Anti-Spiegel – Thomas Röper
I was invited to be one of the first foreign journalists to visit the conflict area in Eastern Ukraine. Here is my first report.I have already announced that this week I will make a business trip and visit Eastern Ukraine. Here I will tell how it came about and what I experienced on the first day.
How it came about
I have often said that I would like to visit the Donbass and see the situation for myself. However, this became almost impossible after the Russian military operation began, because anyone who had not been networked there before the operation began can hardly get in at the moment. I have tried many ways, but getting accreditation if you have never been there is almost impossible at the moment.
However, I kept getting calls that there were chances and that it would start soon, but then nothing came after that. That’s why I didn’t take it seriously at first when I got another call last week asking if I would be willing to go spontaneously. But then on Saturday I got the call that the trip would start on Monday at 7:00 a.m. in Moscow.
The long journey
Thereupon I threw all plans over the heap and flew to Moscow, where I worked through the night in the hotel to write some more articles. Since the airspace over southern Russia is closed, we had to travel by car, so we met at 7:00 am. The group consisted of six journalists, two escorts and two drivers and we left in two minibuses. I slept through most of the drive, but this was planned, as I preferred to write at night and sleep during the day during the trip, so that the Anti-Spiegel would not have a whole week off the air.
As we only learned in the car, we were not supposed to go to the Donbass. Rather, we were to be the first foreign journalists allowed to travel to southern Ukraine via Crimea in order to get a picture of the situation there. Therefore, we stayed overnight in Rostov-onDon and drove the next day across the new Crimean Bridge to Simferopol, which was a tour of 1,900 kilometers in total. We arrived in Simferopol on March 15 and there other journalists joined the group.
Things get serious
On March 16, we were on buses at five o’clock in the morning and drove to a meeting point where we were to transfer from our two buses to a single bus. We were given protective gear with “Press” written on it and from here on we were escorted by two armored vehicles of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia), in which about 20 armed soldiers sat to protect us.
The Rosgvardia is a mixture of police and military, usually guarding critical infrastructure, but can also be deployed in riots or war. In Ukraine, one of their tasks is to maintain law and order in cities that have come under Russian control, to coordinate with the city government the organizational things needed to keep life going normally, and so on. The guys were friendly to us and during the many breaks nice contacts and conversations were made.
The journalists who went with me came from the USA, the Netherlands, Mongolia, Serbia and Italy.
The first impression
When we crossed the border, the Ukrainian border post was pretty much destroyed, but that was all. There were then some cars lying on the side of the road, which – as our companion told us – had been hastily placed across the road by the Ukrainian army to block the road. But tanks cannot be stopped with a few cars.
Apart from that, we did not see any damage, except for some damaged crash barriers. The Russian army marched through there without encountering any resistance, and in all the places we passed, everything was intact, not one window was broken. Life also went its normal course, stores and gas stations were open, cars were running, people were on the streets and so on. If one had not known, nothing would have indicated that an army had just marched through here.
Experienced journalist colleagues, for example, a Dutch journalist with Syria experience, found it very impressive. She told us that she knows it differently from Syria, because when the U.S. army advances, helicopters fly ahead, shooting at anything that moves to prevent ambushes. Even if no civilians are harmed in the process, the destruction where the U.S. Army has advanced is considerable, she told me.
This was also confirmed by the American among the journalists, who is a former U.S. Marine. He has an interesting story, by the way, because he has been living in Russia for six years and was granted political asylum because he asked too many critical questions in the U.S. on a sensitive issue. In the U.S., of course, the story is told differently, but that’s another topic.
What also stood out was the poverty in Ukraine. Those who – like me – still know Russia from the 1990s had the feeling of having taken a trip back in time to the 90s. Today, Russia is a clean country with modern cities where whole districts have been rebuilt. I have linked a video that makes this clear.
Ukraine still looks the same as Russia did back then. Broken roads, dilapidated bus stops, poorly maintained, half-ruined houses, many old Soviet cars and so on. Even the joyless clothes of the people remind of the 90s in Russia. This touched me very much, because it brought back some memories of that time and of the problems of my friends in that time. But this can only be understood by those who have experienced it.
Our trip went to the small town of Genichesk, which is located just off Crimea on the Ukrainian mainland and is a tourist destination for seaside vacationers in the summer. We visited the market there, walked around the town, visited a humanitarian aid distribution point and were shown the only war damage there.
