“Russia” seems to be the battle-cry of the day here in Donetsk on the 16th of March. According to security sources, in this million-strong Eastern Ukrainian city, up to 50 thousand people, dissatisfied with the current authorities in Kiev and instigated by foreign agents, were going to assemble in support of the so-called referendum in Crimea. Well, I wouldn’t say they managed to gather that many but there are thousands in the central square, next to the monument to Vladimir Lenin. Russian state flags hover over the rally, and some flags of the Russian imperial house of Romanov.
As I enter the ranks of protesters in my capacity of a reporter, with the recorder ready, I soon find myself surrounded by those who want to vent their anger against those whom they call fascists and nationalists. Within two or three minutes I am informed that the entire Ukrainian television is telling only lies, and that there are no, absolutely no Russian nationals among those gathered. As a proof that the protestors are local people, I am being showed Ukrainian passports, and several people speak Ukrainian to me. However, just one of them says Kiev should hold out a hand and the East of Ukraine may respond in a handshake. With others, it is more like Donetsk and other Ukrainian cities in the East have their fists ready to deliver a heavy blow to the new Ukrainian authorities.
I think I can understand some of the things they are saying, like why, for instance, Ukrainian media have not reported the deaths of seven miners in Makiyivka, Donetsk Region, on the 18th of February, while extensively covering deaths of people in Kiev, when unidentified snipers were killing people on both sides of the barricades. I know my colleagues on many channels covered the explosion in Makiyivka and the deaths it resulted in – but maybe people who talk to me now in Donetsk do not watch Ukrainian TV and get their information from Russian TV channels, and thus the picture. This is not to say their distrust in Kiev authorities is totally unfounded, even from my point of view, but I am here not to argue or to agree with them, just to listen and record, and then put their voices on radio waves. Maybe next time I will have proof that their voices are listened to if not heard. Still, at the moment I stand among these people as an unwilling symbol of the entire Kiev media, and passions are flaring up, and whenever I take a step to leave the throng of protestors, someone shouts: “Just one more thing”, and they grab me by my arms and do not want to hear that I have to rush to a computer to send their voices to the Hromadske Radio studio.
A police Major and two riot police officers come from the opposite sidewalk and escort me out to safety of a hotel nearby.
When I come out of the hotel’s lobby to see why the shouting increases I see that the protestors are heading to the regional procurator’s office with calls to release one of their leaders, arrested on charges of instigating disorders and separatism. A group of Red Cross volunteers follows the march: they suspect that their help will be needed if, no when clashes will break out. Indeed, in an hour, medics have to take a wounded policeman to the ambulance, and local TV reporter Sasha gets punched when he appears by the procurator’s office.
Later, we’re both back to the office of the local “Donbas” TV channel, and he seems not shaken at all: he tells me this is not the first time he or his colleagues were attacked in Donetsk. A dozen police in full anti-riot gear are on the ground floor of the building that houses Sasha’s TV channel – just in case.
Sasha speaks Russian, as most of the people whom I talked to in Donetsk on this day. Tomorrow he will go out again to report what is happening in his city, and maybe again pro-Russian protestors will check his ID in suspicion that he is from somewhere in the West of Ukraine or from Kiev and thus by definition cannot be unbiased about what’s going on in the East of the country. I can only hope that his voice, as well as the voices of other colleagues who honestly do their job in Russian or Ukrainian, can be heard over the battle cry “Russia, Russia”.
Andriy Kulykov, reporting for Public Radio Ukraine from Donetsk.