Archive for the 'journalism' Category

Such a long way from thinking about people

And tonight, 25-26 May, is three years since Andrey Yudenko died in Feodosia, Crimea. Andrey was a son, a brother, a one-time sportsman, a gentle, home-loving soul – and a drug user. He died because Russia stopped the substitution therapy programme he was on when it annexed Crimea.  Andrey died five days after he received his last dose of methadone.

One of the many things his mother Olga told me, which never made it into this story I wrote, was:

 “I’ve never been abroad, but I’ve heard that in Europe more attention is paid to the unprotected sectors of society. Here, they’re just the things you throw out. We’re such a long way from thinking about people.”

Europe is far from perfect in social protection, just as substitution therapy is far from the ideal answer to drug-related harm. But Olga’s son Andrey was a person, not a thing to be thoughtlessly thrown out along with Crimea’s substitution therapy programme in 2014.

feodosia yudenko grave

Here is another, longer piece explaining Russia’s ideological opposition to methadone, and telling the stories of the Crimea programme’s fatalities, and its survivors like Ruslan.

I asked Ruslan why he’d agreed to meet me in Crimea, where any positive mention of substitution therapy is pretty much considered ‘extremist’ – as he had already discovered to his cost.

One of his answers is in the text; the other was “It’s good to talk to people from a lighter world.” Crimea is indeed a very dark place now for Ruslan.

 

 

 

 

A picture and a thousand words

So in one of those interesting social media juxtapositions, I’ve have these two posts by and about (two different) photographers popping up next to each other in my facebook timeline:
“A Russian photographer of a Russian state propaganda agency gets a World Press Photo for some “conflict between self-proclaimed republics and the official Ukrainian authorities” […] The “funny” thing is, this war (and it is a full-scale war) would have never happened without Russian propaganda (in other words, his employer). Moreover, the agency and the separatists are funded from the same pocket (in other words, Kremlin).”
“The series of pictures I have submitted do explain the fanaticism that has driven the largest war in Europe in a generation, the transformative effects of war on both the pro-government and separatist fighters, and the tragedy of the most vulnerable – those civilians trapped on both sides of demarcation zone – technically frontline. I document three groups’ experiences: those workers and other civilians living on the ‘cease-fire line’, collectively punished by Kiev, which has imposed a pitiless economic embargo, those fighters from Ukrainian battalions, a mix of moderate supporters of a Western leaning Ukraine, as well as Ukrainian nationalists, and the pro-Russian rebels, frustrated by Putin, who led them to believe in a bright future of close ties to the Russian world, but has not delivered what he promised.”
I’m not going to link, because I don’t know either of the photographers whose work is discussed and couldn’t begin to judge their merit or motivations. I’m just going to make a few remarks from the depths of my cynical soul.
These two posts about pictures are in fact all about words. Consider, for example, ‘Russian’, ‘pitiless’, ‘rebel’ and, indeed, ‘war’.
Neither Ukraine, Russia or any other country officially calls the east Ukraine conflict a war. You might say that’s a technicality when approaching 10,000 people have died in it and humanitarian photographers are busy documenting the fallout. But even from a humanitarian point of view it does really matter to – in just one example – the 700 plus detainees on both sides who because this is not a war, have no protection whatsoever as war prisoners.
Words really, really matter. I wish I could take ‘humanitarian’ pictures and feel good about myself and win a few awards. Hell, I wish I could feel good about writing stories to ‘give a human face’ or some such cliche. But this conflict has a history, semantic and visual and political and yes, humanitarian. Or should that be human.
Few photographers and writers are experts in neutrality. We don’t just throw our work out into the world like a naked babe. We clothe it in assumption, insinuation, association – because we’re just human too.
kyiv-war-memorial-may15-sm

While we’re on the subject of contextless war photos… (Preparation for 9 May WW2 commemorations, Kyiv 2015)

#guilty

Last week it was #freeKurbedinov. This week it’s #saveAvdiyivka or #saveAvdiivka or even #saveAvdeevka.

Emil Kurbedinov is a Crimean Tatar lawyer representing the majority of other Crimean Tatars and Muslims in Crimea who, since Russian annexation in 2014, face politicised charges of ‘terrorism’, ‘extremism’ or ‘sabotage’. Last week he was arrested himself. Phone calls, emails, tweets and facebook posts flew. Activists informed international human rights bodies and UN and EU agencies. Officials in Brussels or Geneva sent messages back to delegates in Ukraine.

