A Diary From the Eastern FrontSpecials

by Phil Rambousek, Pyshevyk.

Finally, we set off for the front. Specifically, for the town of Pyshevyk, which now serves as the main border crossing between the rebel-held territories and Ukraine in the south of the front. It is used daily by hundreds of civilians, and so both sides have reached a sort of understanding of a ceasefire – to an extent. The checkpoint still comes under occasional artillery fire, and the Ukrainian forces have dug a number of bomb shelters in the area.

The Ukrainian side of the checkpoint is full of administrative huts and queues of cars.The local forces showed us the painstaking procedure that anyone entering Ukraine from the rebel-controlled territories has to undergo, including sniffer dogs and other various checks. It was obvious that they had done this many times for the media before.  

We walked on from the administrative area to the edge of the Ukrainian line. Before the war, the area was defined by its surrounding fields. The few houses in the area happen to be located in what is now a buffer zone between the administrative and waiting area, and the edge of the Ukrainian territory.

DSC_0191We knocked on the door of a old house, and spoke with its eighty-five year old inhabitant. To me, this woman represented the incredibly tragic history of Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The woman was born in Chernobyl, Belarus, in 1931 and as ten year old, was old enough to experience the full might of the German invasion of the USSR in 1941. Aside from being in the way of the front line twice, first moving eastwards and then, when the Germans were retreating, westwards, she obviously also suffered under the Nazi occupation. She lived through Stalinism and the height of Soviet oppression. Then, in 1985, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened; again, she was close enough to see it first hand. The Soviet authorities moved her to eastern Ukraine, what was to become to front line some thirty years later. When we spoke to her, accompanied by a soldier, she looked at him and begged him to stop the war, go away, and leave her alone. She certainly knew better than anyone.

Our armed escort refused to come any further, but we went on, and crossed the line into the rebel territory. We were warned not to go too close to the trees on the horizon a few metres away, as then we would be in serious danger.

Keeping an eye on the ever-present minefield signs, we were surprised to reach a fully-functioning bus stop, with civilians waiting to be taken back to Donetsk. Hearing my guide’s Ukrainian accent, they were reluctant to speak with us at first, but soon enough our shy attempts to interview them turned into a fight, with civilians, mostly old women collecting their pension in Ukraine, screaming at one another. They complained they are forced to stand in the sun for hours without water or shelter, and said that the Ukrainians were doing this purposefully to punish them. When we told the soldiers on the Ukrainian side what we had heard, they shrugged their complaints off. These old women collect their pensions from the Russians in Donetsk, and then they come here for a second round, they said, and it was clear that felt little sympathy for them.

DSC_0170Before leaving, we sat around smoking and casually talking to the soldiers. We found that the Canadians were the only ones who have offered any help (‘I heard about a guy who was given a Canadian helmet’, said the soldier I was speaking to), and when I asked how certain they are that they are actually facing the Russians, the soldier paused, looked me in the eye, and literally burst out laughing. ‘They don’t even bother sewing off the Russian flag from their uniforms anymore’, he exclaimed.

Just as we were leaving, an OSCE car drove past. The soldiers muttered insults directed at these observers, and I found out that the reputation of the OSCE is to stay in a nice hotel well beyond the front line, drive a bit closer – but still safe – once month to make an appearance, and then disappear. More seriously, the soldiers said that more than half of the local OSCE observers are Russian, and they are certain that they provide information about the Ukrainians to the Russians. ‘When the rebels are close enough, we can see them get out of their fancy armoured cars and hug each other’, they said.

We shook hands, and got ready to leave. ‘You are going to Shyrokynne tomorrow?’, the soldier asked, and I nodded. ‘Well, you’ll enjoy that. This is a kindergarten compared to Shyrokynne’, he said. ‘I hope so’, I said, praying that our plans of finally getting close to the action, on our last day, wouldn’t fail.    


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.

A Diary From the Eastern FrontSpecials

by Filip Rambousek, Kramatorsk.

Getting up early this morning, I caught a 6 AM train from Kyiv to Slavyansk, a city in the east of Ukraine, which has grown by more than 30.000 internally displaced persons (that is, refugees from the areas directly stricken by war) from its originally size of some 90.000. Aside from the fact that it has a direct train connection to Kyiv though, and is used by most local international NGOs for their headquarters, it is only remarkable for how run down and unremarkable it is.

DSC_0027After a quick meeting with international NGO workers, we were glad to catch a marshrutka (minibuses that serve as the backbone of public transport in much of Ukraine) and travel some 20 minutes south, to Kramatorsk. Both Slavyansk and Kramatorsk were actually at one point under rebel control, but the rebels withdrew in the July of 2014. The 5th of July is now officially celebrated as the Kramatorsk independence day.

Kramatorsk is virtually the press HQ for the conflict, as well as the provisional seat of the Donetsk Oblast, and it is a larger, and overall much more interesting city than Slavyansk. Our guide was a local activist and Kramatorsk native, who has been shelled, seen the front line engulf him, and experienced life in rebel controlled territory.  We spent the day exploring the city, talking about the war, and meeting all sorts of volunteers and representatives of civil society.

