Mourning Lost Friends
Today is Journalists' Day in Ukraine. But in a time of war there's little to celebrate.
They could have chosen to work on a different story; they could have chosen to return to their hotel and have a nice meal. On that day, on May 24th, they could have even opted to skip the violent city of Slovyansk altogether. For that matter, they could have decided never to cover the venomous conflict in eastern Ukraine in the first place. The day was already winding down when Italian photographer Andy Rocchelli, 30, his co-author, interpreter, and long-time friend Andrei Mironov, 60, and their French colleague William Roguelon drove up to a railroad crossing in the village of Andreyevka, a spot reportedly known for almost daily firefights between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels. The journalists parked their car and got ready for work. They were reporting on civilians living on the front line, hostages of war. The story they had filed earlier to the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta bore the title, "We’re Not Animals, There’s No Need to Put Barbed Wire Around Us."
About 20 minutes later, a sudden burst of gunfire sent the reporters running for cover behind their car; they ended up in a ditch on the side of the road. As the men cowered there, unseen attackers targeted them with a grenade launcher, sending shells screaming across at their car; that was followed by a mortar barrage. Roguelon later recalled at least 40 mortar rounds landing on the top of a hill above the road; he was wounded by shrapnel but managed to survive. Andy and Andrei weren’t so lucky. Their bodies were found the next morning in the same ditch, at the side of the last road they drove down together. Reporters working in Slovyansk at the time said it was quite likely that the three men had been caught in a crossfire. Indications are that the initial shots came from rebels. Already wounded, the two men were then killed by mortars belonging to the Ukrainian military. In Kiev, officials from the interior ministry later tried to explain the incident to me by saying that the journalists should have covered their car with big signs identifying them as members of the press.
Two hearts stopped beating in men who were trying to act as witnesses. They were in the midst of telling a human story about civilian families, children surviving in basements during nights filled with the din of gunfire. At the very beginning of a conflict that makes little sense, in Donbass, a part of Ukraine torn between Kiev and Moscow, both men believed their mission was to find proof of war crimes against civilian people. "For Andrei, his mission began in Chechnya, where he collected evidence of ordinary people used by rebels as human shields, of hospital patients taken as hostages, and of the use of vacuum bombs," Alexander Cherkasov told me. Cherkasov, the director of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, still keeps in his office a fragment of a vacuum bomb that Andrei brought him from Chechnya.
"Why would Andrei, so experienced, take the risk of exposure in a combat zone, after documenting wars for the past 25 years?" The question came from war photographer Stanley Greene, whose life Andrei once saved during shelling in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Stanley could just as easily ask a similar question of himself. Having documented wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and a host of other deadly places, he, too, has been covering the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
War reporters often say that their job is a lottery. When they hear about the death of colleagues, they shake their heads and say: "Their number came up." It might sound like fatalism, but there’s a grim realism to the thought: you simply can’t predict what’s going to happen in a war zone. It’s June 6th, Journalists’ Day in Ukraine, and we’re remembering our friends on the veranda of a hotel in Donetsk, a green city of once hard-working people that is now sliding rapidly into economic chaos and civil war. One hears accounts of journalists being kidnapped, detained, beaten, threatened, or robbed in various parts of the self-declared separatist "republics" of Donetsk and Lugansk. And the number of such stories appears to be growing.
Some war reporters, the superstitious ones, keep careful track of every bad omen they encounter on the job. Others ignore the signs completely and carry on single-mindedly with their work. Today, I’m happy to say, the lottery passed over two of our friends, the talented photographers Sergei Ponomarev and Maksim Dondyuk. Just like Andy and Andrei, they came under fire on the road to a checkpoint (this time near Marinovka, close to the Russian border), and once again the shooting came from two different sides. As rebels struggled all week to punch holes in the border, the Ukrainian border guard commander in charge of Marinovka issued a statement warning that Russian armored personnel carriers were "pouring across" into Ukraine. That was the story the two photographers were trying to document.
It’s still unclear who fired at Sergei and Maksim this morning on their way to the checkpoint. Luckily, they both survived; one of the bullets passed through Maksim’s hip bag, leaving him untouched — this time. I asked Maksim how he sees his mission. "It’s important to cover both sides of the conflict in my own country, without taking sides: one day the rebels, the next day the Ukrainian military," he said. "That’s just the way I reported on the Maidan revolution for three months, day after day: one day I took photos of protesters, the next day I reported on the riot police." He showed me a mark on his left leg from a stun grenade that hit him during his time on the Maidan.
Looking at the black hole from the bullet that passed through his bag today, I recalled a conversation I had with Sabrina Tavernise, another old friend who works for The New York Times; we recently went on a reporting trip together around Lugansk. She was telling me about her hospital visits with Joao Silva, a conflict photographer who stepped on a mine in Afghanistan in 2010. "Looking at how much pain Joao was suffering through, how hard he was fighting to live on for his loving family, I realized that I don’t ever want my number to come up," Sabrina told me. I agree. And these days, especially in eastern Ukraine, there are far too many reminders of how high the price can be.