Graham Phillips: Donetsk Detention Diary
On the night of July 22nd at around 10 in the evening I was taken captive by the Ukrainian army at gunpoint, along with local journalist Vadym Aksyonov. It happened in the carpark of the besieged Donetsk Airport, a scene of conflict since May 26th, closed completely since June 3rd.
By Graham Phillips
I am an English journalist, perhaps most known for my reporting with Russian news channel RT...
It was my second day back reporting in Ukraine, having been away for near 2 months. That 2 month gap due to my having last time been detained by Ukraine's National Guard at a Mariupol blockpost, held for 36 hours in which time I'd been taken to Kiev at gunpoint with a black bag over my head, handcuffed behind back. What happened in Kiev wasn't that I was deported per se. Rather, I was asked to 'self-deport' myself, if I ever wanted to come back to Ukraine to do. So, with a long-term plan to go to the World Cup in Brazil to support England, and that almost upon, I decided to take the self-deport option and booked myself on a flight out the capital.
The time in Brazil saw me following England's doomed World Cup campaign, doing some reporting for RT, then a bit of travelling round South America, but all the time following Ukraine news, all the time keen to get back. So it was, back in London early to mid July I started putting plans together for the Ukraine return. A notice put out to see if anyone would like to send over food or medicines with me to Donetsk saw a fantastic response as I at the same time got my equipment together, improved camera gear and the likes. My departure date was unfixed, with things coming together and I'd just spent a pleasant day with my mum on July 17th as news started to come through that a passenger plane had been downed in Ukraine, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Plans to leave in a day or two instantly reduced to minutes as a ferry was booked, things bundled in the car, and my setting off from the leafy tranquility of middle England with my mum telling me, with concern, that 'you really don't need to go there'.
Yet, it was my feeling I did need to go there, and quickly as 2 days of solid driving, pausing only to sleep in the car, saw me back in Kiev, then the next down in Donetsk, stopping to drop off the aid given at a Help Donbass group, then calling in on Slavyansk. Dropping in on there, where I'd spend 2 months reporting from before, was unplanned and really due to necessity given the other connecting roads to the city of Donetsk, city of around a million in the heartland of Ukraine's industrial east at the centre of the anti-Kiev protest since April 12th. Parking up in Slavyansk I wandered around, taking in the 'all new' city, re-taken by the Ukrainian army on July 5th. As I remembered it, an epicentre of anti-Kiev unrest and pro-referendum movement, now strangely seemingly a seat of pro-Kiev support and 'never voted in referendum' sentiment as a strange feeling hung in the air - either that of those there now denying their past actions under an atmosphere of repression, or those few there on the quiet city (formerly 120,000, now perhaps 30,000) streets perhaps being the ones who supported Ukraine all along, keeping out the way at that time now coming out with the pro-referendum supporters fled, many never to return.
I filmed about a dozen videos, there was one in the square, with the city's central administrative building now decked out in Ukraine flags, which finished with a woman saying 'Slava Ukraine' and walking off, just one of the videos done, and uploaded later from Donetsk - my not being able to find an open establishment in Slavyansk. Access to Donetsk blocked off by that now famous collapsed train bridge, entering via back roads to a city now unmistakably a war zone. Radically changed from 2 months ago, when it had felt intense then, Donetsk now was one of closed premises, scarce people, explosions going off, such few cars as there were out speeding down the wide, empty boulevards of the 'city of a million roses'. I obtained my press accreditation from the Donetsk Republic, filmed my piece for RT there on Monday, including video from the city that day. Then Tuesday, out to the nearby village of Krasnogorovka, which had come under heavy shelling the night before from Ukraine army positions. I did a piece from there of that destruction wrought on civilian homes, people sheltering below their wrecked apartments in a bomb shelter.
And then, that night, news that Donetsk airport was to be the scene of action, and I head along there with a group of journalists to attempt to film from the international airport, just outside city limits. Picking our way along the road there, littered with burned out, bombed out cars, bullet holes, shrapnel, pitch black, the airport itself suddenly came up close itself. Wisely, 2 of the journalists in the group decided it too dangerous to proceed. Clad in darkness, the lights of the airport parking shone out, and I made a dash for them, followed by Vadym.
