A Diary From the Eastern FrontSpecials

by Phil Rambousek, Mariupol.

The next day, we woke up at 7 AM, only to find that the Right Sector fighters had already managed to take of personal hygiene, worked out, and finished breakfast. By the time we came downstairs, they were lounging around, chain-smoking and joking around. We got a bowl of dry buckwheat porridge and a pickle for our breakfast but, alas, no tea, as it was wasteful to make just a single cup, they said. When you cook for a battalion, I suppose you think exclusively in battalion-sized amounts and portions.

DSC_0075We rejoined the soldiers just in time for their muster. They began by collectively praying, and followed this by taking turns in announcing points on the day’s agenda. We were surprised that even a regular lowly soldier was awarded the space to step out and tell everyone- including the officers- their concerns or suggestions. The most important message of the day was that a trip needed to be organised to a pharmacy to organise some mandatory x-rays for a few soldiers to pass their medical requirements.I had not expected such a degree of care for the individual soldier from this grizzled unit.

We spent the morning hanging out, and serving as the butts of many of their jokes, recording many interviews but -again- not taking any photos. At noon, a squad was heading to the front to resupply their comrades, and they offered to give us a ride back to Mariupol. About fifteen of us squeezed into a small van intended for about eight, and with the sliding door open, we sped down the cratered dusty roads, dodging tank traps and overtaking anyone who may dare to challenge our pace. I was convinced that this was it; I would die, falling out of a Right Sector minivan and impaling myself on an anti-tank hedgehog, before I even made it to the front line. Needless to say, nobody bothered us at checkpoints this time.

We arrived in Mariupol and found out, to our despair, that our trip to the front line had been yet again postponed to the following day. Slightly depressed, we checked into the best hotel in the city, paying £8 pounds each, and proceeded to arrange meetings with a few local activists. We also explored the city, and found that Mariupol, a city of some five hundred thousand, has a fascinating history and cultural makeup. Like many towns around it, it has a sizeable Greek population, which was forcibly moved to the area from the Crimea in the late seventeenth century. There is a local Greek dialect, and overall, association with Greece is a big part of the local identity.

In 2014, Mariupol was also conquered by the Russian-backed separatists and remained under their control for about two months. Little changed under the rebels, we were told, and one journalist told me he didn’t even see a single rebel soldiers in that period. There were minor skirmishes in the centre of the city which, likewise, went pretty much unnoticed by the locals. The situation became more serious however when, in the summer of 2015, the city became an obvious high priority target for the rebels. If it were conquered, the Russians would be able to maintain a land bridge to the Crimea. As a result, the front line around Mariupol became heavily fortified.

DSC_0049Perhaps the most interesting encounter of our stay there was a meeting with a local LGBT rights activist. Her take on the situation was entirely different than the right-wing soldiers’ and other patriotic activists we had met so far. As a bisexual refugee from Donetsk, she told us that she ticks almost all possible minority categories, and said that her mission is to make sure that people like the Right Sector understand that while they fight for freedom, this freedom also entails tolerance for people like her. This is a crucial time, she said, when differences between those who are simply Ukrainian patriots fighting against Russia, and those who began the revolution by wanting to move the country in a civilised, Westwards direction, begin to emerge. She argued that to make the conservatives understand this, action is needed sooner, rather than later, and told us that one of her methods is attending the right-wing soldier’s parades and gatherings draped in a rainbow flag, an act for which she would surely be beaten, were she a man.

We were surprised by how interesting we found our debate with her and her friends, and realised how limited and military-heavy our approach had been so far. In focusing exclusively on the soldiers- whether regular or volunteers- and those activists that spend their time supporting them, we had ignored the reason why the Maidan revolution had occurred in the first place- the strive to move close to Europe and the West, and, at least partially, to their values of liberalism and respect for human rights.  We went to sleep in the early hours enriched by this experience and also excited, because we were resolved to dodge past any bureaucrat, like the Right Sector van, who might try and stop us from finally getting to the front lines.

A Diary From the Eastern FrontSpecials

by Phil Rambousek, Kramatorsk & Mangush.

The next day, we woke up in our Kramatorsk hotel, eager to get on with what we came here to do, and get to the front line. Instead however, we got to experience the universal hallmark of war reporting: being stonewalled by reluctant bureaucrats, and waiting. So much waiting, in fact, that I have come dangerously close to loathing cafes and bars, something unprecedented in all my life.

