I went to the Ukraine and watched dissidents throw Molotov cocktails
I also went through the checkpoints at Sloviansk. What did you do this summer?
The ceasefire ends between Ukrainian fighters and Russian separatists today. Last April, Russia organised military practices on the Ukrainian border and separatists took control of government buildings. Anna Pujol-Mazzini, a first-year Journalism student at Bournemouth, travelled to Kiev.
This morning starts pretty much like every other morning: my head hurts and my stomach burns.
A few hours later, I am in the middle of a pro-Russian checkpoint in the outskirts of Sloviansk. A short tale of my trip at the heart of the East-Ukrainian conflict as a journalism student.
I have a train to catch this evening in Donetsk, which is on the other side of the country, and today is a national holiday. Hourly trains in the UK now seem like a faraway memory.
After hours of research and exploring the possibilities of getting on a flight, hiring a car and even paying for a 12-hour taxi journey, a local advises us to get a bus. This guy, a cab driver, does not speak any English, and my limited Russian language skills as well as his friend-cum-translator on the phone help us go through the hassle of buying the tickets.
He explains to me that no bus is going to Donetsk today, and that the closest we can get is Sloviansk. Or Kramatorsk. What a choice: would I rather go the pro-Russian rebel stronghold of Sloviansk? Or to Kramatorsk, flashpoint of the East-Ukrainian conflict?
After a brief moment of reflection, I pick Kramatorsk, which recently seemed to appear less in the news.
A very welcome cigarette break comes in after a few hours of journey. I chat to my mate discretely, because I don’t want too many people to hear that I speak English.
The bus driver and his female mate come to us and start trying to make conversation in Russian. The woman is showing a broad smile, but her eyes look worried. From her lively speech, I only manage to grasp two words: ‘barricades’ and ‘terrorists’. She is gesturing handcuffed wrists, weapons.
Luckily enough, a young Ukrainian girl who speaks English step in the conversation to try and help us. “We are gonna go through checkpoints,” she translates. “They have weapons and step onto buses to check passports.”
The bus lady looks agitated but she genuinely seems to be willing to help. She motions for us to stay quiet. “And don’t use your phones. Pretend you don’t have your passport. They really don’t like strangers and they put them into prison.” The girl keep translating.
We go through the first checkpoint, fourty kilometers away from Sloviansk, without even stopping. The atmosphere is tense as the other passengers, all Ukrainians, twist in an attempt to glance through the vehicle’s windows.
This is what the media has described ceaselessly for months now. What they have not managed to express quite yet is how confused Ukrainian people are. They don’t know what is happening, not any more than we foreigners do, in the Donetsk region.
Weirdly enough, most of the men stationed at the checkpoints are not that intimidating. They are casually eating brioche. Playing cards. Chilling and smoking cigarettes behind tyre walls. They look like they just happen to be here, at the wrong place at the wrong time.
After getting through another checkpoint without any major trouble, I start relaxing, and I think maybe this was it.
I am texting and playing games on my shitty Ukrainian phone to distract myself from the fear when I see the third checkpoint.
From here, everything goes quick. A man with a gun on one side and a machete come onto the bus. He talks briefly to the bus driver and starts walking towards the passengers. I am sat at the back of this bus and can see him starting to talk to people.
I think he is checking passports. I am not really sure. My mate is sat at the middle of the bus, and the gunman is now a few centimetres away from him. After checking four passports, he looks at him.
I am watching the scene from farther away, trying to think rationally. That’s it, we are done. As I try to think of what to do if my colleague gets taken, I realise: all I have on me is this Ukrainian phone, as he has my money, and my passport, in his coat pocket.
Before I even realise, the gunman walks away, and my mate is still on the bus, safe and sound. The bus starts again.
We go through three more checkpoints before getting to Kramatorsk’s bus station. On the next journey, I take out my iPhone and listen to some music as everyone seem to relax. I put on Kiss from Prince, close my eyes for ten seconds and realise what just happened. I am still shaking. But I am relaxed, because I am alive and free.
I start thinking about the atmosphere in Kyiv, where I was on my first days. The contrast is striking, and although men walk around in military outfits and carry guns, the city is peaceful there.
The protesters who survived the revolution in November are still in Independence Square, staying in tents on the main street. They enjoy having tourists in the area and showing them around. Some of them try to make money off the tragic events, selling pictures of the riots and Ukrainian flags.
All they seem to be craving in the capital is attention. International media have fled to the East were the action is more intense, leaving fighters and protestors alone in their quest for democracy.
