The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
Vyacheslav Ponomarev, self-proclaimed mayor of Slavyansk, at the SBU building. Photo by ITAR-TASS.

French Journalist Describes Capture by Slavyansk Separatists

The following is a translation of a harrowing account in Gazeta.ru from a French journalist and her cameramen who were taken captive in Slavyansk right at the time Italian journalist Andrea Rocchelli and his translator Andrei Mironov were killed in shelling by the roadside. While the account, edited by Elizaveta Antonova, is dated 26 May, the exact date of the detention is not clear, although it is likely May 24. It is not know if she is the “second French journalist” who was described as missing by William Roguelon in his account of the deaths of the others on May 24 near Slavyansk.

A French journalist of Russian descent, taken captive in Slavyansk, describes the basement of the Ukrainian Security Service [SBU] where the staff of separatists are located. She tells Gazeta.ru of a wake after an execution, the hierarchy at the checkpoints and other details of the daily life of the Donetsk militia. Due to concerns about security, she asked not to give her first and last name.

We were filming without permission. It all started with that. In order to film the elections in Donbass, you had to get accreditation. We got it in Donetsk, shot some scenes there and then headed to Slavyansk, but a separate permission was required there.

At about 5:00 a.m. we reached Slavyansk. It was pouring rain. We drove up to the SBU, where the accreditation is given. A man from the press service came out and said that the boss wasn’t there — come back the next day. But we had to fly out the next day. My Frenchmen – a correspondent and a cameraman — wanted to film everything, naturally. Nearby, we could hear shots, battles were underway, and their purpose was to tape the sound of that crossfire as the background of a picture, and then add commentary.

We asked the guys at the barricade:

“Where are they shooting?”

“At Semenovka.”

We headed there, passing three checkpoints and, further on, saw this scene: a checkpoint of militia, and behind them a road through a field, and beyond that a forest where somewhere in the distance were the Ukrainian siloviki [Interior Ministry troops--The Interpreter]. There was shooting, but to be sure, it was not clear from where it was coming and what they were shooting at. We were stopped, and not allowed to go further, and barred from shooting. But then their chief went off somewhere, and we were left with some young guys. In the forest, and in the fields, there were constant sounds of gunfire, but for them, it was background — no one was paying any attention, they had all grown accustomed to it. We chatted with the local guys but my TV crew had only one thing on their minds — to get closer to that sound, they were crazy.

The militia said to them: “Don’t go there, it’s dangerous,” but didn’t stop them for some reason. So they put on bullet-proof vests and went off. I remained behind with the driver — he refused to drive there. I was standing at the checkpoint, joking with the guys, and they gave me war trophies — they showed me shrapnel from mines…I asked them if I could film here. They relaxed a little, and said, “Go ahead. I shot a few pictures on my iPhone. In principle, it was prohibited — it was a military installation, but they seemed to give their approval.

About 20 minutes passed. A car then came up with a nervous, short little man, he was so nervous, it seemed he had gobbled some amphetamines.

“You were told not to go there!” he shouted at me. “Who let them through?! Call them!”

But my balance was at zero, and I could only send an SMS. I was writing up the messages, and he saw that I was doing something with my telephone, and jumped at me.”

“What are you doing?! What are you filming?! Show me your telephone!” He saw the pictures.

“What are you [expletive] here?! Into the car!”

He took away my phone, my laptop, and in general all my things. I realized that he was warned, that we were not supposed to go further, and that we were without accreditation. And due to the fact that he couldn’t control the situation, most likely he was infuriated.

The driver and I were thrown into the car and there was another car to accompany us. At a speed of about 170 km/hour we raced along the little road. There were checkpoints everywhere. I thought I would die from fear, to be honest. I tried to ask him carefully, what was going on with the guys [in the camera crew], and he shouted, “Shut up, or I’ll tape your mouth shut!” and I decided not to ask any more questions. I was frightened. In general, I am not particularly fearful, but after all these reports about journalists, and this little man…

We got to the SBU in Slavyansk, it is a separate building, re-made into the main headquarters of the militia, the territory is surrounded with tanks and barricades. We were turned over to the guards on duty. Then everything changed drastically — everyone was so nice, affectionate, even. “Greetings, greetings,” they said and began to inventory the property taken.

