Tomáš Forró is a war journalist living now in Poland and an author of books about criminal gangs in Latin America and on the war in Donbass 2014-2020. His book Donbass was published in 4 languages. Today he is again covering the Russian aggression on Ukraine.
There, beyond the white wilderness, at the edge of a forgotten country, your fate awaits.
I should have turned the taxi driver around a few miles outside of Donetsk, when I realized that we were not going to Luhansk via the usual route through Debaltseve. Its only downside is a bombarded bridge, which one has to get around on muddy roads through fields and forgotten villages. The upside – near the demolished Debaltseve there’s a small crossing between DPR and LPR, at which the soldiers don’t even bother coming out of their guard booths.
But when the driver mumbles something about the damaged bridge and a better road through Snizhne, I agree. After all, there’s nothing to worry about.
Our car is headed out of Donetsk on the Eastern road, passing by Savur-Mohyla and the Russian border. It’s the so-called Sector D, where the future of the war was being decided in the summer of 2014, and through which the Russian Army flooded the front, thus determining the fate of the entire conflict. We drive through small towns in the most underdeveloped corners of Donbas. According to the Ukrainian agent Meklaud, this is the area that produced most of the improvised units of the hybrid war – mercenary desperados who started the occupation of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, and other towns.
Now I understand why Meklaud called it a depressing region. The area is reminiscent of a post apocalyptic movie. We pass by dilapidated housing complexes, ramshackle and decaying school buildings and hospitals, and empty, rusting factories. Some show signs of explosions, but it’s clear that the vast majority of them were already in this state before the war. Most of the people on the streets are seniors or drunks, and the two groups frequently overlap. At times the main road connecting the two largest cities of Donbas turns into spots of asphalt in a sea of mud and potholes. Sidewalks are almost nonexistent.
During the first two hours of the ride I barely speak to the driver. When I ask him how they like living there, he just points out the window. People don’t live here; they survive. The man is from Russia, but his wife is Ukrainian. They have nowhere to run. They have two kids and a small apartment.
We pass through the hopelessly poor and demolished Snizhne, a small local metropolis, and then we’re almost at the border of the Luhansk People’s Republic. Outside of town there’s a checkpoint, and a soldier with a machine gun orders us to get out of the car with our luggage. He’s young, wearing an old British surplus uniform, and his cleanly-shaven ape-like face exudes aggression. My inspection takes place in a military bunkroom. My backpack slowly reveals personal items, followed by a combat knife, a bulletproof vest, and a military helmet.
They don’t like it at all. Chimp goes to call headquarters, and another soldier orders me to wait outside. I don’t budge.
“I’m not going out by myself.”
“And why not?”
“I’m afraid you’ll steal my things.”
The soldier sighs, walks out with me, and locks the door.
A few minutes later Chimp walks out of the guard booth with the phone. For a little while he listens intently and keeps staring at me. He barely hangs up, rips the Kalashnikov off his shoulder and yells: “He’s from the Right Sector!”
Other figures dart out of the building, disengaging the safety on their machine guns.
Twenty minutes go by. It’s still morning; I’m kneeling in the dirty snow, my hands behind my head. Three machines guns are pointed at me. None of them have any idea what to do with me. Chimp leaves, he needs to speak to headquarters again. The soldiers relax, and I’m allowed to stand up. I offer them cigarettes, and for the hundredth time I try to explain to them who I am, that I have neutral status protected by international agreements, and that I don’t belong to any side of the conflict.
What was I doing with their mortal enemy, the Right Sector, then? The same thing I’m doing with them. I observe the situation, talk to soldiers and civilians on both sides of the front line, and report on it. A soldier laughs. If I’m not one of their journalists, I’m against them. I name several leading Donetsk politicians I interviewed a few days ago. They can check up on it. The soldier puts out his cigarette. Someone from their unit is coming to pick me up, and if I’m telling the truth, everything will be OK.
What unit is that? When the young man answers, shivers run down my spine. At the end of 2013, units of the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior started the bloodshed at the Maidan. After overthrowing President Yanukovych, the new government dissolved those units, and their members are being tried in Ukraine for violence against civilians. But here, in occupied Donbas, they’re doing great – they are the heroes of pro-Russian resistance. They enjoy respect as well as autonomy from the army and the police.
“We are Berkut,” the soldier says with pride.