We walk around taking pictures, a lot of them, as art makes up a huge part of the protest. My mate is shooting pictures of a group of protestors, all dressed up in military uniforms, outside one of their tents. As soon as they spot us, they start waving at us, smiling. I decide to go up to them in an attempt to understand why they are still here.
It is around 9pm. There are three of them, probably carrying weapons, and there is one of me, 5’6″, carrying a pen and a notepad. I briefly think about how badly wrong things could go. But after all, they look intimidating, not aggressive.
I start asking questions about their lives here, but soon enough they start interviewing me. Where am I from? Why am I in Ukraine? What does the West say about them? Does the European Union want them as a member?
Luckily enough, one of their friends, who is playing the piano on the street, speaks English and accepts to be our translator. My friend joins the conversation, as they become more interested in us than we are in them.
It’s getting cold outside, and we’ve only just landed in the country. Tonight was supposed to be a night of well-deserved rest. The young men are having none of it.
“Do you want to come inside the tent to have a cup of tea?” asks one of them.
The question sounds surreal. Did I just get offered a cuppa by a Ukrainian revolutionary?
And so we get the opportunity of visiting our first Ukrainian makeshift tent. The inside is modest but massive. At least twelve people live in there, and in the middle of the beds stand a few tables and quite a lot of furnitures. It looks well-equipped in there.
From there, the conversation gets half casual, half awkward. The translator has her limits and sometimes communicating is a challenge.
We ask: “What are you here for?”
“We’re waiting for orders to go and fight in the East,” one of them replies, apparently speaking on behalf of the whole group. One of them is joining the army the next day, we hear.
Everyone hates the former president Yanuchenko here, as well as Putin, as these guys make to exception. They are affiliated to the Right Sector, a far-right nationalist group labelled by the Russian leader as ‘Nazis’.
In terms of weapons, they are lesser equipped than expected. No guns, only baseball bats in this tent. As we ask, the youngest boy picks one, ready to show me how to fight. I pick another one. Bats swinging in the air, we begin a fake fight in slow motion.
I feel surprisingly safe. This guy has obviously no intention to hurt anyone tonight, even though he could quite easily.
My tea is almost cold, but I am trying to subtly put it aside. Ukrainian tea is regrettably not up to British standards.
After a couple of hours there, we decide to finally go and get dinner now. It is nearly 12 and this first night in the country, although unexpected, has proven very rewarding.
Before leaving, we attempt one last question: “How long are you planning on staying here?”
“Until the end.”
The following day, after a lovely night in a local hostel – which slightly looks like a brothel, according to my mate – we decide to learn more about the city.
Back to Independence Square, where we aim at taking more pictures in the daytime. We go past a few tents again, trying to sneakily take pictures of the locals. At one point, a young girl, followed by an old man in military gear, come up to us.
“No pictures!” she shouts, waving her hands at us.
After just a moment and a few words exchanged, her expression changes completely.
“Oh, you’re journalists! You wanna see the Maiden Square? Come with me!”
From there, she turns her pocket speakers on, and we begin a guided tour of the revolutionary places to the sound of Lykke Li.
Every square metre, every building and every object here has its history. This car there? Burnt down during the revolution. Everyone died inside. The old man, Lisorub, was fighting during the Revolution back in November.
The tale unfolds step by step. We get to a place where the fights got very violent. A few other men, who joined us, explain to us that on top of this building were posted the snipers. Everything around us still looks like the protests were yesterday. The pace at which the place has become a historical site is fascinating. Tourists and journalists from around Europe come to visit, and try to grasp a bit of the atmosphere of the Revolution.
There is now a group of seven of us, and Nadia, our now-official guide, also helps with translation. As me and her, the only two girls in what is clearly a men’s world, get to know each other, the men have gathered in a corner, all looking very focused.
“Oh look, they’re making Molotov cocktails!” she tells me.
In the space of five minutes, they get back on their feet with five bottles of beer, transformed into Molotov cocktails.
“Do you wanna come see us throw them?” they ask, almost innocently. Hell, yes.
We walk a few metres to an abandoned house on the side of the road, where they apparently train with weapons and try out the Molotov cocktails.
Everyone is ready. Or, well, I think I am. I don’t really have an idea of how powerful or how dangerous these things are. As a French private-school girl, it is not really the kind of things I was taught.
Lisorub grabs a bottle. “Ready?”
Without even waiting for an answer, he lights it on fire and throws it on the wall. The explosion lights the entire room, and the debris make a fire that lasts a few seconds.
After a fascinating tour, we walk back to our hostel, our heads full of memories that we are both far from forgetting.