Who was actually in control of the airport had been unclear before, with different reports from the city itself, so when 2 soldiers quickly approached us in the parking lot, the surreal scene of several cars left there, covered in dust, it wasn't immediately clear whose side they were on.
Then, a Ukraine flag on one soldier, a sign, and a sign that we were in trouble. They took us through pitch black, right underneath the airport itself, the once-gleaming new 7-storey terminal now even in the dark showing smashed windows, destruction. Taken up to a gate connecting to another terminal, of the airport which once saw over a million passengers a year, there seemed some sign we may be released early, the soldiers who had taken Vadym and myself seeming ok, as explosions went off.
Then, a sudden change as a new soldier burst onto the scene, immediately hostile as Vadym's attempt to speak to him saw him beaten to the ground, kicked in the head. I'd been shouted to the ground too, and at my request for the soldiers to stop beating Vadym, attention had turned to me with Vadym then taken off by several soldiers, hitting him as they went, and a soldier by me, alcohol on his breath, telling me that he didn't believe I was British (as I'd told him) and that if my details didn't check out he 'didn't guarantee I'd live'.
As things had seemed on a knife-edge with this soldier, war clearly taking a toll on his mental health, more explosions forced us into the building itself, where I was pressed against a wall, shirt pulled over my head so I couldn't see the faces of my interrogators as now, surrounded by several soldiers, questioning began. That questioning went on, with my blindfolded after one soldier thought I was looking through my shirt at him. It first took the form of why I was there, who I was, then as they went to my car and returned with possessions, why I had accreditation from the Donetsk Republic, was I 'a terrorist', did I 'support terrorists', would I give information about 'terrorists'.
I wouldn't, as the soldiers then started going through my phone, asking me about text messages sent and received, even themselves sending one to my employer RT - who had told me specifically not to go to Donetsk airport 'too dangerous', but were by now worried about me. That text said 'All fine', but it clearly wasn't, as by now soldiers were coming at me with various other information, some having accessed the internet - was I a Russian spy, did I have a gun last time I was captured (a nonsense rumour started by Ukraine's frankly insane interior minister Arsen Avakov), why was there no stamp in my passport to show I'd entered through Ukraine? I was sure there was a stamp in my passport, there had to be, but again the soldiers kept informing me there was none, I'd 'come through Russia'.
Eventually, the interrogation ended for that day, I was thrown in a cell, re-united with Vadym, in a bad state, showing signs of his beating as we spent the night in pitch blackness without water or toilet facilities in the room. Morning saw the soldiers come for me, take me to a room, ask further questions about my involvement with the Donetsk Republic, the 'Russian terrorists' there. I replied these people were not Russian, or terrorists, but local people defending their city. It was an answer displeasing to the soldiers, some from the notoriously ultra-nationalistic west of Ukraine, most from the centre, even east. They told me as we talked, with my blindfolded, that they were 'patriots of Ukraine', there to 'liberate Donetsk', I countered, which invariably saw them shout 'Slava Ukraine', at times right in my face, accuse me of being a terrorist as one of them then seemed to take some pleasure walking me into a wall as we headed for where I was next to be, a room next to one of their artillery positions in the airport building.
I spent the day in that room, as soldiers came in variously throughout, giving me some food at times, at others further interrogation as it became clear they well knew who I was by this time, and that video I'd filmed in Slavyansk on Monday with the woman in the city centre, was now on the lips of all of them. In that video, I'd asked this woman what she thought of the actions of a Ukrainian army who had 'killed peaceful civilians, killed children'. It was something the soldiers took strong issue with, telling me the Ukrainian army had 'never done that', it was 'all Russian terrorists', something I countered. As for RT, they knew of RT, but only really in the context that they viewed all Russian news channels as 'propaganda', as they made various anti-Russia, anti-Putin remarks. So keen were they to link me with Russia, having failed to find 'my Russian passport' they were sure existed (it really doesn't), they then started telling me my last Russian visa was from last month. It wasn't, it was from my last holiday to Russia, 3 years ago.
