On the night of April 21, I got a call from a member of the Sloviansk, Ukraine, Self-Defense, the pro-Russia activists in control of the city. I was in Kramatorsk, about 8 miles away, and I was asked to vouch for two journalists who wanted to enter the barricaded compound.
One of them is Simon Ostrovsky, a respected American-Israeli journalist best known for his work with Vice News. I give my strong backing to the soundness of Ostrovsky, whom I know to be a good professional journalist, and his colleague, then I send them a message telling them to be careful.
That night, Ostrovsky was seized from one of the city’s pro-Russia occupied municipal buildings behind the barricades, taken captive and accused of being a provocateur, producing propaganda against the new people’s republic.
The Self-Defense had my number because I’d made sustained efforts to build good relations with them. Why I’d done that—and why I knew to be careful—went back to an incident the week before.
Driving between Lugansk and Sloviansk in Ukraine, both pro-Russia cities near the Russian border, to witness for myself the seizing of municipal buildings by pro-Russia forces, I’m feeling pretty chipper.
I exchange banter with my traveling companion, a fellow British journalist, as the perimeter checkpoint of Sloviansk, a city of some 120,000 inhabitants, hoved into view and continue chatting in a light-hearted manner with the checkpoint guards as we pass through.
Then, suddenly, the car is surrounded. I hear the unmistakable sound—though I’d never heard it firsthand before—of guns being cocked, accompanied by high-velocity instructions in Russian to get out of the car. Doing as we are bidden, we are next told by men in full-face balaclavas and in full camouflage fatigues to place our hands on the top of the car.
Then, almost as quickly as it erupted, the tense situation is defused as I proffer explanations, which, to my surprise, are readily accepted: We are journalists going to see what is happening. We are sent on our way with good wishes from men who the minute before had cocked guns pointed at us. It’s a sharp introduction to the elevated intensity level in Sloviansk.
Badly shaken, we down a vodka to calm our nerves at the first hotel we came to. Then I stepped out to take a phone interview in the lobby, relaying the events at the checkpoint just as they happened. Sitting and taking all this in was an older woman, seemingly the manager of the hotel.
Her English was clearly good enough for her to get the gist of what I was saying: Her city was surrounded by men with guns, which they seemed ready to use. After she had heard enough, she shoved us out of the hotel and locked the door behind us. As we got in the car, the woman got on the phone, looking right at us through the curtains. It was a foreboding introduction to a city that until the troubles started was best known for its spas and saunas.
That Saturday night in Sloviansk was a fairly anarchic free-for-all as new barricades were thrown up around the seized police headquarters in the city center and massed crowds gathered at nightfall to sing their support for the pro-Russia activists, who seemed to be coming out of the night to form a mash-up of an idealistic band of “realm defenders” and an unruly mob of thugs.
Getting behind the barricades wasn’t difficult, and we walked around, filming fairly freely. We were asked who we were and why we were there, just as we had been quizzed in Donetsk the week before. Then came Sunday morning, a rainy day with tension cutting the muggy air as the pro-Russians who had taken the public buildings feared they would soon be stormed by official Ukrainian forces. Still I spent much of the day filming from inside the barricades.
I spoke with and filmed members of the Self-Defense. Mostly young guys, bit rough around the edges, not exactly predisposed to placing trust in foreign journalists, but essentially OK. When I tried to go back to the barricades on Sunday night, they politely declined that request with, “We’re thinking of your safety. Things are different in the night.”
But on Monday, I was stopped at gunpoint in the street by a Self-Defense guy demanding to see my credentials. I am marched into the barricades, told to get on my knees, surrounded by guns, balaclavas and camouflage, and I am searched, sharply questioned as to who I am and what I am doing there. I tell them the truth, and they seem to accept it. I am set free.
Talking myself out of that tight spot, the scariest experience of my life so far, fills me with confidence for the following day. I make my way to the central Sloviansk barricade area, start filming and almost immediately heavily armed men are running toward me. I’m shoved, my camera and phone are removed, and before I know quite what’s happening, I’m being marched at gunpoint into a nearby car. My captors shout, “He’s a spy,” to concerned passersby, who then nod and look away.
In the car, the older of my two captors, wearing a full-face balaclava but clearly a thick set man perhaps in his late 30s, points a Kalashnikov at me. It soon becomes clear that being a spy is only part of my problem. He yells at me several times that I’m a “narcoman” (drug addict). We arrive at a local hospital, where my captor declares he has “captured a spy and drug addict.” I try to insist that I’m an English journalist, but he barks me down with, in Russian, “Those who want to live keep quiet.”
Entering the hospital, any hope I might have of arriving in a safe place is shattered as the doctors and nurses immediately defer to my captors and will not meet my gaze. I’m sat down, and it becomes clear that I am about to be given a drug test.