My taxi driver comes out of the guardhouse. He pulls out his cell phone, and frightened, he calls his wife to let her know he’ll be running late because we’ve run into trouble. I realize it’s my last chance: my phone lost the Fenix network signal an hour ago. If I don’t call for help now, the butchers from Berkut will be here any minute, and I’m likely to be subjected to their infamous interrogation in an underground cellar. I could easily disappear without a trace.
I signal the taxi driver to come over. I ask him to dial the number from which my ride was arranged yesterday. He barely manages to put the phone up to his ear when Chimp comes out of the building. When he sees us, he yells:
“They’re calling for reinforcements!”
I grab the phone out of the driver’s hands. Chimp is almost on top of us.
“Help me! We’re at the checkpoint in Snizhne. Help!”
Chimp takes a swing at me, and rips the phone out of my hand. Then he shoves me to the ground.
“Fascist pig! Let’s shoot him on the spot!”
“Katya, don’t be a fool. Our guys already called the cops. They’ll be here any minute. Do you want to go to jail because of some asshole from the Right Sector?”
Chimp prods me with his machine gun toward the guard booth, and a dark-haired girl who keeps aiming a pistol at me follows him.
“Do you know what you did in my village, you son of a bitch? Do you remember?” She names a town I’ve never heard of in my life.
Chimp pushes her aside.
Inside they check me again; I lose my cell phone, laptop, and camera. They take my fingerprints and photograph me from all angles. Then they ask me to unlock my phone and show them all my photos and contacts. Among other things, I’ve got photos of a Neo-Nazi march in Warsaw from a few years ago, which I’ve also written about. Regardless of the fact that the photos only show Polish flags and are marked with a completely different set of dates, the soldiers are convinced they were taken at the Maidan. From that point on, everything they find and anything I say in my own defense will be used against me. They’ve captured a real subversive.
Katya sits down next to me with a pen and paper.
“Here. Write down the names and phone numbers of all your contacts. Who’s supposed to make heads or tails of that fucked up alphabet of yours? I’ll check everything. One mistake, and you’ll get a bullet in your head.”
I write, and Katya watches me with a sinister smile. She can’t be older than 30. Her face reveals old makeup, a morning hangover, and a thin mustache – a memento of local cheap contraceptives. She’s aiming a retired Makarov pistol at me. Her finger never leaves the trigger.
“You swine. Do you get it? Are you afraid? Are your hands shaking?”
I look her in the eye without the slightest hint of antagonism.
“My hands are shaking because I’m cold.”
Finally the police arrive, and I breathe a sigh of relief. It seems as though the inherent chaos of the armed forces of the DPR worked to my advantage this time. Berkut couldn’t send anyone, so they asked the regular police for help. We leave in an ancient Zhiguli; I sit in the back squeezed between two taciturn uniforms, which are clutching shortened Kalashnikov AKSU-47s. Chimp follows us in an all-terrain Lada Niva.
I’m trying to think through what they’ll find when they force me to open my laptop, but I suspect it doesn’t matter, because everything will be interpreted as proof of their suspicions. Before we left, they had checked my wallet at the guard booth, and they thought that my international medical insurance card for war reporters was a membership card for the Right Sector. They also interpreted my Ukrainian journalist accreditation for the war zone as a secret service ID.
We pass through a white wilderness. Any attempt at escape would be suicide.
It’s early in the afternoon. I’ve been sitting in a dirty, foul-smelling cell for several hours. Finally a young policeman comes to get me and takes me to the Chief of police. An aging Colonel and Chimp are sitting in the office. My luggage is spread out on the table. They’ve found further evidence of subversive activities – in my survival kit I have a compass, which they look over with great curiosity, until Chimp explains that it’s an instrument for determining position. They also find a small, suspicious packet; before they open it I have to describe what’s inside. If I remember correctly, it contains 150 euro, my last reserve in case someone steals my wallet. I put it there some fifteen years ago, during one of my first trips.
Gotcha! The packet only contains 100 euro and 1 dollar. I deceived them by 49 euro and 1 dollar.
Then there’s a red med kit with a few pills and some old bandages. Chimp claims it’s a NATO battle first aid kit, the likes of which he’s seen on TV.
“Colonel, if I may, one doesn’t carry a red med kit into battle because it’s too visible.”
The Chief seems to agree with me, but the soldier isn’t giving up: he pulls out my pain relief back patch (first aid for being shot through the lungs), an antiseptic for small cuts, six months out of date (first aid for gunshot wounds), and fever reducers (anesthetics after a gunshot wound). The Colonel clearly has his doubts about me being a subversive, but he’s afraid of the member of the dreaded Berkut.
