I have just returned from my fourth visit to Ukraine this year. In February, I started off in Lviv, in the far west, and ended up in Crimea in the south – which, by the time I left, had been annexed by Russia. History moves fast these days. This time I returned to the eastern region of Donbass, where Russian-backed separatists have set up putative independent states. It was a critical moment: after weeks of Ukrainian shelling, which had weakened the rebels but also killed civilians, the Russians had sent in more of their own troops and armour.
Vladimir Putin continues to deny that his forces are operating inside Ukraine, but in the town of Ilovaysk, near Donetsk, we met Svetlana, the widow of a separatist fighter, who described how Russian heavy armour had driven the Ukrainians out of town. “Thank you, Mr Putin!” she said. “You were the only one who could send these soldiers to free our land.”
As I drove from the Donetsk People’s Republic to the Luhansk People’s Republic, it was sobering to see how war has taken hold. At Yasinovataya, two rebels – one with a khaki bandana and a ponytail – were sitting at a bus stop that served as a checkpoint. They waved us on past a block of flats holed by artillery. The classical façade of the House of Culture, once the glory of the small town, was now blackened, its Doric columns pockmarked by shrapnel. Such was the ferocity of the Ukrainian bombardment that local people were living in a Soviet-era bunker, under peeling yellow posters about radiation sickness. Elderly women were preparing potatoes in the gloom, while five-year-old Dominica and her three-year-old brother, Denis, were tucked up in bed although it was mid-morning. Their mother, Anastasia, said that when the explosions came she tried to pretend that going into the basement was a hiding game.
There is no question in my mind that Russia stirred up this war to destabilise Ukraine, but how will these people ever trust the government in Kyiv again, after it has attacked them like this?
Trolls and weasels
I use Twitter a lot for my reporting these days, mainly because it’s useful to see what other journalists covering the same story are posting. In Ukraine, however, it’s easy to be distracted by the vitriol of the trolls.
Who are these people? A rabid pro-Ukrainian who follows me has “Not paid, just obedient” on his Twitter profile, while one of those who defends Russia says he’s based in Denver, Colorado.
Both sides delight in telling me that my photo of spent artillery cases is faked, or that I’m a stooge of one side or the other, or a Nazi – the latter being a claim thrown around with tedious regularity in Ukraine. Sometimes I read how they attack each other. The most glorious insult I’ve seen so far is “monomaniac arseweasel”. I must use that when the occasion arises.
The first day we try to reach Luhansk, near the border, we’re forced back by the Ukrainian retreat. Scores of tanks and other military vehicles churn up the road as they move west. A commander claims this is a “normal rotation” of troops. Not very convincing.
When we make it on the following day, we find the city has no running water, no electricity and no mobile-phone coverage. An elderly woman queuing at a water bowser tells me: “I was five when the Germans shelled me. Now I’m 77 and it’s happening again.” The airport has been devastated. The Ukrainian military shelled Luhansk from here and eventually the Russians moved in. Whatever President Putin says, there is no way that the rebels have the firepower to trash a place as thoroughly as this. In among the shrapnel and rubble, we see an empty DVD case: it’s the Arnold Schwarzenegger film End of Days.
While we are filming at the airport, an armoured vehicle full of soldiers in the same immaculate uniforms as the Russian forces wore in Crimea careers across the tarmac. Our rebel escorts tell us not to film. We drive back through a small rebel checkpoint. On the way in, they had been suspicious. “No photos!” they’d said. We had chatted with them while waiting for an escort, and now, by the time we return from the airport, we are old friends. They flag us down. “Take a picture of us!” they cry.
As they assemble to pose, we ask who they really are. “Russian tourists!” they laugh. One has a wide, Asiatic face, another a Muslim cap. They are, they say, from all over the old Soviet Union, volunteers who have come to aid their Ukrainian brothers in their hour of need. Maybe.
As we prepared to leave eastern Ukraine, opinion polls started to come through showing that Scotland may vote for independence. Of course it’s not like Ukraine, where separatist sentiment has been stirred up and led to war. But if Scotland becomes independent, then Britain may be regarded as an even lesser country in the world than it is now, and the chances of us leaving the European Union could become higher.
In my line of work, being British is strangely useful. In many parts of the world, people who disagree with our government’s actions nonetheless often still respect our history and tradition of independent journalism. They feel that it’s worth talking to us. If Scotland goes, and we leave the EU, those feelings might begin to dissipate and Britain could be seen as less significant – like Costa Rica, only without the good weather.
I spend my life covering countries where history is happening. Maybe those who live in places where very little happens underestimate the luxury of what Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August, her book about the First World War, called “the unconscionable boredom of peace”. History may be something you embrace at your peril.
Lindsey Hilsum is the international editor of “Channel 4 News” and the author of “Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution” (Faber & Faber, £10.99)