In the end, our efforts to link up with our initial objective – a paratrooper unit – were becoming so frustrating, that we decided to leave Kramatorsk on the next bus to Mariupol, at 6 AM the following day. In the meantime, we spent some more time with our guide, took a hike in the local chalk cliffs, and ended the day by watching the Euro 2016 while drinking beer with a group of journalists and soldiers. Except for the frustration of being so close and yet so far, and the lack of a viable alternative prospect for getting to the front, war seemed pretty comfortable. So far, the penalty shootout between Italy and Germany was by far the most stressful experience we had.

The nDSC_0066ext day, we were eager to leave. On the bus to Mariupol, we stopped at a checkpoint, and all men under forty years old were pulled off the bus and questioned. It was only a minor inconvenience, but I could not help to think about the many grizzly reasons that young men have been forced to get off the bus or train by an armed squad before. We were also beginning to see some real effects of the war. Buildings damaged by artillery fire here and there, soldiers, tank barriers, barbed wire, and the eerie and completely abandoned two lane highway to Mariupol.

Upon arriving in Mariupol, we set out for the nearby town of Mangush, which serves as the headquarters of the 8th Battalion of the controversial Right Sector, or Pravyi Sektor.

The PravSeks, as they call themselves, originated in the chaos of the 2013 Maidan protests. It sought to organise the students and street fighters’ efforts against the riot police. Since then, it has mutated many times, and the remaining PravSeks fighters have mostly followed a new splinter organisation of their original founder, Dmytro Yarosh.

We were allowed to interview whomever we wanted, and spent the night at their barracks. Everything was different when it came to taking photos. Frustrated with the soldier’s excuses that they were not allowed to have their photos taken, I complained to the commander, who said that he gave no such order. When I triumphantly returned to the troops and readied my camera, they explained that I had misunderstood; the photogenic soldiers had unfortunately just left the front, they said, and who could possibly be interested in photos of the ugly ones who were left behind? For the sake of building rapport, I went along with their jokes and put my camera away.

The 8th Battalion is a light infantry unit of a few hundred soldier, mostly from the west of Ukraine. A sign on the HQ door reads “the 8th does not speak the language of the collaborators”- a reminder to stick to Ukrainian, a second language to many, said the Chief of Staff. The Chief of Staff himself was in his mid-twenties, about our age, and had just completed a degree in history when the Maidan revolution happened. He spoke intelligently about why he was fighting and about his battalion’s role in the war. He said that Ukraine was being let down by its corrupt government as well as the West. Above all, he stressed, Ukraine must withdraw from the Minsk Agreement and push uncompromisingly for its lost territory. We had to agree that the Agreement existed only on paper, anyway.

Given the PravSek’s reputation as being a virtually fascist organisation, I was stricken by how ordinary these people seemed. To me, they represented a rather accurate depiction of Ukrainian society. The female soldiers we spoke to joined up for the simple reason that the regular army did not accept women for front-line positions. Some of those we spoke to said they had problems with the law before the war. One of these soldiers in particular said the war saved him, in a way, from a life of total instability. He said he had spent his entire life prior to it on the road; moving from city to city, running away from the police as far as St Petersburg, and trying out an endless number of professions:

“IDSC_0072 think I was best at selling sunglasses”, he said; “you wouldn’t believe how much money you can sell this for”, he continued, pointing to his – given the circumstances oddly stylish – pair of glasses on the table.

Many in the unit were above fifty, or they at least looked like it, and at least a few significantly overweight for a soldier. Almost all had served in the Soviet army, mostly in the infantry, but one was a major, no less, on a Soviet submarine. While I was less convinced by the dedication to the cause of the small time crooks, most of them seemed unified in their passion for the war. They all agreed that they were better fighters with higher morale than the Ukrainian conscripts. Some said that if only the government let them have a bigger role and gave them more independence and support, they would win the war in no time.

Unexpectedly, we had the opportunity to meet the members of an attached Chechen battalion, who asked us to interview their commander, known as Muslim. These were obviously seasoned and ruthless fighters, with flowing beards, which they incessantly stroked, and scarred by gunshot wounds. Before coming to Ukraine, some had fought for ISIS – as we were surprised to learn – and most had spent their entire lives fighting the Russians in the Chechen wars. The Chechens were an entirely different sorts of people, who went anywhere anyone happened to be fighting Russians. Despite their intimidating appearance, they impressed us with their sense for humour. When they asked why the West has not helped their plight, and whether anyone cared for the situation in Chechnya today, I assured them that the West hasn’t forgotten.

I went to bed most impressed by this unexpected encounter, and thoroughly depressed by the tragic fate of this tiny nation. Partly because of their tragedy is determined by the simple fact that they are located in the wrong part of the world, and partly because I knew full well that the fate of the Chechens has long been forgotten.