Posts Tagged 'journalism'

“We are like an appendix that has been cut out and left to die”

There is supposed to be a ceasefire in Ukraine between government and rebel forces, but it means little in the battle-scarred town of Vuhlehirsk, where 8,000 inhabitants are stuck in no man’s land between the two sides.  Grad rockets from nearby Ukrainian artillery positions on one side, and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) on the other, regularly whistle overhead. The locals count each burst: one, two, three, four; and then go back to what has become their normal business – wondering how to survive the next few days or months or years without salaries or pensions, roofs or windows.

Stranded on the frontline of the war, in Ukrainian hands and cut off from the nearby administrative centre, DNR-controlled Yenakiyeve, the people have been abandoned in a town where nothing works and no one is in charge anymore.

“We are like an appendix that has been cut out and left to die,” said Ira Litvin. “Now we don’t belong to anyone.”

From my story in yesterday’s Times.  The real picture is grimmer and more surreal than this piece -I didn’t have the word-space to describe it properly.

mortar burst

vuhlehirsk shoes

Trophies from an incomprehensible war

“Our job is to tell the history of our region. Today, our sorry history is our war.” My East Ukraine story in here in Foreign Policy about Slovyansk museum’s latest collection, trying to make sense of those terrible, absurd months of occupation in 2014 when armed militants looted, murdered – and bought tickets to visit the museum on their days off.

A 'separatist helmet'

A ‘separatist helmet’



Working as a journalist in Ukraine in the early 2000s, my colleagues and I used to joke that the rest of the world was only interested in our stories if they involved Chernobyl, prostitution or violent death. What a hat-trick, if a Ukraine story scored all three. The only possible hotter topics were war and plane crashes.

Now Ukraine has just scored both. And the joke, which was never very funny, is just sick.

I’m sorry if I sound flippant. I don’t feel flippant.

Not much laughter in Odessa now

Two articles on the terrible events of 2 May when 46 people died in violence in Odessa. A city famous for humour, coming to terms with tragedy.


The story they like in Donetsk

My story for the Times on Donetsk militants.

The power of disinformation

Four rumours is all you need to induce a siege mentality. My report from Donetsk region:

Suffering through a lens

I didn’t watch Ukraine’s Forgotten Children, about internats, or boarding schools for children whose parents can’t or won’t look after them. I couldn’t bear to; I visited enough such places when I was living in Ukraine.

It’s one of many social issues I covered as a journalist five, even ten years ago, that has not changed at all since then. Still the same impoverished corrupt system, still the same few brave individuals who manage to make a stand, and the same exhausted mass of others trying to keep hold of a shred of humanity and decency; and gradually losing even that.

It sounds like this is a fair-minded and courageous film. I would encourage people to watch it, in the hope that it does not become yet another rock to throw at Ukraine’s increasingly dented international reputation, but contributes to improving these children’s lives, and those of their carers, more than my articles ever did.

Neither will I be watching the movie Chernobyl Diaries, though for different reasons. I’m not even going to put a link to it, because I find the whole premise so disgusting, and I frankly hope it tanks. American tourists visit the Chernobyl exclusion zone and run into a load of mutant zombies. Never mind that this was a real-life disaster whose trauma, physical and mental, continues to affect thousands of people; let’s just turn it into a cheap horror flick.

Of course this has been done already, in the computer game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. For some reason I’m slightly less horrified by the game, maybe in part because it was made by a  Ukrainian company (I met one of the programmers once, on a night train from Moscow; he was very proud of how closely the geography of Pripyat in the game corresponds to that of the real abandoned town), maybe because it’s also partly based on the Tarkovsky film Stalker, and set in a fantasy future when a second meltdown takes place. Or maybe because I’ve just had more time to get used to the idea – the game’s been around for a few years.

I went to an environmental conference a few years ago in Kiev, which included a documentary about former Pripyat inhabitants going back to visit the homes they were forced to leave in 1986. Some of them attended the screening, and afterwards spoke passionately and movingly about their lives before and after; how the disaster was (mis)handled by the authorities; about the future of nuclear power in Ukraine and worldwide, and the way Pripyat has become a ‘disaster tourism’ destination.

At the end of the session, in among the questions about environmental and social impact, two guys from Britain spoke up. They wanted permission to show the documentary at a fantasy and science fiction convention.

I think the speakers were pretty bemused or upset by the request. But some of them had already seen or played S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. In the end, they shrugged. What could they say? Their lives had already entered into myth and fantasy. You could call the abandoned town of Pripyat a monument to human hubris and error and tragedy. But most people don’t. They call it a disaster theme park.

Photo by Jo Hyde

A confession: I’m not above exploiting the Chernobyl disaster myself. I wrote a number of news articles and features about it, based on unforgettable interviews with those who experienced the disaster. And I’ve been trying to put together a series of short stories for several years. I can’t seem to get the stories how I want; I think because the line between exploitation and entertainment and some kind of literary integrity is just too fine.

(I wrote a novel about Ukraine’s homeless children too. I had fine ideas of contributing any royalties from it to an organisation working with such kids. It’s yet to find a publisher though; the end is too sad.)

