Al Jazeera Blogs


Europe

Going nowhere on Ukraine's roads

While trying to make his way to Horlivka, our correspondent was detained at a separatist checkpoint.
Last modified: 4 Aug 2014 12:47

The man in the black T-shirt had a broken arm in a cast, but he still had an air of ruthless professionalism.

He was the commander of the separatist checkpoint on the road into Horlivka, and he was busy, relaying a constant stream of orders.

He carried an assault rifle, and ordered our driver to park our van by the side of the road.

"Get out of your car, turn your phones off, don't film anything, and wait here," he said.

There was no discussion. But Black T-shirt was already busy with other matters, jabbing his fingers at his phone.

"If you see [xxx] trying to leave, shoot him," he said to someone at the other end of the line.

On the opposite side of the road there was a long stream of vehicles heading out of Horlivka; buses, taxis, and ordinary cars, full of frightened people.

No wonder; the town was under bombardment.

Succession of dull thuds

Government forces were closing in, trying to take Horlivka as they push south in the direction of Donetsk.

We heard a rapid succession of dull thuds, the earth vibrated beneath our feet and we saw plumes of smoke around buildings in the town centre. Probably the notorious Grad rockets, which both sides accuse each other of using in eastern Ukraine’s war, and which kill and maim over a wide area.

The men on the checkpoint waved most of the vehicles through. But not all. A 4x4 was pulled over. A man and a woman got out, shouting and imploring.

A separatist gunman fired over their heads several times. The woman was on her knees, sobbing. It appeared that the gunman was trying to take their car. The argument carried on under some nearby trees, where the couple made several frantic phone calls.

They seemed to be in luck, because half an hour later they were abruptly waved on.

We, on the other hand, were going nowhere.

Black T-shirt brushed our inquiries away. The men and women under his command at the checkpoint were a rag-tag bunch. They wore fragments of khaki and camouflage uniforms, and carried a variety of weapons. Some looked painfully young while others were well into their sixties.

A burly man with a pistol, a handshake like a bear, and the whiff of vodka on his breath introduced himself as Aleksander. He said he was a native of Horlivka, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and ready to defend his town "like Stalingrad".

'Kiev fascists'

Why, wondered Aleksander, did the rest of the world not tell the truth about this "fight against the Kiev fascists?"

It was, he said, just like the Great Patriotic War all over again, except that "today's fascists are even worse because they bomb their own cities".

Aleksander had taken a shine to one of my colleagues. "So beautiful", he said, stroking his hand along her face. She smiled uncomfortably, and stiffened. He wandered off, promising to fetch us some coffee.

I asked if I could visit the toilet. I was led into the trees.

The American flag had been deliberately spread over the path, so I had to trample over the stars and stripes.

To my side, I could see unarmed men and boys in civilian clothes preparing defences; digging earth ramparts and laying down wooden planks.

One man had a black eye, but all of these unfortunate people had a far away, glazed look. They did not look as if they wanted to be there.

I came back to the car. We sat and waited, and watched as Black T-shirt suddenly drove off, leaving us with an increasingly drunken Aleksander and his friends. They allowed us to make a phone call, and we spoke to a separatist official in Donetsk.

We handed the phone to another gunman. He listened to the official and then said: "Go back to Donetsk".

We didn't need much encouragement to pile into the car and head back the way we came down the near-deserted highway.