I spend more hours in the cell before another policeman takes me in for an interrogation into an office dirtier than my cell, and full of confiscated goods. I have to describe my entire stay in Donetsk, down to the smallest details, including the names of all the people I’ve met, and give them a description of my Donetsk apartment, including the color of the building door. Then we open my laptop, but the policeman obviously doesn’t suffer from the same paranoia as the soldiers at the checkpoint. He glances over the photos and the files, and he’s satisfied. Meanwhile, there’s some hubbub outside. The investigator runs out of the office and locks the door.
When he comes back, he appears frightened and offers me a cigarette. He says that front-line government soldiers are waiting outside, demanding my release. I’m to understand that he and his colleagues are just small-town policemen, they don’t want any trouble, and they don’t meddle in politics. Their job is to deal with theft and domestic violence. Nothing bad happened to me here, right? When I concur, the policeman looks relieved, but he still makes me sign a statement that the officers had treated me with utmost courtesy.
The investigator suggests that we wait a while, until Chimp leaves. The Chief of police is worried that the Berkut blowhard will not accept the loss of a valuable captive, and he’ll call for reinforcements to attack my rescuers, which will result in a gunfight.
I agree. We wait another thirty minutes. Then the phone rings, and we can go.
When I step out into the parking lot of the police station, it all starts to make sense. Several cars are parked about sixty feet from us. Machine guns are flashing, and I see Yura; Kaukaz is sitting in the idling Lada with the safety off on his Kalashnikov. Several frightened policemen are hiding behind a cement barrier at the building entrance, eying my rescuers. I jump into the car, and we take off.
By now it’s late afternoon. Driving to Luhansk is out of the question. They take me back toward Donetsk, in the direction of the front-line checkpoints. Our car barrels through towns at full speed. We barely slow down at roadside checkpoints; Kaukaz just flashes his military ID to the guard through the window, and then he steps on the gas again.
Both men are tense, and they say it’s not over yet. Yura explains that all we’ve done is gain a couple-hour lead. If they don’t get me across the front line to safety that day, no one can guarantee that Berkut won’t try to get me back that night.
“But I didn’t do anything!”
“That doesn’t matter,” Yura snaps back. No one has complete control over them. Yura tells me that Berkut checked my identity at the ministry that morning, while I was still in jail. The officials confirmed my story, and ordered them to release me before the incident turned into an international scandal. Supposedly, the leader of Berkut said that I’m theirs, and hung up.
Along the way I find out that when Yura heard my voice on the telephone in the morning, he was terrified. He got a hold of Kaukaz, and they called their front-line commander, who sent him help and transportation. There was no time to wait for official channels – when they were leaving to Snizhne, he was convinced they’d be too late, that I’ve already been shot by drunk soldiers, or that Berkut was drilling into my kneecaps in some cellar.
At dusk we arrive at a front-line checkpoint near Horlivka. The soldier in the guard booth shakes his head – the civilian corridor is closed after dark, and the shelling begins. If I don’t make it to the other side in time, I could be trapped for the night in no man’s land, right in the middle of the fighting. Yura uses his military ID one last time, and the soldier lets me pass without further comment. Yura and I hug each other in parting; from there I’m on my own.
I barely walked a mile down a narrow, beat up road. It’s lined by short trees damaged by rocket attacks and bullets. Past the trees are mine fields. I don’t know how much further I have to go, but it’s becoming clear that I won’t make it there on foot today. I’m not allowed to go back, but I can try to spend the night at the so-called zero checkpoints.
They’re both sides’ battle positions right at the front line, frequently only a few hundred feet apart. They have practically no defensive purpose – if the enemy decides to attack, the personnel at these checkpoints are the first to die, but they have enough time to warn the units behind them that an attack wave is coming. I’ve heard many stories about these soldiers; the only way to survive in this environment is on drugs and alcohol. If I am to seek shelter at one of them, I’ll have to toss anything that could arouse their suspicions.
I’m about to get rid of my gear when lights appear in the distance. A run-down Zhiguli with no bumpers or front grill is coming toward me. The car slows down, and from the open driver’s door an old man’s head pokes out.
As he drives by, I toss my bag into the trunk and jump in through the back door.
Three people are inside, all of them older. They look as worn out as their vehicle. No one says a word, despite the fact that my appearance and exhaustion must warrant a lot of questions. The tension is palpable as we head to the separatists’ zero checkpoint. At this point, Horlivka is one of the hottest areas of the front line, with unceasing bombardment and fighting. The roadside bunker is damaged from explosions, and cracked cement blocks are covering holes left by heavy machine-gun fire. With their weapons pointed at us, the soldiers let us pass.