In the headlines again for the wrong reasons

I know nothing about snooker and care about as much. What I want to know is, why did this have to happen in Ukraine? Did snooker world champion John Higgins fly out to Kiev specially to discuss match-fixing with people who, he claims, scared him so much he would agree to anything they asked? Oh, and he seems in fact to have no idea what country he was in anyway: in his own words “I didn’t know if this was the Russian mafia or who we were dealing with. At that stage I felt the best course of action was just to play along with these guys and get out of Russia.” So we’ve established the man’s a moron, if not actually crooked.

When I was working as a journalist in Kiev, me and my colleagues used to joke that if Ukraine got into the international news, you could guarantee the story would involve sex, the mafia or some kind of bizarre disaster or fatality. True to form, this story appears to combine at least two of those, and Mr Higgins has fallen for, or fallen back on, the same old media stereotypes.

We joked, but it annoyed and depressed me, and still does. Ukraine has become the country people go to to behave badly, whether it’s to be a sex tourist, drink too much, set up a sleazy news story or make dishonest deals that can break a sport and a reputation.

PS – I do realise I’m completely missing the point of this story and probably no one else will have even noticed where the discussion took place…

Broadening the mind

In an article on the vicissitudes of contemporary travel writing, William Dalrymple tells the rueful tale of going all the way to the Middle East looking for an obscure Christian sect, only to be informed that the largest community is right back where he’d come from, in London.

‘”Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century,” I wrote in my diary that night. “Go to the ends of the earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street.”’

I know exactly what he means; meeting real honest-to-God shamans in a tiny Siberian village where the locals ask “where’s England – that way?’ pointing vaguely westwards, only to have said shamans show you snaps of their recent visit to a drearily suburban bit of Switzerland, is indeed a slightly shocking and humiliating jolt of reality.

Tuvan Shamans (photo by Stanislav Krupar)

Tuvan Shamans (photo by Stanislav Krupar)

But I’m bothered by an underlying assumption in his sentence (quite apart from the assumption that because they are from the Middle East, obviously they will have a kebab business) that the running of the kebab business on a London street is less interesting and worthy of notice.

These days we are wary of Imperialist travel writing, which posits the traveller as a superior guide, the travelled land his or her adventure playground in which to marvel at barbaric foreign wonders while secure in the privileges – money, education, a Western passport – of home. (Isn’t that what distinguishes the traveller from the refugee or the migrant – that he can always go home?)

I think Dalrymple is right that the best travel writing rises above this. Colin Thubron’s Behind The Wall annoyed me at first because it seems to be all about him trying to get to grips with Chinese culture and history and moaning when they don’t fit his assumptions. But as the book progresses it becomes less about Thubron and more about the people and places he encounters, it becomes open-minded and free-flowing; a literal realisation of why we all want to travel – to loosen our minds from their moorings; become, in Nicolas Bouvier’s words, ‘open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight …’

But (to be a bit less unmoored and free-flowing and get back to my point) why is it that a kebab business at the end of my local street is not a subject for similar mental freedom and exploration? Have members of the Middle Eastern Nestorian sect suddenly become uninteresting because they have British passports?

The short answer, I suppose, is yes. They are more like me and therefore I have so much less reason to be curious about them. But I think actually the answer is more complex.

I worked as a journalist in the former Soviet Union for several years, a job I loved because it gave me a license to be curious. Now I’m back home in England, on reflection I think it wasn’t the label ‘journalist’ that gave me that license, it was (despite living out there for over a decade) the label ‘foreigner’ and the label ‘traveller’. When you are on the road it’s easy to be curious and open to new people and experiences because you know that you can always move on. And perhaps it’s easier for people to open up to strangers, foreigners, travellers, and tell them their stories for exactly the same reason. The traveller has time; he doesn’t have his own life but is living on other people’s; there are no responsibilities and no lasting repercussions.

There are lots of things I’m curious about at the end of my street in London, like the Koran reading centre and rabble-rousing evangelical church and the suspicious closure of the kebab business. But I feel I’ve lost the license to exercise my curiosity. Here I’m not travelling or foreign, I’m supposed to be home. And home is where you should have a life of your own, and not be nosying about in other people’s.

Dalrymple concludes that the best new travel writing is not the old model of the footloose individual on the road, but is based on long-term, intimate knowledge of one place, for example Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital. But does it still count as travel writing if it’s all set in one place?

I suppose that if the writer has been changed by it, has been open to asking questions and listening to answers, then yes, a walk along a local street is a genuine journey. It’s just one that can be much harder to make than setting off across half the world in search of shamans or obscure Christian sects.

Ukraine – where’s that?

Over the last 12 years, I can’t count the number of times people back in Britain have asked “Where’s that?” when I told them I lived in Ukraine – or, incredulously, “Why?”’

The beginning of my article published yesterday in the Kyiv Post newspaper about the stereotypes that still seem unavoidable when writing about Ukraine. Read the whole article here.

I worked at the Kyiv Post as a staff journalist for a  few years, starting way back when it was just two editors hunched over computers in a tiny flat in Kiev. These days it’s part of a small Ukrainian media empire, but I see that the same stories just keep coming back and back and back in its pages. Sometimes it seems like the more Ukraine changes, the more it stays the same. Like the rest of the world.

previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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