The day wore on, myself in that room, my bullet-proof vest taken from me, all my belongings, my car, taken from me. Firing started from the room next to me later in the day, as my room came under fire too with evening now turning to night. As darkness set, I was suddenly taken out of the room blindfolded again, onto the airport tarmac, put into the back of a Ukrainian APC, several other soldiers with me, one who told me he would 'blind me himself' if I took my own blindfold off. The APC roared off, and about 40 minutes later I was on my knees in a forest, being asked more questions by soldiers as the night air hummed around me with squawks and clacks of nature.
Sleeping on a camper bed, morning saw me woken up, put in a car. Sitting down in the car I had a few minutes of thinking it was my own, a Rover 75, and huge relief at that only turning to disappointment as I worked my mask loose to see I was in a new Audi with 2 military-clothed men. It was now a more relaxed regime, as they didn't mind my blindfold coming down, us making the over 200km drive to the central city of Zaporozhye on a hot, sunny day. On the way, they gave me some food, coffee, were ok with me. Destination in Zaporozhye was the city's central SBU, Ukrainian security services, premises. An officer there recognised me from last time, told me he had information on my car - apparently 'hit by rocket with 2 Ukrainian soldiers killed in it'. I asked him for confirmation on that, which he didn't provide in the day I spent at that premises under further questioning.
As this time, my fate was unclear. The SBU officers seemed nice. Actually, they told at the start I was 'free', just there helping them with a few questions. One officer even offered, early doors, to 'take me home' to Odessa, asking my address there so they could arrange that. Giving my address was one thing, that they could have found out anyway easily enough, given that my property was purchased, yet when it came to answering questions giving information on my contacts, of course I wouldn't do that. The day of questioning culminated in a strange video, later released by the SBU heavily chopped and edited for their purposes. I'd had a card for Privat Bank among my things, just taken as kind of a souvenir from the site of one Privat Bank blitzing I'd been at in Enakievo. One officer was insistent this be displayed, despite my real reluctance to do this (Privat Bank is owned by disgraced oligarch Igor Kolomoisky).
Following this, it was put in a car with SBU officers for the 8-hour, over 500-km journey to Kiev. In reality, that was clearly what was going to have happened from the start, Odessa was never on the cards, the SBU had been playing games with me. It had been a strange day of that, at one point I had even wondered if I was getting 'good cop bad copped' as a very nice SBU officer had left the room to be replaced by one who sat and glowered at me with some ferocity before making a call to a superior to ask if he could beat me up. And the video made in which they'd asked me if I were similar to famous British-Russian spy Kim Philby. Yet overall, my impressions of the SBU there at that time, were pretty good, they'd fed me well, with the exception of the 'bad cop' all been friendly, we'd even spoken off the record with them expressing no real anti-Russian sentiments, just the most common sentiment among most people in Ukraine - Donetsk and Lugansk remaining part of Ukraine was less important than the need for war to end. Maybe them even offering Odessa was to put some light at the end of what was a tunnel of a day of pretty intensive, though not really aggressive, questioning.
Arriving in Kiev in splitting sun at SBU premises, it was strange watching hundreds of Kievites, the girls in summer dress men summer suits, going to work as if this was just normal life, as if there wasn't a war in their country, their countrymen being killed every day just a few hundred kilometres away. 2 SBU officers appeared, young, businesslike, took my computers, cameras, phone away. The wait for their return was a long one, we breakfasted, hung around, finally they were back, my possessions packed away, myself put in a black van with the SBU officers and on the move. We sped out of Kiev, with my unclear where we were going, what my fate was. As we travelled over two hundred and fifty kilometres, getting near the western city of Rovne, I put to the SBU officers that I was being deported. Up until that point, they'd been taciturn, seemingly annoyed at something with clue given that they'd found something displeasing on my computer. No matter I figured, even if they'd deleted such files as they hadn't liked, I had them backed up. Anyway, as the journey went on, we got well out of Kiev, my two minders were opening up somewhat. Given the road was running down anyway, it was hard to imagine any kind of official meeting taking place in the fairly sleepy city of Rovne, my fate was becoming more apparent.