That the situation is not completely normal was shown by the queue in front of a bank, because apparently cashless payments are not working there at the moment and people are queuing for cash, which is in short supply. Otherwise, the city made a fairly normal impression.
In the market, we were allowed to move around freely, but had to stay together so that our protectors could keep an eye on everything. It was certainly a somewhat unusual sight for the locals when about 12 people in protective clothing and with the inscription “Press” came onto the premises accompanied by about 20 heavily armed people.
The fear of the people
I expected that the opponents of the Russian military operation would not talk to us because they should be afraid of the Russian soldiers. However, it was exactly the opposite. The opponents told the Russian soldiers to their faces that they were not welcome and should go home. They are obviously not afraid of the Russian soldiers at all, and they call them names, sometimes violently, which the Russian soldiers let happen stoically and without reacting.
Those who are afraid – we all quickly noticed – are the supporters of the Russian operation. They walked past the soldiers and unobtrusively whispered words of thanks and things like “finally!” or “don’t go again!” to them.
The malcontents also scrambled for every microphone and stood in front of every camera, venting their displeasure, while it was hard to get the supporters of the operation on camera and interviewed. One of the few exceptions was an old lady who said she was 72 and not afraid. She almost cried with joy in front of the camera and thanked Russia.
Fear, I then learned in whispered conversations with some of the people concerned, is that Russia could pull out again and they would then have to expect repression and worse for their advocacy of Russian intervention, as it has been since after the Maidan. The most famous, but by no means the only, case was the Odessa tragedy in May 2014, with over 40 dead burned alive in Odessa by Maidan supporters. This mass murder is cynically called “Odessa barbecue” by the nationalists in Ukraine and it has not been solved until today.
In general, life for opponents of the government in Ukraine after the Maidan was not without danger, political murders were not uncommon, and the UNHCR also mentioned this again and again in its human rights reports on Ukraine. But it’s one thing to know that and read about it, but it’s something completely different when you experience that fear so tangibly. The fear was also evident in the fact that many did not even want to be seen in the background of the picture. Most avoided the cameras and always walked past behind the cameramen to stay out of the picture.
And something else about people’s reaction was telling. Due to the fact that we were under the protection of Russian soldiers, people could have thought we were pro-Russian. But when they heard that we were from the West, many refused to talk to us at all. With Russian media, many would have probably talked, but in front of a Dutch, Italian or even American camera almost no one wanted to.
One who did agree insisted on doing the interview in English, not Russian, because he was afraid Western media would twist his words. This was an experience I would not have expected in Ukraine. He then spoke positively about the Russian military operation.
The concerns of the people
There were also many people at the market who complained bitterly about poverty. Pensioners would have to spend all their money on electricity and heating, and would have no money left for food. When will the cost of housing be reduced and pensions increased, they shouted at us, although neither we journalists nor the Russian soldiers can do anything about the level of pensions in Ukraine.
People’s displeasure with this is understandable and I have often reported that this is a big problem in Ukraine. However, the Russians are not responsible for it, but for the colleagues who did not know Russian, it looked like a protest against the Russian soldiers, while the (very justified) ranting of these people had nothing to do with the Russians. Many pensioners complained that their entire pension goes to housing costs and they can only survive because their children or friends give them food.
The impressions were different when we then left the market with the many people and walked through the city. When people could talk to us alone, without feeling watched by a crowd, they were immediately much more open. Particularly impressive was an old lady, a picture-perfect Babushka, who lives in a house enclosed by a fence of metal plates. As our group walked along, all her dogs barked and she came to the gate muttering about what was wrong with the dogs going so crazy.
When she opened the gate she stood in front of five journalists in protective vests and helmets and three heavily armed soldiers who were just passing by her house and she made a very puzzled face. But she was incredibly friendly, asking who we were and so on. When I told her we were foreign journalists and if they wanted to say something into the microphone to our colleagues, she asked, “For which side?”
We all had to laugh (including the soldiers), and when she understood that she could say what she wanted, she willingly joined in. She simply asked for peace and complained that “the boys” always have to suffer when “those up there” fight again. Now boys would die on both sides, who actually all belong together and are slavish brothers, whereby she directly addressed the Russian soldiers, who nodded to this. She gave a speech for peace that I have rarely heard so convincingly. She was a truly lovely woman and I can still see her open smile.
In the West, the humanitarian aid that Russia provides is not reported. In Russia, on the other hand, people joke that soon there will be no more sugar and flour because it will go to Ukraine as humanitarian aid. And indeed, on our long drive from Moscow to Crimea, we saw many long truck convoys carrying humanitarian aid.
