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.)

previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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