A few seconds later, when we arrive at a similar bunker with a Ukrainian flag, it’s finally over. I thank my rescuers for their help, and sheepishly offer them money for the transport. There’s silence in the car, no one responds. Embarrassed, I put my money away.
Then I gather up my remaining strength and manners, and force my facial muscles into a faint smile.
“Where are you coming from?”
An old woman who’s been sitting next to me in the back turns toward me. Her teeth look awful, and her face is expressionless.
“From hell, my son. We’re coming from hell.”
Even among the separatists there are Ukrainians, and they have seen people falling out of the sky.
After a short stay in Donetsk, I get out of the marshrutka in the small town of Snizhne, about 50 miles East of the metropolis. Snizhne is located in one of the most impoverished and depressing corners of Donbas, and it’s the place where my arrest took place in March. Its rundown, forgotten apartment buildings remember how on the morning of July 15th, 2014, there was an air raid on a large group of hiding pro-Russian fighters, most likely carried out by the Ukrainian Air Force.265 They must have had bad intelligence, because they missed their target by about a quarter of a mile. The result – two destroyed apartment buildings full of unsuspecting civilians, and eleven dead.266 The town lived through heart-wrenching scenes of citizens mourning the loss of their loved ones, and a multi-hour rescue operation, at the end of which the rescuers pulled a living baby out of the rubble.267
In Snizhne I get into a taxi, and we head for even more remote parts. The car is on the road that will soon cross the border between DPR and LPR, the same road, which has the checkpoint with Chimp and his bloodthirsty girlfriend. I give in to panic, but the driver suddenly turns off onto a side street, and then onto country lanes that go through fields and groves.
The village where I stay is right on the border of DPR and LPR. It looks like any other village in the area: there are piles of shiny anthracite in front of dingy houses with fiber cement roofs, at the center of the village there is a memorial to the victims of WWII, and next to it is an empty shop with a plump saleswoman. It’s quiet here, and there’s more greenery than I’ve seen anywhere else in Donbas.
All around the area people speak surzhyk, a beautiful mixture of Ukrainian and Russian, which has many unique words and dozens of variants all over Ukraine. When asked who they are, the neglected, bombarded, and victimized citizens of this region deep in separatist territory have no doubts.
Ukrainians! Neither the war, nor the pro-Russian propaganda, Gubarev, or Putin, could change that. The villagers I talk to declare their identity without any hesitation. They blame their former country for dragging them into a conflict they don’t understand and which doesn’t concern them. They fear its tanks and airplanes, and hate its government, which they believe to be the cause of it all. However, that doesn’t change the fact that in spite of it all, they remain faithful to the cultural heritage of their ancestors. It was right here, in the Donbas countryside, that the original inhabitants of Ukraine survived Stalin’s purges and deportations. They’ll survive Zakharchenko as well.
Mila from our house is celebrating her seventieth birthday today. A couple of chickens and one coypu have been slaughtered for the occasion, and her husband is roasting them outside, making shashlik in a typical Slavic squat, and reminiscing out loud about his military experience. Slowly the villagers gather, drawing in the smell of the roasting meat into their nostrils, and eying the foreigner who’s offering them tobacco.
When the owners of nearby mines shut down operations at the beginning of the fighting, the mines slowly filled up with ground water, and most of the locals lost their jobs. Young people left, and the people who stayed are getting by in whatever way they can. Locals working in public institutions admit they haven’t been paid for four months, or they’ve been paid 20% of their salary and told they’ll get the rest sometime in the future.
As a result, they mostly live off their gardens and barns. Most of the houses don’t have a bathroom with running water, and the toilet is almost always outside, either in the form of a latrine, or a hole in the ground. There’s no one to complain to, but everyone can remember far better times. Those had come to an end when groups of armed fighters who were being hunted by the Ukrainian Air Force started to hide in the area.
For two weeks in the summer of 2014, the villagers watched the exchanges of fire followed by air raids, all the while hiding in their basements full of aging wine and rotting potatoes. In Ukraine it is a custom to greet one another with a wish of a peaceful, calm sky. Ever since those days, the greeting has taken on a new, literal meaning for the inhabitants of the area – to be able to take their mattresses out of their damp holes, and look at the sky without fear.