#freeKurbedinov was born, struggled, failed to trend.

Avdiivka or Avidiyivka or Avdeevka is a town in East Ukraine, on the frontline of the war between Ukrainian government forces and – by proxy – Russia, that’s dragged though innumerable battles and ceasefires since 2014. Fighting has increased again, leaving around 17,000 people without water or heating in -18 temperatures. Journalists are digging out their flak jackets. The International Red Cross posts a statement; the OSCE gives a press conference. Analysts make links with Trump’s weekend phone call with Putin, in an attempt to make this world news.

#saveAvdiyivka or #saveAvdiivka or #saveAvdeevka limps into being, handicapped from birth by an orthographic identity crisis.

Meanwhile there’s the ‘Muslim ban’, there’s the French primaries, there’s Brexit, Syria, and beautiful photos of shiny ice in Japan. There’s someone’s cousin diagnosed with cancer, a sibling trying to escape an abusive relationship, that fabric you’re going to make into a dress, oh and today’s the last day of January so you can start drinking again tomorrow.

How can I make you care about Emil Kurbedinov and the Crimean Tatars, who lost their home and against all the odds got it back, only to lose it again? Over the last couple of years as a journalist I’ve been perfecting the single sentence which explains who the Crimean Tatars are, what religion they practice, why they’re being repressed by Russian authorities in Crimea, where Crimea is and who de jure and de facto controls it. That lets you place these people and their home in a context of sorts. It probably won’t make you see why I think they matter.

As for Avdiivka or Avdiyivka or Avdeevka – To be honest, without checking my notebooks I’m not sure if I’ve been there or not. I visited so many shitty shelled post-Soviet frontline towns in 2014 and 15, places where there’ve been no decent jobs or road repairs or hot water for decades, where people are apathetic and stuffed with rage and lies, and capable of such heroics, such tragedies, such devastating humanity. How can I make you care about a town I can’t remember myself whether I’ve been to, with a name no one can agree on how to spell?

#freeKurbedinov, #saveAvdiivka. Why isn’t the world doing anything to help annexed Crimea, war-torn east Ukraine? Don’t you feel guilty, world, that you don’t care and you’re not doing anything?

Today I read the following quote from 1938, from a German woman (wife of a communist MP) beaten and interned in the Nazis’ female concentration camp, Ravensbruck. ‘If the world was not protesting even against the brutal annexation of foreign territories, was it likely to protest against the whipping of some poor women who had protested against it?’ she said.

#stopRavensbruck.

Long before hashtags, a big part of the world did protest and intervene, eventually. It led to the UN and the International criminal court, the OSCE, the EU. But the world has changed so much since then. Libya, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine. Fox News, RT, social media. Hashtags.

Somehow we’ve reached this moment: meeting an Iranian immigrant to Russia in a Nazi prison-camp memorial in Crimea, which has recently been annexed from Ukraine by Russia and is consequently under EU and US sanctions, I tell him that Second World War memory in my native England is less visceral  because the battles and camps were not located in England. And he says, with a knowing smirk: ‘Yes well, isn’t that typical of England and America, always fighting your wars on other peoples’ territory.’

The world got so big and so fractured. And so much of social and public life (or do I just mean social media life?) is consumed by guilt over not doing enough about it, or over doing too much. People and countries are crying out to the West, the EU, the UN, guilt-tripping them to #save and #free with photos of corpses and tweets from six-year-olds. And people and countries are accusing the West, the EU, the UN of cynical intervention intended only to line pockets, achieve influence, assuage guilty consciences, enslave the masses.

Then there’s that mass which has decided to not feel guilty, to tear down the ICC and the UN and the EU so as not to care. America/England/France/wherever I live first. The rest of the world is too big, and I can’t cope with it.

#freeKurbedinov. #saveAvdiivka. #keepsanctions.

Oh that pathetic little hashtag, Catholic confessional, saviour of the world.

War takes a holiday

A photographer friend who has covered the war in east Ukraine since it began wrote to me recently from Odessa, where she spent much of the summer: “What is strange: no one spoke about the war. Not even one person. I felt it was unfair. And I always felt there was ghost of war right behind me and no one saw it.”