Being Czech myself, I was shocked to find a Czech cultural centre at the local library. The centre organises language classes and supports students who want to study in the Czech Republic. De jure, the aim is that these young people will return and help reform Ukraine. De facto, the director knows full well they simply want to get out of here. I have not seen this much enthusiasm for the EU in a long time. Do they see in the EU something that many of us do not, or do they not see the many drawbacks that the member states have to put up with?

Then again, anything is better than living at the edge of war.

Next, we toured DSC_0025a local volunteer workshop, which focuses on producing camouflage nets and ghillie suits for the Ukrainian soldiers and materiel. This has so far been the highlight of my trip. The volunteers- mostly women from 50 up- were so glad to see that they had not been completely forgotten by the world, their welcome could not have been warmer. We sang the Ukrainian anthem, fought off demands that we immediately eat soup because it was absolutely clear that we were starving, and promised we would be back to celebrate the Kramatorsk liberation day.

As everywhere in this city, we heard war stories.

We were told the ways many of the local boys, ranging from 16 to 18, died fighting, and the ways the volunteers themselves ended up in Kramatorsk, as many of them have had to leave Donetsk and the surrounding areas. In the enDSC_0019d, one of the few male volunteers told me his brother had been killed while taking part in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The brother’s death was his family’s tragedy, he said, but his nation’s shame.

We agreed that our countries’ experiences were much too similar.

In the evening, we met with the head of the local veteran’s association, who talked us through the organisation’s brief history and work. He described the difficulties they have with persuading the vets to talk to a psychologist, as well as the many different types of extreme sports events which they provide for the vets just to fill their need to feed their adrenaline addiction, which so often arises after experiencing combat. Overall, this interview was the most difficult; the man, a veteran himself, admitted he disliked talking to journalists, because they always ask about what he did in the war. We resisted these questions, but sensed he was glad when he left.

Finally, I have already begun to reach my goal of experiencing the practicalities of a (quasi) military life. In short, I learnt that moving around in a warzone in a military outfit, with heavy boots and a heavier backpack, on a scorching hot day, is exhausting and demotivating. The only thing that could make this even more stressful would probably be to be shot and have to shoot back.   

Tomorrow, when we leave Kramatorsk and move on, we might get to experience just that.

A Diary From the Eastern FrontSpecials

by Filip Rambousek, Kiev.

My summer has not been fun. So far, I believe I have spent the majority of my time calling, emailing and otherwise begging strangers for help, which was usually followed by trips to various administrative offices in Kyiv, Ukraine. All the while I am technically on holiday.  

But finally, tomorrow morning, I’ll set out for for Kyiv’s main train station, and catch a rather slow fast train to the east of Ukraine. Because this isn’t just any trip, I’m really quite excited.

Over the following week, I will travel through the main areas of the so called Anti-Terrorist Operation Area (ATO), from Donetsk all the way south to Mariupol (see map), with the aim of spending time on the front line, interviewing soldiers, civil society representatives, and volunteers.  

Kiew=kyivinsteadofkievDuring my trip, I will use the Campus Europe website as my personal diary, and will update it every day of the week with (hopefully) interesting stories, as well as photos.   

My motivation for this trip is manifold. I have always been interested in war journalism, international security, as well as the post-Soviet states. This trip means that I can experience a bit of both first hand.

On a broader level, I am worried about what is happening with the world, and especially on the EU’s frontier, whether in the East or in the South. If I am to have a more accurate understanding, I need to experience these events personally. I cannot expect anyone to take me seriously when I write about war or conflict without ever having set foot anywhere near a frontline. I can’t advocate for a country, whether the US today, or the EU in future, to go to war, without at least trying to come close to how these learned and distant decisions affect the soldiers and civilians on the ground.

More personally, I feel as if my experiences lack when its comes to extraordinary and perhaps risky adventures. I believe that now is the best time to pursue these passions, while I have few commitments still. It may seem silly or like a romantic cliche, but I want to be able to tell anecdotes a little more interesting than office gossip.

I am also very curious to talk with the many volunteers and soldiers, many of whom are younger than I am, and most of whom had plans and careers different from risking their lives in a hybrid war. I believe that through this experience, I will learn a little bit both about myself, and the society that I live in.

Would I, my classmates or colleagues, be willing to throw everything away and join a rather cash strapped, inefficient army? I am not so sure, and I want to see whether there is some deeper difference in worldview or culture that has led many Ukrainians to join up. Do they share they share the patriotic excitement so eery to the modern reader of Remarque, Orwell or Hemingway? Are they fighting to finally leave the European borderlands and once and for all join the West, or are they simply defending their country from a foreign invader?

The Ukrainians deserve our help. I believe this is more or less clear to anyone who will ever read my upcoming entries, and those who disagree won’t come near reading them in the first place. In other words, I have no illusions regarding exercising any meaningful influence, or “creating awareness”, about the war. Because of this, I am also not going to pretend that I have some noble aim to help the civilians or the soldiers in their plight. I may change my mind afterwards, but I believe there are far more qualified people on the ground doing far more than I could possibly hope to achieve in my week’s visit.