We also visited a humanitarian aid distribution point, but many complained that there was not enough aid and that they have had to leave empty-handed a few times. I cannot judge what the reason for this is, because I know from the refugee camps that there is enough there for the necessary needs. Maybe Russia has underestimated the refugee problem, I don’t know. But the sheer volume of trucks on Russia’s highways showed that there really is a lot being delivered, we were very surprised at the large number of aid convoys on the trip.
At the distribution point it was again similar to the market: some did not want to be in front of the camera and did not want to talk. But here the fear was not as evident as at the market. One woman was not afraid at all. She stood in line and also complained that she had been here several times for nothing, but she clearly said how happy she was to see the Russians.
She raved about how much better things were before the Maidan (“under Yanukovych” as she kept saying). After the Maidan, she said, all the major employers in the region had gone bust, unemployment was high, poverty was dire. And, of course, she complained again about the housing costs, which she could not pay. She came from the neighboring village, had a few cows and just wanted to be able to sell her milk again at a reasonable price and offer her children a future.
The Maidan has divided the people in Ukraine, that is clearly noticeable. My impression is that in the place where we were, the approval of the Russian military operation prevails. The opponents of it are louder, but in my eyes a minority, because as soon as there was no crowd, you could hear complaints about this or that difficulty, but no explicit anti-Russian statements, as in the market. The voices at the market were louder, but probably not a majority, as the many whispered “thank you’s” showed. But that is my subjective impression.
The opponents of the Russian operation said that one hundred percent of the people were against it, which the many other voices refute. The supporters of the Russians said that 90 percent think as they do. Of course, I don’t know if that’s true either. But it shows how deeply divided the country became after the Maidan.
Interestingly, there were two old gentlemen who really wanted to be interviewed by the Mongolian camera crew. They then had a real argument in the interview, where one was more in favor of the Russian operation, while the other was absolutely against it. It was interesting to hear the two argue.
It’s going to be a long road to patch up this division.
By the way, it is possible for Ukrainians to get into Crimea. I would have thought this border was closed. But there were many civilian vehicles in front of the border, which are very strictly controlled, but in the end they are allowed to pass. These are refugees who are seeking shelter in Russia, for example with relatives.
And I saw the Crimean canal, which Ukraine blocked after the Maidan because it wanted to cut off the island from the water supply. Crimea depended on the water, and for Russia to maintain the water supply for the last eight years has been a real feat. Since Russian troops have taken control of the canal, the water is flowing again.
We have seen, as I said, virtually no war damage, except for the border barracks, a few overturned cars, and broken guardrails. The only war damage we saw involved a bridge from the mainland to Crimea. Ukrainian soldiers had hastily tried to blow it up to stop the Russian army, but only one side of the roadway collapsed; the other half of the bridge is passable normally.
What we were forbidden
I was surprised when the senior officer of our protectors opened the list of prohibitions to us, because it consisted of only one item: filming and photographing soldiers without face masks is not allowed. However, nobody checked that, the instruction was given and that was all.
Otherwise, we were supposed to stay together to some extent, but I felt sorry for our protectors, because the curious journalists hardly adhered to this, for example, when they immediately poured out across the market area and spread out in the alleys between the market stalls in search of interview partners.
Where we were, life was largely going about its normal course. What shocked me was the fear of the people supporting the Russian side. To see that, this uneasiness of the people, that was depressing. I was also surprised by the visible poverty in Ukraine. I didn’t expect to see it so clearly. The infrastructure is still from the Soviet Union and since then not much has been done, much has fallen into disrepair, especially the empty factories and the really bad roads stand out.
I was pleased by the answer of a man to the question whether more Russians or Ukrainians live in the city. His answer was:
“We don’t make any difference! Besides, so many peoples live here; Armenians, Georgians, Greeks, we are all one family!”
That’s what I wish for Ukraine, to find its way back to that: Being one big family, because that’s what the Maidan governments wanted to drive out of Ukraine by relying on radical nationalism.
I will publish this article when we have the second trip behind us, because it is supposed to go to Melitopol, which has made some headlines and is much deeper in the hinterland.
However, I do not want to publish this information before the end of the trip.
Arrival in Genichesk
The market in Genichesk
Street in Genitschesk
Street scene in Genichesk with one of our companions
One of our protectors
The half destroyed bridge
The Mongolian film team
An Italian journalist speaks in a contribution