Kyiv too is full of ghosts, and no one talking about them. Every now and then you look up from the new bars and cafes full of beautiful people enjoying themselves and see the ‘bomb shelter’ signs on the walls; ghosts from August 2014 when everyone was convinced Russia was about to openly invade and attack Kyiv. Every now and again you wonder why all the money being spent on new bars and cafes isn’t being spent on wheelchair access to them; you look for the ghosts of wounded soldiers and civilians who will never drink there. Every now and then a crash wakes you in the night or morning, and instead of assuming it’s fireworks or thunder you know it’s the sound of explosions. (Sometimes it is: there are different kinds of war).

read between the lines graffiti

Kyiv graffiti

But who wants to talk about it? The horror and dread got boring, the war drags on like a ghost that can’t grow up, can’t change, can’t die.

War is boring. It’s a tedious corny song that has no chorus and no end. It’s boring listening to identical stories of horrific atrocity and violence from the sufferers of both sides, perfected by two or by twenty years of repetition and  propaganda. It’s boring hearing the same appeals from the same mothers and wives still asking someone, anyone, to help find their missing or release their captive loved ones. It’s boring being lectured that you can’t go to a march for gay rights or a religious procession or a music festival because ‘don’t you know there’s a war on’. It’s boring feeling guilty for having a good time, it’s boring being asked for money to help wounded soldiers, it’s boring trying to care about the daily casualty figures.

No one wants to know anymore. Those editors in the UK or the US write ‘this feels like we’ve covered it before’. Fair enough, they’re a long way away. But in Ukraine itself no one is interested. ‘It feels like we’ve covered this before’. Who wants to hear yet again about the suffering of those people stuck in the limbo of ‘grey zones’ in east Ukraine, being shelled? Who wants to hear again about Sasha or Kolya still in prison in Donetsk when they’ve been in prison in Donetsk for over a year and nothing has changed – what more is there to say?

Wives and mothers of imprisoned soldiers demonstrating in Kyiv

It’s boring being in that prison, stuck with the same faces you’ve seen for over a year, stuck with the same guards who might or might not treat you decently. It even gets boring to go through the unbearable hope and disappointment every time you’re allowed to make a phone call to a relative and ask ‘What’s new?”

It’s boring outside being shelled; that gut-deep terror that this next one might actually kill you gets so boring that you don’t even bother going down to the cellar to hide anymore. It’s boring trying to sort out the paperwork to get a measly pension from one side or the other. It’s boring waiting hours in line to cross de facto borders, and even more boring talking about it.

It’s bewilderingly boring working out how to talk at all about a war that isn’t a war, an invasion that isn’t an insurgency that isn’t civil that isn’t military, about one country that is at the same time two or three. It’s boring knowing that whatever you say or write, you’ll be accused of being biased, unpatriotic, a Russian spy, a Ukrainian fascist.

Other people’s grief is boring. Your own grief is boring.

The war whines along quietly in the background, a dull song no one wants to listen to but that you can’t get out of your head. Like the ‘bomb shelter’ signs still there beside the fashionable graffiti and the café names and the people getting on with life, hanging out, enjoying sleepy summer August.

And then someone decides it was boring being boring, and makes up a story about ‘terrorist attacks’, ‘saboteurs’, ‘armed incursions’, and we go from indifference to panic in zero seconds.

Nothing happens in August except holidays. We took a holiday from the war, those of us who could. But the war didn’t take a holiday.

Cemetery for unknown soldiers from the east Ukraine war

Catch 22

Since this piece on exchange of prisoners in Ukraine was published in March, not a thing has changed. Since I first met Natasha Lazorenko and Natasha Gerasimenko back in August 2015, not a thing has changed for their husbands, mobilised Ukrainian soldiers who have been prisoners in the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (‘DNR’) since January 2015.

I say ‘not a thing’: Ukrainian volunteer fighter Nadia Savchenko got released from imprisonment in Russia (presidential plane, international interviews, bouquets of flowers), and for a few days there was talk of this being the first of many exchanges, until the latest contact group meeting over implementation of the Minsk protocols (supposed to resolve the east Ukraine war) announced that no progress could be made on freeing ‘hostages’.

I say ‘not a thing’: Sasha Lazorenko’s mother Ludmila gets more enraged and bitter (“I got angry with the whole world”). Natasha Gerasimenko accepts she is yet another day, week, month, year away from any possibility of conceiving the child she and her husband Kolya so wanted to have. Natasha and Sasha, married just a week before he was called back to the frontline last January, have less and less to say to each other on the phone when Sasha calls.

