I’m on a bus entering Slovyansk in south eastern Ukraine. The area has been newly declared as the ‘Donetsk People’s Repubilc’ by rebels.
The bus has been stopped at a pro-Russian separatist checkpoint by a fighter wielding an AK47. The doors of the bus open and another fighter wearing a balaclava, armed with a handgun and a machete strapped to his leg boards the bus. He’s searching the passengers a few seats in front of me, looking at IDs and passports. Being English, this is when I realise that I could be in big trouble.
My adventure started a few days earlier. I flew from London to Kiev with a friend not quite knowing what to expect. I couldn’t have guessed that just a few days later we would be filming a group of far-right nationalists throwing Molotov cocktails across a room to practice their combat skills. Or that soon after we’d be confronted face to face by masked gunman at a separatist checkpoint.
After landing we walk through the dark streets of Kiev. I notice numerous groups dressed in various makeshift military style clothing. Many are unarmed whilst occasionally others possess pistols, knives, truncheons and sometimes body armour too.
Our travels lead us to Independence Square. Before us stands the scene of the brutal protest which saw the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in previous months.
It’s getting late but in darkness we can still see the square is visibly packed with protestor’s tents, the leftovers from the revolution. The area is seemingly trapped in a time warp, a sort of living museum, a historic monument as life goes on around. Ukrainian, nationalist and EU flags fly high.
We approach some of the tents and can see three men in rag tag military style clothing. They notice me and we begin to start talking about the protests known as the ‘Maidan’. We are quickly ushered into their tent.
Inside there is a pungent smell of old sweat but I’m surprised to see lights and electricity cables, small cooking appliances and furniture; a large kitchen table and a bench – it becomes clear that these protestors are here for the long run.
We ask them what they are doing in Kiev. One of the men eagerly responds: “We’re waiting for our orders to fight in the East”. I ask who they are waiting for orders from, but nobody seems to know.
“We are here to defend Ukraine, f*ck Putin and f*ck Russia”, they say. It’s soon clear that the men are ultra-nationalists, in protest of Russian control in Ukraine. I ask to take photographs and film but the apparent leader of the group does not want to be identified and insists on wearing his balaclava. He tells me he’s from Crimea and had to leave because it wasn’t safe for him there.
The other two males of the group look considerably younger and they clearly haven’t washed for a few days. I begin to speak with them. They are 19 years old and say they are preparing to fight. One of them shows me his camouflage hat and tells me that tomorrow he will join the army.
The group wants Ukraine to join the EU and see the country’s future with the West. They want distance from Russia. Before we leave I ask how long the men intend to stay there for. “Until the end” one says. Although none of the group really seem to know when the end will come.
The next day we return to Independence Square. It’s only in the daylight that you can fully appreciate the size and extent of the revolution. The pavements are littered with memorials to the dead – photographs, flowers and candles. Murals and artwork symbolising peace and democracy are plastered all over the city’s walls. Tents from the protestors line the streets for a long as the eye can see.
We set up the camera to take some shots of the protestors before us. “No filming, no filming!” yells a man dressed in camouflage clothing. The man is accompanied by a woman; both aggressively walk towards me and shout, ‘no pictures’. After talking, they soon realise we mean no har, and insist on giving us a guided tour of the Maidan. Our tour guides, Lisurb and Nadia, were a part of the protests held in the previous November which saw the downfall of the Yanokovitch government. They explain that the protesting is ‘not over and that, like the armed men, they are ‘staying until the end’.
On our tour we’re shown captured armoured personnel carriers, water cannons, firebombed buildings and charred vehicles where people have burned to death inside. These seized objects all sit with an air of importance in the middle of the streetsof Kiev, like trophies to be seen and respected by all. Lisurb and Nadia and some friends then gather to show us a library that was used as a makeshift morgue.
Lastly we come across a building and monument where the Berkut, Ukraine’s special police, reportedly shot at protestors with snipers.
The area is now populated with what looks like junk – wood, scrap metal, fire extinguishers and tyres. Some men in our small group disappear into a corner. They re-emerge with Molotov cocktails. They say: “We’re going to throw molotov cocktails”. They explain that they don’t carry guns or knives and will use the Molotov’s to defend the city from attack. We’ve barely entered the old building the men take us into when the first cocktail is hurled in front of us. It explodes and lights up the entire room.