Next to our building there’s a children’s playground where a girl’s playing, and nearby is her plump mother, the saleswoman. The playground was built by Eugen, and she’s married to the man who had turned him in to the police. Supposedly he had hidden the parachute of the pilot of a shot-down Ukrainian fighter jet. They didn’t come to get Eugen at his home; they waited for him at the same checkpoint where I was arrested a few years later. Eugen was held in a basement for several days. What exactly they did to him, he won’t say, but on the back of his head there’s a spider web of poorly healed scars from a cracked skull, and when he was finally taken to the hospital, his family couldn’t even recognize him because of how battered his face was.
The neighbor who turned in Eugen lives three buildings over. Everyone in the village knows that the whole thing wasn’t about a Ukrainian paratrooper, but about a field by the river they keep arguing over. The neighbor denies it, but the separatists showed Eugen the neighbor’s handwritten statement when they were torturing him. Such is life.
“Do you remember the people who beat you back then?”
“It’s the same people who serve at that checkpoint today. One sadist in particular; everyone’s afraid of him around here.”
“What does he look like?”
“Young, tall, aggressive son of a bitch. With an ape face.”
Not far outside the village there is a special closed zone. It has the water source, a psychiatric institution, in which the living conditions are so horrific that they don’t even allow inspectors from Donetsk to enter, and then another zone within the zone. Eugen and I are leaning against his car in a picturesque grove, smoking, and looking at the first villages of the Luhansk People’s Republic off in the distance.
“Eugen, you know what could happen, right? For this, they could take not just me, but also you and your family.”
Eugen tosses his cigarette butt and starts the car.
It had crashed less than two miles from him. Eugen was in the middle of repairing a riser pipe when smoke appeared in the sky. He looked that way and saw a huge civilian airplane, by then it was missing a wing; it was rolling in the air, and falling right at them. Pieces of metal and equipment were falling out of the fuselage, together with human bodies. There was no time to run; Eugen didn’t move.
Then the plane crashed. Before Eugen could get to it, the entire area was overtaken by the Donetsk army and closed off. The locals were left with nothing but stories and their own imagination. One is almost certain that besides the civilian airplane he also saw a military one; some saw two or even three. Whose? Probably the Ukrainians’, since they were the ones bombarding us. Another person heard that the bodies from the airplane were not the passengers’, but that they had been taken from morgues, and at the time of the crash they were already in advanced stages of decay. Another villager adds that the passports of all the victims were found on board, having been placed in a safe ahead of time for easier identification.
The truth is that they don’t know a thing. Unawares, they keep repeating the misinformation that had been spread by Russian media at the time268, 269, and later disproved by experts. Moreover, for the people marked by the fear of those months, the air attacks on their villages have melded with the event that shook the whole world on July 17th, 2014. Memories mix with propaganda, pub talk, and facts, and more and more outlandish theories stick in people’s minds. It’s no wonder, since the bombardment of the apartment building in Snizhne took place only two days before the crash of the civilian flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which had 298 people on board, and whose last moments Eugen had seen with his own eyes.
The spot where the Boeing 777 of flight MH17 had crashed is now covered in grass and cows graze on it. We made it here on forgotten dirt roads, which are unfamiliar even to the separatists who guard all of the access roads to the area, because this is one of the strictly guarded zones in DPR. International experts unequivocally identified the source and the means of the destruction of the airplane as a Buk surface-to-air missile owned by the Russian Army, and the only thing the Donetsk government can do is cling to its propaganda, and deny entry to anyone who could find any evidence to the contrary.
Of course, the separatist units thoroughly cleaned the area of everything they could. Not far off there’s a memorial for the victims of the plane crash, adorned with candles and teddy bears of the children who had died, which the inhabitants of a nearby village had managed to hide before the soldiers could confiscate them. There’s nothing else: it’s a field like any other.
A few days later, as I’m headed back from this area to Donetsk, my taxi driver mentions that a civilian airplane had crashed here four years ago. Have I heard about it? I have. The driver opens up. When it happened, he was just finishing a ride in the area. He arrived on site at the same time as the local militia, which cordoned off the area right around him. He and the local villagers stood there for several hours, and they saw everything that happened. He recalls how all of a sudden the victims’ cell phones started to ring when their relatives around the world learned the horrific news, and they tried desperately to reach the people who had boarded the plane in Amsterdam.
“You could hear the phones ringing all the way from the wreckage?”
“What are you talking about?” The taxi driver gives a sad laugh. “With our own eyes we saw our officials stealing whatever they could from there. Phones, tablets, money, even jewelry. The ringing came from their pockets and backpacks.”