Western Journalists in Ukraine

Russophiles and crazy-shit chasers

In early August 2014 I traveled to Donetsk, the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. By this point in the war the city was under siege by Ukrainian forces, and the airport (held by the Ukrainians) was in ruins, but the train station had not yet been shelled, and you could get on an evening train in Kyiv and arrive in Donetsk by early morning. That is what I did. I was scared. Back in Kyiv I had been warned that I might get pulled off the train and interrogated by rebel soldiers, or at the very least stopped at the station. Luckily, this didn’t happen. Most of the fighters were in the city center, where the fledgling government had set up shop, or on the outskirts of the city, which constituted the “front.” The train station was a few miles from the city center, and there were no gunmen or police there (as it later turned out, there were no police anywhere); my hostel was right in the city center and I got stopped by some watchful rebels with Kalashnikovs on my way there, but they merely checked that I wasn’t carrying any weapons in my bag and then let me go.

At the hostel — actually a clean two-bedroom apartment in a Soviet-era residential block — I met a young American named Patrick. He was from Kentucky and had a dramatic mane of curly red hair. He had big blue eyes that seemed to exist in a state of perpetual excitement. Patrick knew no Russian or Ukrainian, nor did he have any particular interest in the history of these two countries. But he wanted to become a famous video journalist, like the guys from Vice, and since Ukraine was where a war was happening, here he was. A few nights later we were sitting in the hostel when we heard a bomb drop a few miles from us. I am no munitions expert, but it was pretty unmistakable: you heard a kind of swoosh far away, then the ground shook. Without looking up from his laptop, Patrick said: “Shit is going to pop off tonight in Donetsk!” We were both drinking from two-liter plastic containers of beer.

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