We leave Ukraine’s capital and travel overnight to Kharkiv in the North East. We’re met at the station by two university students from the area. Kharkiv, pronounced ‘Harkov’ is still a restricted area according to the foreign office but it’s rather calm in comparison to the country’s capital.
The city, located about 20 miles from the Russian border, had recently seen a wave of pro-separatism violence with clashes between pro-Western and pro-Russian groups. The clashes had led to the seizure of the regional government headquarters by an armed group and also attempted assassination on the city’s mayor who was shot whilst jogging only a couple of days before our arrival.
The locals in the city are keen to speak to us about the violence with many telling us that they support the government in Kiev and want closer ties with Europe. This is a Russian speaking area; however some locals have now refused to speak Russian as a form of protest and instead choose to speak Ukrainian or English.
We walk to Freedom Square in the centre of the city – a vast cobbled square dwarfed by a tall statue of Vladimir Lenin. At the other end, we can see the once seized government building now heavily guarded by a contingent of Ukrainian police. Bullet holes, explosion marks and shot out windows are all clearly visible.
We heard about allegations of police and local government corruption from various locals. The allegations accused the police of purposely leaving the area as the separatists stormed the government building. However after putting these accusations to a senior Ukrainian police office, he refused to answer or be filmed and instead pushed the camera away from his face.
The next day we miss our train to Donetsk that we must catch to get our connecting train to Kiev to fly home. We wait at the station and explore. We understand that separatists have control of areas of Donetsk as well as the local towns of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk and some surrounding cities.
Our attempts to catch an internal flight or get a taxi to Donetsk are unsuccessful. Instead we’re forced to take a bus to Kramatorsk, a city close to Donetsk.
We have a quiet and brief conversation about the potential risks – possible kidnap, detention or even worse gunfights and artillery. I suggest that, being Western, we hide our camera equipment as best possible within our clothing or at the bottom of our bags. Fellow Bournemouth University student, Anna Pujol-Mazzini, conceals the seven memory cards, with footage we shot in Kiev on them, down her bra.
I’m sat about half way up the bus surrounded by Russian speaking locals looking ahead at the empty and desolate roads. After a couple of hours, the bus stops for a break in a small desolate town. As Anna and I quietly talk away from the other passengers, the driver and his female colleague attempt to talk to us in Russian. Well tell them that we’re English and their faces drop. The female colleague seems very worried and agitated. The driver reassures us but a translator tells us that terrorists are ahead.
“Don’t look out of the window, no pictures, if they board, don’t speak to them and do not show them your passport, they will put you into prison.”
We clear the first two checkpoints but the atmosphere is tense on the bus as we approach the third. This checkpoint looks different. A homemade sign reads, ‘Auto Halt’. Armed men, tents, tanks, tyres and rubble form the barricades. Our bus is stopped by an armed man with an AK47.
As the bus is boarded by another armed man wearing a balaclava and wielding a pistol with a machete strapped to his leg, I see a Russian Flag and quickly realise that this is not a Ukrainian checkpoint and that we could be in big trouble.
Passengers seem confused and worried too. The female passenger sat next to me puts her hand on my leg as the gunman begins checking passports and IDs ahead.
The gunman moves down the aisle and then begins to check the passenger directly in front of me. I’m just hoping that he doesn’t try to speak to me in Russian. But, after quickly looking up at me, he leaves the bus.
We eventually reach Kramatorsk and board a bus to Donetsk. We catch our train back to Kiev and we stay in the city for a while before flying home.
Although many nationalist and protestor tents still line the streets of Kiev, life has moved on since we last saw it. Businesses are open as usual. A new government has been elected and most ordinary citizens want to move on with their lives. The groups have been asked to dismantle their tents and leave but have refused and instead sit like zoo animals watching life go on before them.
UN has reported that 54,000 people have been displaced within Ukraine alone whilst a total of 110,000 have fled to neighbouring Russia to escape the conflict. Ukraine has not been part of a war for many years meaning the weaponry is old and outdated. The battling sides are left to effectively shell local towns and cities into submission to establish control.
With the increasing civilian casualties, it’s hard to see how Kiev can win back the hearts and minds of the local Eastern provinces and difficult to predict how or when the conflict and bloodshed will ever end.
Edward Lawrence is a second year Television Production student and aspiring war journalist/ factual filmmaker.