(He never knows when, or if he’ll be able to call; whether some more friendly guard will decide to lend a phone. He never knows if he’s going to get fed again. If he’s going to be sent to do unpaid labour today, or sent back to the lightless basement he spent three months in when no one knew if he was alive or dead. If he’s ever going to get out alive. If he comes home; if he’ll recognise his wife anymore when he does).

Last summer when I first met her,  Natasha recounted the phone conversations when Sasha talked about new recipes for fish soup he wanted to try, and plans to rebuild the balcony when he came back. Those conversations are long past – Hard to still have plans for balconies and ideas for recipes, after all this time. “Now his first question is always: When? What have you heard, what’s new? I could lie and say it’ll be in the nearest future, but he’s been there a year already; what nearest future? Or tell the truth, that he’s been forgotten – because sometimes that’s what it feels like.”

Meanwhile the two Natashas, modest clear-eyed young women working in ordinary dull low-paid jobs  in Kriviy Rih, the kind of town and the kind of women Kyiv and history ignores, get more involved in a life they could never have imagined for themselves.

As their husbands’ world got smaller, theirs got paradoxically larger. They are ‘hostages’ wives’ now, endlessly trekking to Kyiv with posters of their husband’s faces, to try and make someone take notice and do something. “I hardly recognise myself; I’m completely used to photographers and TV cameras now, I’m used to talking to government officials as if they were my friends.”

But they aren’t, those officials playing an incomprehensible game with the lives of the Sashas and Kolyas and Natashas of this world. The pilgrimages to Kyiv can feel like a pointless game too. “Every time we go to Kyiv we say we won’t go again. It’s just to tick a box, so we can tell ourselves we aren’t just sitting and waiting and doing nothing.”

The Natashas know they aren’t important. They aren’t even in the worst situation – Sasha and Kolya are in fairly good health, unlike some prisoners; they are not being beaten or tortured anymore; everyone knows where they are even if the ICRC still has no access to them.

But they worry about what their men are eating, whether they’re getting medical care, what’s going on inside their heads.  What they’ll be like when they are finally released. How angry are they going to be, how disappointed in a country that apparently abandoned them. “I don’t think he’ll be able to go back to being a taxi driver. He’ll end up shooting his passengers.”

Whether they have all become different people now.

Savchenko was exchanged after she was tried and sentenced in Russia, then pardoned and exchanged for two Russian officers tried and sentenced and pardoned in Ukraine. This process was a lengthy piece of theatre of the absurd, complete with murdered lawyer, hunger strikes, public admission then retraction (Yes, OSCE monitor, we are acting Russian officers; no we’re not, world, we’re retired Russian officers…), magnanimous petitioning victims’ relatives, memorable semi-mythical analogies (Joan of Arc of Ukraine…)

They were show trials, while the real show that is the war grinds on in the background, the thing everyone knows but no one can admit.

War is never mentioned in the Minsk protocols, which call for ‘release and exchange of all hostages and illegally held persons, based on the principle of “all for all”’, and – which the ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ in Luhansk insist must be implemented before any exchanges – ‘pardon and amnesty by way of enacting a law that forbids persecution and punishment of persons in relation to events that took place in particular departments of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts of Ukraine.’

(What does ‘all-for-all’ mean when neither side can even agree how many it is holding or how many it accuses the other side of holding? What the hell does amnesty of ‘persons in relation to events in particular departments’ mean?)

No country or organisation calls what’s happening in East Ukraine an international armed conflict, not even Ukraine. So at the same time as Ukrainian government officials talk about Russian aggression, they can’t actually say that those people they sent to flight and who are now being held in Donetsk and Luhansk, or those Ukraine is holding prisoner on Ukraine-held territory, are prisoners of war.

Instead “There’s no war, there are no prisoners, there’s no nothing,” says Natasha, wife of one of those ordinary Ukrainian soldiers few bother to write about or support campaigns for their release because they’re not martyrs or medieval saints; no one would notice if they went on hunger strike since no one is obliged to feed them anyway; they have no lawyers; they’re not in Russia; they’re not prisoners of war; they haven’t been charged or sentenced; they aren’t even actually literally in prison.

They’re down the rabbit hole in Donetsk listening to ‘DNR’ radio and reading old books about Ukrainian independence from the SBU (Ukrainian security service) archive. They’re sleeping on the Donetsk SBU’s archive metal filing shelves like sardines in tins, day in day out for days and months and already years. They’re guilty of being soldiers, but at the same time they have none of the legal protections that soldiers should have in war.

