station. The mood was quite jovial until a couple of direct hits to the power station caused the separatists to decide it was time we left. The Chinese news crew that had come along with us were very eager to leave having donned their flak jackets as soon as we arrived and protested loudly that we were escorted out of the danger area immediately, “We need to go now!!” shouted the French cameraman and with his luck I didn’t blame his eagerness to leave. (We had also learnt that he had caught malaria in Africa and was out of action for some time, we concluded he is probably the unluckiest Frenchman in the world)
To make matters worse the separatists had decided to continue mine sweeping training alongside the firing range and not long after the order to leave, a massive explosion boomed only 20 feet away. This caused a massive panic as everybody thought we had been targeted by the artillery fire. Eastern Ukraine is a very dangerous place for journalists, lack of communication and inexperience have accounted for several journalist’s deaths since fighting began. After the confusion had been resolved we made our way back to the main road.
Katya who had arrived later on, had been unable to arrange a car for us so we were forced to share a lift. Elliott went with the Chinese news crew and John with the commander, a group of soldiers and Katya, who kindly shared the front seat with one of the Spanish recruits so there was more room seven people in a small lada car. As John looked into the car the soldiers were loading their weapons and peering out of windows, “Why are you doing that?” he asked “There may be trouble,” came the reply. John cautiously entered and we were ready to set off for the centre of Donetsk.
John was fortunate enough to have been seated by one of the Spanish recruits, an exuberant young man from Cartagena, and in his rudimentary Spanish questioned him on his decision to join the Separatists. “Spain is finished, the government exploits the people. We saw what was happening here and thought we could help, help create something better for the people here.” A noble sentiment but with no training and only a rudimentary grasp of Russian John asked him how he thinks he will survive here? “When you hear a plane you run, when you hear artillery you get down, it is very simple.” He then began laughing and everyone else in the car joined in despite the fact no one knew what had been said.
After a tense 10 minutes of the soldiers aiming their guns out of the windows and the commander driving erratically we arrived back in the city, no worse for wear but more assured that this rebellion is going to struggle against the well-armed force coming after it.
The sentiments of the rebels seem genuine but the execution of their rebellion is extremely disorganized. It is difficult to see how they can cope with a head on battle, but as they are partially a guerrilla force their only task is not to lose. As they are currently in control of a city still full of civilians, which the Ukrainian forces want back by independence day (24th August) it is unlikely there will not be more innocent people killed.
The water has now been cut and the shelling can be heard all day and night it is definitely escalating here but only time will tell what the outcome will be.
We will update again tomorrow as we are again very busy…