That fate was as such, as told to me around 250km from Kiev, I was being escorted out of Ukraine. The rest of the journey whizzed by in a surreal haze with my digesting the various chunks of information. That I was deported, that I was banned for 3 years (the SBU officers by now having divulged all in their purview), that this country which I'd moved to 4 years ago owned a flat in had me as an 'enemy of the state'. Seeming relieved at having relieved themselves of the news, the SBU officers became even friendly. We stopped off en route, they fed me, got me a beer even, and then before I knew it the journey of some 600km to the border was over, and we were there at Shegini, a border outpost. I still wasn't sure what would happen there, that much they wouldn't say, or said they didn't know at least. Denied representation at any level to protest the decision, which was passed down on the basis of my working for RT and 'producing materials against the interests of the Ukrainian state', I figured at least on being met at the border by the British Consul, FCO or so. That I was being deported to Poland I still couldn't exactly understand, expending 2 men, a driver, a 1200+km round trip when Kiev's Borispol airport was just kilometres from the city centre.
At the border, further SBU officers and I was filmed being told I was deported. At that time I expressed my thanks to the SBU, who I figured as having been professional in the dispensing of their duties. I also made a 5 minute petition on the illegality of my deportation, and the dangerous precedent it set for Ukraine. It was cut from the video they released, as I later discovered. But by then that wasn't a surprise as however nice the officers had seemed SBU actions in their reality manifest shortly after filming stopped. I had made my own 'deportation video' too, they took that, deleted it, just as I would shortly discover, over the Polish border, that they had deleted every single, I mean every single, file on my computer - including family photos, holiday photos, the works. Then one by one my accounts were hacked, various pro-Ukraine material posted up. And what had been waiting for me at the Polish border? Nothing at all. Just my bags, dumped at the border in a town I had no idea of, without many of my possessions returned, notably car of course.
Of course there are far worse things happening to people in Ukraine every day. I'd wanted to report them, I'd reported them, and found myself kicked out of the country, banned. A journalist who'd arrived by car less than a week ago ready to work, reduced to an unshaven man dragging his wordly possessions attempting to find internet to let the world know that after 3 days of captivity I was alive. And that's the main thing of course, to be alive, to be ok. But the feeling that you've been transplanted from one place where you were doing your work, work which needed to be done. The feeling that that work was so egregious to a Kiev government doing everything it can to cover up war crimes in the east, they did what they could to stop it. By killing a British citizen they potentially lose some support in Europe. By deporting, banning, they keep that, keep on doing what their doing under a little less observation. By deleting files, hacking accounts, they gain information, further sever the ties to information getting out - my Facebook and Vkontakte hacked to the point of no recovery. By releasing a chopped and edited video, attempt to compromise me, and any news I'd report.
I was taken from a real war into a territorial exile, then into an information war. Some good people helped me in a difficult situation, Polish journalist Ola Popow notably took me away for a few days recuperation. Now, I'm trying to arrange a visa for Russia to get back and report on the Ukraine situation. Report on a country which branded me an enemy. I hadn't really known before what they would do to hurt me, in every way they could. You need to recover from that, then let go of any grudge you could hold which would undermine impartial reporting. The important thing, to stay objective, get back in the field. The Kiev government put me right on the floor, reduced me from reporter to deportee. Poland gained a tourist, the east of Ukraine lost a journalist who had gone there only wishing to report the real story. My time in captivity cost me a lot of things, but it gained others, importantly that knowledge that if what you are doing is so significant to a corrupt Kiev regime they'll do whatever they can to stop you doing it, you must be doing something right. And, if you feel right is on your side then arrest, detention, theft, deportation, hacking, attacking, banning are only obstacles to overcome.
You can follow Graham on Twitter at @GrahamWP_UK