They’re guilty of being sent to a war that isn’t a war, and leaving their wives behind.

free gerasimenko

Before he was moved to Donetsk, when Kolya Gerasimenko was unearthed from that lightless cellar he’d been kept in with Sasha for three months when no one knew if they were alive or dead, he said to his wife over the phone, “In these three months I thought you’d have already buried me.” He and Natasha got married in August 2014, when he was on leave from the front: “I wanted to be his wife in case he got injured or killed and then I’d be no one.”

And now who is she? The wife of a soldier who is and is not a prisoner of war; who may or may not even be an ‘illegally held person’ since the unrecognised ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ – following Kyiv’s example – have begun to try their prisoners under their criminal code.  That code is the Soviet criminal code – laws from a country that no longer exists.

 

War stories

There are so many stories in Donetsk I can’t tell, because this is war and someone is always going to be on the wrong side.

I’ve met two women here who support Ukraine with all their minds and hearts, who are just waiting and longing for the day when the nightmare that is the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ will be defeated.

These are well-known figures within their communities; if I include any details about their work and lives and backgrounds it will be obvious who they are to others in Donetsk. I want to tell their stories to all those who say “Donbas deserves what it got”, “All the patriots have left”, etc., etc. These women have reasons for staying in Donetsk that put people with armchair opinions to shame. These women have to make daily compromises to survive, to hold on to and protect the thing that makes them stay, because this is war.

This is war. If I publish an article telling their stories, however I change their names and surnames, someone in the ‘DNR’ will read it and know who they are, and know they are on the wrong side, and take away that vital thing that makes them stay.

child’s pavement drawing, Donetsk

There are the people I’ve met on the other side. The ones who were picked up on the streets after curfew and made to join the militants, or who volunteered to join the militants to earn money for their families. Who left the militants after days locked in a cellar, or an accidental shoot-out that killed a drunk bystander.

The woman whose son died fighting for the ‘DNR’ militants; she buried him far from home because the family house and graveyard have been destroyed by months of shelling. The woman whose son joined the militants to go missing in action a week later in July 2014, who will probably never know what happened to him or receive any compensation for his death or even a cheap medal on an orange and black striped ribbon.

(Rows of identical crosses in an overgrown village graveyard, for militants all killed on the same day in a fight unremembered, unrecorded anywhere in the ‘DNR’…)

I want to tell their stories because this is war and no one should think that war is simple. This is war. If I include details about these people’s work or lives and backgrounds it can be obvious who they are to the ‘DNR’ side whose secrets they betray, and to the Ukrainian side which they or their sons fought against, and which perhaps one day will return.

Hairbands in 'DNR' colours, Donetsk

Hairbands in ‘DNR’ colours, Donetsk

And then there are the people whose stories I just don’t know how to tell. Women who voted “yes” in the referendum to establish the ‘DNR’ last Spring, because they were afraid of fascists, or wanted to defend the Russian language which is their mother tongue. “We didn’t know what it would lead to.” “We thought it would be like in Crimea…”

Now these women and their families have no prospects, nothing to hope for, nothing to look forward to. There is no way back to Ukraine – too much has happened to be forgiven: “Ukraine is still a bit fascist, isn’t it? Ukraine is shelling us, its own people…” There is no way forward – not independence, not Russia, not peace or economic or social development now the monstrous genie that is the armed militia has been let out of the bottle: “We can’t fight against their guns…”

There is nothing especially dramatic or special about these women, just bitter mundane ironies: one has a daughter studying international passenger transport logistics in an unrecognised ‘republic’ with no airport, no railway station, surrounded by checkpoints; another has patients to whom she prescribes medicines she knows not Ukraine nor Russia nor the ‘DNR’ can or wants to provide…

These women are not patriotic enough for Ukraine, not separatist enough for the ‘DNR’, not Russian enough for Russia. They are just ordinary people who made a mistake, who regret and vacillate and fear, get swept along with the crowd and then washed up high and dry, who did not do enough to support or to oppose.

I don’t know how to tell their stories, because this is war. And war and war reporting has no place for those stuck in the middle, too weak to take a stand or properly choose a side, utterly disappointed by both sides, unwanted and unloved by both.

Donetsk regional museum

Donetsk regional museum

As if one war wasn’t enough

The East Ukrainian ‘republics’  bizarre and brutal ‘war on drugs’. My latest for Foreign Policy.


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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