I’ve no idea why my captors think I’m an addict, my sum experience of drugs—apart from a university dabble—being a few joints in Amsterdam many years ago. The older captor tells me that if I fail the drug test, “You will be shot.” The younger captor is playing the good cop, but even he informs me that “in the Donetsk Republic, drug addicts are shot.”
So I give a urine sample and put my life in the hands of a Ukrainian drug test. I’d never before been in a situation of imminent existential danger. I believe they would follow through on the ultimatum simply because, as the older one informs me, “It’s a war now.” The rules of their self-declared people’s republic say that the punishment for being a drug addict is execution.
In those moments, as a nice-looking nurse conducts the test with her hands shaking, and a doctor stands in the corner with his hands deep in his pockets, looking out the window, I begin to understand something about death. Or at least the death I would receive. It would be by bullet, quick, over.
Instant drug tests are never 100 percent accurate, and under these circumstances I can place little confidence in the accuracy of the outcome. I think the hardest thought I can: that I might never look into the loving eyes of my mother again or hug my father. Then, as I’m struggling to control myself, the result is in. It’s all clear.
This satisfies the younger captor, but not the older, who quizzes the nurse about the accuracy of the test. She tells him there is another over-the-counter drug test, called Sniper, and I’m bundled back into a taxi and driven across town to a pharmacy where we purchase it. (I have to pay for it. And the taxi.)
I’m back to the hospital with the older captor, whose name I discover is Vasya. The test is taken and this time shows I may have used marijuana. Vasya gets very excited at this, as it seemingly backs up his earlier suspicions. The nurses and the doctor inform Vasya the result is not conclusive, and the only place that can provide a definitive judgment is in the city of Donetsk, about 70 miles away.
So we set off for Donetsk with a well-built doctor from the hospital sitting in the front of the taxi while Vasya slumbers with me in the back. In Donetsk, finally, there is some semblance of civil structure. The doctors there, two proper ladies called Ludmila and Lena, challenge Vasya and ask for official documentation from his people’s republic showing that I am an official prisoner.
Vasya, still in his full-face balaclava, starts heckling them with talk of the “right of the people,” etc., that he has a daughter in Sloviansk from whom he wishes to keep “drug addicts and spies” like myself. The doctors declare I can only submit to drug testing under my own will and that there will be a fee. I give my consent, and Vasya offers them my money. The doctors are unhappy with this and agree to do the tests for free.
The doctors say the results of the test will not be known for 10 days. Vasya is very unhappy with this and beats them down to three days. I take the tests, struggling to produce urine, as I hadn’t even had a cup of coffee before I was captured. I am given some water.
As I’m doing this, the doctors start to pay attention to Vasya, with his sandaled feet in filthy bandaging that hardly conceals weeping sores. They dress his swollen feet, and a doctor tells him he’s in poor health and should be kept in for observation. Vasya says he has to go back to his brothers on the barricades.
After Vasya’s yellow bandages are replaced with fresh white ones and his feet treated, his mood improves sharply. He has a new plan now. He won’t kill me, but he will expose me to the media as the “drug addict and spy” he is still convinced I am. When we stop at a pro-Russia checkpoint, I gratefully gobble down food offered to me by the ladies working at the roadside buffet. It’s the first I’ve eaten or drunk, all day—apart from water for urine purposes.
Vasya is grateful, too, so much so that he drops his guard and reverts to speaking Ukrainian. He is immediately surrounded by security forces who accuse him of being a “provocateur” and a pro-Kiev spy. Vasya has no ID and for a few minutes seems in trouble.
I look on, still eating, enjoying this sudden reversal of roles. After he makes a phone call to a Sloviansk Self-Defense member to prove his pro-Russia sympathies, we are free to leave. In the car, he waves his gun around at passing vehicles as we return to where it all began. Nine hours later, I’m freed.
Back in the police station, the search for my camera and phone starts. I’m sitting behind the bars, kind of still in captivity but clearly on the way out. A senior member commandant marches right in front of where I sit, takes out a gun and fires it into the roof. It’s the first time I’ve heard gunshot, and it’s accompanied by his screaming that if my camera and phone aren’t found, that bullet will be fired into someone.
It’s all to no avail. They aren’t found, and after firing his gun, the commandant disappears and things start to wind down. Vasya now seems a bit sorry for himself, pulls his balaclava down and goes into a sulk. I’m then taken for a final round of questioning. My interrogators come back and declare that my gravest crime is not being a drug addict or a spy, but being “too curious.” I was free to go.
My phone and camera were never returned. Two days later I was at a Ukrainian army base and was again ordered on my knees at gunpoint before being detained for questioning. But it didn’t seem a big deal any more.
I’m still here in Sloviansk and, with events moving at lightning speed every day, the results of that drug test in Donetsk, upon which once my life depended, appear not to mean anything to anyone anymore. Even me.