In half an hour, they brought in the French camera crew. They didn’t realize what was going on — they had just been put in a car and driven away. They waited on us hand and foot — tea, sandwiches; a translator was found, to be sure, who only spoke Spanish; they even let us call our television channel, so that they wouldn’t worry about us.

While all the things were being inventoried, a man was taken out of the building with his hands bound and eyes taped. He went buy us accompanied by men with Kalashnikovs who carried a bucket of urine — there was a about five litres in it — and then they came back with an empty bucket.

I realized that he had come out of the basement that we ourselves had not landed in. I don’t know why, but we were in a privileged position. We were intimidated with that basement a few times as a joke. They kept saying, “You’re really lucky, that you are in this situation. If you had ended up in the basement — that would be it.” It remains a mystery to me why we didn’t end up in the basement.

Then we waited for their chief to come, he never came. About 9:00 pm, a man came out and said that the boss wouldn’t be there today, and that the curfew started at 9:00 pm so that we wouldn’t manage to go anywhere at night. In principle, this could be explained by a desire really to keep us out of harm: “Do you want to end up like that journalist?” (The Italian journalist Andrea Rocchelli who was killed by mortar fire–Gazeta.ru). “You will be killed out there, and then we will be blamed for all of it.” No one said anything more about Rocchelli.

The strangest thing was that they decided to let us spend the night in our car. They attached a guard to us, a 23-year-old kid. I, of course, looked everything over — it was very interesting; we were in the very center of the headquarters of the militia. How could journalists be left in the center of the headquarters of an organization? Everything could be seen there, everything was open! It was strange for a war situation. If we had some sort of agenda, we would of course fulfilled it 100%. Whether it was stupidity, lack of professionalism on their part or accidental, I don’t know.

They had fighters of course, but whereas those fighters were fighting, I don’t know what these guys were doing.

At about midnight, five tanks left the grounds of the SBU and came back only at 6:00 am. It was an impressive sight, of course.

Balu was there (one of the commanders of the “people’s militia” — Gazeta.ru), a famous personage from the Crimea. He even opened the cafeteria for me early, so we could be fed, and gave us instructions of what to do if we were fired on.

About 6:00 am, one of the militia men approached. It was obvious that he was drunk, and he began to spout nonsense, something about a discotheque, and then almost broke down crying.

“How do I look?” Is it obvious that I’ve been drinking?”

“Really, it’s obvious a bit,” I replied.

“It’s the first time I’ve gotten drunk, can you believe it? We were having a wake for our guys who were executed today. It was impossible not to execute them, they themselves were guilty, they confessed, to be sure. You don’t have any bugs on you, I hope?”

We were forced to erase some files, but to be honest, that was also not done very professionally. For example, it was possible to fake it and leave some.

On the whole, that was how we spent the time. Everyone was very nice, I even came to love them in a way. Everyone firmly believes in what they are doing, they are all exhausted, the atmosphere in the headquarters was fairly friendly, everyone was fraternizing, supporting one another.

But without the chief, everything was a bit confused, and they were improvising.

It was clear that these were not soldiers, not professionals, but ordinary people and they did not have some clear plan of action.

It was apparent that these people were all for an idea, and that, of course, very much touched me. But in all of this, there was a kind of primitivism, well, as if tribes in Africa were warring between themselves, there was an understanding at work, “I’m for these, I’m against those, I was born here — I’m defending my turf.” It was all at that level.

That was also another incident. We were being searched, and some teenager comes from out of nowhere, and he starts poking around the equipment, and immediately, he becomes the most important, he orders the older people around and the boss crumples, he can’t figure out the computer.

They couldn’t find anything on the laptop — it was a clown performance. They asked questions like “What’s this antenna for? You’re broadcasting everything online, I know!”

Their chief never appeared. They likely received instructions from him that if they didn’t find anything in particular on us, they could let us go in the morning. So they released us that morning.