Above all, I am going to learn for myself, and I look forward to sharing whatever I find with you.


You can also follow Phil on twitter: @rambousekf

Picture by Sasha Maksymenko.

Politics & The World

by Yannic Bellino

It is a familiar phenomenon: Something – a crisis, a catastrophe, a war – surfaces in the news and then for days, weeks, months on end it seems to be the only “hot” topic there is. It is all over all sorts of media. But then something else happens – a crisis, a catastrophe, a war – and all of a sudden the previous hot topic turns “cold”.

In the last months, we could definitely observe that: Syria, Ukraine, Greece, the Mediterranean Sea, the EU’s Eastern borders, Syria again. A rapid succession of places and the topics connected to them turning hot to the detriment of the previously hottest topic. I want to focus on Ukraine and how it has receded into the background in the face of the Syrian war and the refugee crisis.

Why has mainstream media attention shifted away from Ukraine?

I believe that there are at least two plausible narratives for Ukraine turning cold in the eyes of the media. One is connected to information as a marketed good and media outlets catering to consumer preferences, the other is rooted in geopolitical strategy, security concerns and Putin’s media-savviness.

Let’s start with the information market. Firstly, it is important to realize that media do not precisely depict reality and events, but rather filter it and shape meaning. Secondly, different media outlets compete with one another for consumers. From these two assumptions it makes sense to assume that media will depict reality and shape meanings in a way that appeals to a number of consumers as big as possible in order to maximize profits. So, what do consumers demand? What do we as society value when engaging with media? We do not want to be bored.

The relatively quick succession of dramatic events certainly is a good recipe against boredom. Media outlets know that. So they present this picture of reality. The catastrophe that is currently ‘en vogue’ is the refugee crisis. To some extent, we also hear more again about the war in Syria, mainly due to its connection with the crisis. Does that mean that the Greek crisis is solved? Certainly not. Does that mean things are back to normal in Ukraine? No. But in our fast paced world these topics are old and boring. Nobody – or hardly anybody – has the nerve to constantly hear about one and the same protracted problem for which no feasible solution seems to be nearing.

Another explanation is offered by geopolitics. This narrative departs from the vantage point of the media taking on a more noble role, namely that of a less self-interested messenger. Geopolitical considerations have shifted world leaders’ attention elsewhere – not least to Putin’s clever instrumentalization of the fight against ISIS – and, hence, media attention has also shifted.

A political director at Ukraine’s foreign ministry is quoted in a recent Politico article, claiming that “Russia tries to influence and bind countries to Russia by spreading instability all around: creating frozen conflicts — Transnistria Abkhazia, Donbas — as a way to stop those countries developing on their own”. This would mean that fading media interest in the Ukraine crisis is perfectly in line with Putin’s geopolitical goals. More evidence to this end is offered by the fact that at his UN General Assembly speech earlier this week, Putin chose to focus on everything but Ukraine. He thereby managed to deflect the attempt of multiple speakers, most notably Petro Poroshenko, to put Ukraine at the top of the agenda again.

Instead, he put emphasis on Syria and the fight against ISIS. He has a significant geopolitical interest in stabilizing the Assad regime, his ally. The interests are military and economic (Russian oil and gas companies are active in the region). Moreover, Russian Muslims joining ISIS and then returning at a later point pose an internal security threat, especially in the Caucasus where the situation is already uneasy.

From a geopolitical point of view Ukraine is not a priority for Russia anymore and Putin manages quite well to focus international attention elsewhere. The West – despite the different rhetoric – has for a while now de facto tolerated the annexation of Crimea and Russian military involvement in Eastern Ukraine. Putin knows how to play the geopolitical game. He goes back and forth just enough to keep the international community in a state of relative inertia. He is ruthless. He is charismatic. He is clever. He is good with the media. He is definitely not boring. People like that. So, his voice will be heard.

You be the judge on which narrative is more plausible. I myself believe that – as so often with complex issues – the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In any case, the fact remains that the Ukrainian crisis is not solved (except for Putin maybe, if he indeed seeks a frozen conflict).

The media and – not least – the people need to overcome the one-issue-at-a-time approach. A focus on one hot topic does not do justice to globalized, complexly interdependent world politics.

There are talks held today in Paris between Putin, Poroshenko, Merkel & Co. Did you know that? It is doubtful whether much will be achieved. Putin knows he has to offer his pinky finger every once in a while in order to appease the international community. Yet, expansion remains expansion, annexation remains annexation, and violence remains violence.

The UNHCR is worried about the situation in Ukraine. In 2014, they counted over 800 000 internally displaced persons. Last week their staff was expelled from the Lugansk region. If the conflict flares up again more strongly, with all its adverse effects on the (Eastern) Ukrainian population, mass migration to the EU could follow. Maybe mainstream media will pay more attention to Ukraine again then … if refugees are still a hot topic that is.

In any case, I believe it to be dangerous to slowly but surely accept the new status quo. Anders Fogh Rassmussen and Barack Obama have in recent days warned that accepting Russia’s expansion will erode the (supposedly) established respect for sovereignty in the post-world-war era. But maybe that is just too boring.


Picture by Sasha Maksymenko, taken from flickr