Observations from 24 Hours at Donetsk Airport (July 2014)

Originally published July 30th on http://worldtowrites.blogspot.com, minor change to title (below)

On July 22nd I was taken into captivity by Ukrainian forces at Donetsk Airport, along with ANNA News journalist Vadym Aksyonov. I spent the next 24 hours there, these are observations from that time…

– Despite Donetsk being in control of the pro-Donetsk/Russia side to a distance of 30km at points, Donetsk’s Sergei Prokofiev airport, just outside the city centre, is certainly held by Ukrainian forces. Information in Donetsk on that had been unclear, with reports differing on who controlled the large site, extensively rebuilt for Euro 2012.

– Which Ukrainian forces hold it is unclear, they wouldn’t identify themselves to me, and the Kiev government later said it was a unit which did not report to them.

– The road leading to the airport, completely dark at night with no lights, is lined with bombed out, burned out cars, blockades and, as a Ukrainian soldier told me later, is mined.

– There’s the rather surreal scene of Donetsk Airport carpark with about half a dozen cars in it, covered with dust, owners unable to collect them since the airport’s closure on June 3rd. It’s where Vadym and myself were detained –

– The mood of the Ukrainian soldiers the day I met them, July 22nd, was bad, with their saying the had sustained heavy casualties the day before, in excess of 12 as I understand. One soldier told me he ‘wanted revenge‘.

– When Vadym and myself had been detained initially, and several more soldiers burst on the scene, Vadym started speaking Russian and they immediately began beating him, as he lay on the ground. I began speaking Russian to them, asking them to stop, my accent immediately drawn attention to as they didn’t beat me, but began an interrogation, even an English lesson of sorts.

– Most of the soldiers spoke Russian, the one in this video, who smelt of alcohol and who had beaten Vadym, told me that I seemed to understand the Ukrainian language, but he was speaking Russian –

– The soldiers have a good idea who is on their side. The soldiers couldn’t understand why I was there, as an English correspondent who came from a country they all told me ‘supported Ukraine’. Even though most of them behaved ok, on some level (they did take my car, possessions and bullet-proof vest) with more extreme ones involved in Vadym’s beating, even among those seemingly more ‘normal’ ones there was a much sharper atmosphere than in my previous captivity. At one point in my makeshift cell I asked a soldier why I was being detained, he pushed me into my chair and shouting in my face ‘because you are a terrorist‘.

– I hardly saw any of the airport interior, as I was kept blindfolded in all the time I was being taken from place to place, yet there was clearly heavy damage there, and it had been effectively transformed into a military base.

– There was no running water in the airport and the toilet I was taken to was absolutely fetid, there was however electricity. The soldiers were accessing the internet, though whether from phones or wifi there is unclear.

– The soldiers seemed to be living mainly on in-flight products. All the bottles of water I was given were in-flight size, and the meal I was given was an in-flight meal.

– I was mainly kept in a cleared-out office room, its windows smashed, boarded up with Donetsk Airport folders and other items of office equipment. The room was next to a Ukraine artillery position and came under fire in the day.

– July 23rd, the day I was there, was calm during the day then fighting broke out early evening. The Ukraine side were firing heavily from their positions, and the pro-Donetsk/Russia side shelling, firing from theirs.

– Whereas 2 months before, the soldiers who captured me referred to ‘separatists’, this time the only description they used was ‘terrorists’.

– The Ukrainian soldiers believed everyone they were fighting against was Russian. They told me many times how all the fighters and equipment had come from Russia, despite my disagreeing with this.

– The Ukrainian soldiers further believe that all Russian news stations are ‘Kremlin propaganda’, and my working for one made me a Kremlin agent, Russian spy. They believe that Ukrainian news channels ‘tell the truth’, as they told me, a view explained to them that I did not share.

– The soldiers were a combination of those from the west, centre and east. To a man, they told me they were ‘patriots’, who believed they were fighting to ‘liberate’ Donetsk from ‘Russian terrorists’, and were uninterested in my different position on that.

– Things had changed since my last time in captivity, whereas the soldiers then were open to talking freely, showing their faces, this time all the soldiers I saw were in balaclavas, or I was blindfold.

– Although the airport is under siege by the pro-Donetsk side, there is a corridor of sorts as they were able to take me out, by armoured military vehicle, under cover of darkness.

– Finally, Donetsk Airport is a place I’d advise any journalist to avoid for now. My channel, RT, told me it was too dangerous to go to, they were right, and it was the closest I came to touching the void. It’s a serious theatre of mounting fatalities, and very hard to imagine when a plane will ever take off from, or land there, again.

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