On the Barricades of Luhansk

The armed Russian protesters in Eastern Ukraine aren’t leaving any time soon -- and that could lead to war.

LUHANSK, Ukraine — For the past few nights, I have been on the barricades outside the occupied city hall in Donetsk with angry and hostile pro-Russia protesters who believe they are being targeted by the forces of globalization. Here, among the protesters, Kiev governance and cosmopolitanism are hated in equal measure. On April 6, several hundred pro-Russia protesters stormed the building and declared the Donbass region a people's republic, independent from the central government in Kiev. And, they assure me, they have no intentions of leaving.

But in Luhansk, an industrial city roughly 90 miles east of Donetsk (and just 30 miles from the Russian border), another group of pro-Russia protesters have seized a building. And the rumors swirling in Donetsk are that these protesters are more heavily armed and have military training. I decide to travel east to find out how far the people here are willing to go.  

The mood in Eastern Ukraine, where separatist protests have erupted in key cities across the region over the past week, is worsening. Tensions in the region have been high since Ukraine's president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country on Feb. 22 after months of protests in Kiev erupted into violence, leaving more than 70 people dead and hundreds injured. Russia's invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in February has further stoked emotions by encouraging separatist sentiments that threaten to further destabilize Ukraine.

On April 10, I set out from Donetsk in the early afternoon. Under a falling spring rain, the Ukrainian countryside is a grey monochrome of endless space broken up by hulking Soviet ruins: Former factories and deserted administrative buildings encrusted with moss and dirt dot the landscape. The rapidly deteriorating roads make what should be a quick two-hour drive to cover the 90-some odd miles between the two cities take twice as long. Craters (in this case, pothole is a wholly insufficient term) several feet wide have to be negotiated at a crawling pace.

It's the shadow of the USSR, not the EU, that dominates the imagination -- and the geography -- here.Heading out of Donetsk, one passes a town called "Red Partisans";  20 minutes later, just outside a bleak industrial village, the "Karl Marx" mine can be seen in the distance. On the approach to Luhansk, the heavy Russian influence, from the street signs to the architecture, is everywhere. A huge iron statue of a triumphant worker welcomes newcomers into the center of the city.

The protesters in Luhansk have been occupying the former state security services (SBU) building on Sovetskaya, the city's main street, since April 6. A barricade of mounds of tires piled several feet high forms a wall at the end of the street. It's festooned with barbed wire and banners that read: "The USA and EU: Hands off from Ukraine." On another banner, someone has painted a U.S. flag with a black "X" drawn through it, along with the word "Stop."

About 2,000 people have braved the sub-zero temperatures; they congregate under tents flying Russian and Soviet flags, talking and drinking tea. Young and old -- though most of these people are older -- have come out in force. Chants of "Ru-Si-Ya! Ru-Si-Ya!" and its inevitable accompaniment "Re-fer-en-dum!" fill the street. Ancient babushkas serve biscuits and tea while speakers on a stage just in front of the building's entrance broadcast endless speeches about Russia and the "fascist junta" in Kiev. Rubble litters the ground. Masked men dressed in camouflage, wielding bats, warm themselves by fires stoked in metal barrels and spit out their disgust at "Nazi" politicians, the International Monetary Fund, and the West in general. Hostility for journalists and outsiders of any description is intense. I am asked repeatedly where I am from and on occasion asked to show my passport. I am also accused of being American -- not a good thing. The people gathered here believe they are victims and view pretty much everyone, apart from Moscow, as the oppressor.

They are initially reluctant to speak, but after some cajoling, they start to talk about their desire to join Russia or, at the very least, for greater autonomy from the central government in Kiev. "Ukraine and Russia are one blood," says Oleg, a middle-aged manual labourer. "The government wants to kill us; we are surrounded by snipers sent from Kiev. Russia must come and save us." Another man in the crowd is more spirited: "If snipers attack us, Russia will be here in two hours!" he bellows.

Alexisiy, in his mid-twenties, works as an accountant and has not been paid for months. Neither his mother nor his sister has been able to find work. "I can't afford to heat my house. I can't afford to buy food. Why are we being punished like this? What have we done?" he asks. "Our grandfathers were heroes," he says. "They are buried between Donetsk and Luhansk. And the people that killed them -- the Nazis -- are now running the country."

"Russian is my first language. Why can't I speak my own language here?" was a refrain uttered again and again (the country has long grappled with the politics of language). Everyone declared that they were just "ordinary people" -- refuting the Ukrainian government's accusation that many of these people are Russian stooges bussed in to fill out the protests, an insult that stings. The discontent is mostly over ethnic and linguistic issues, but beneath the rhetoric, much of the underlying grievances are economic. The belief that "things were better" under Yanukovych -- who was deposed during the Euromaidan revolution and escaped to Russia -- is almost universal.

The masked, armed men who form the "self defense" units common to all pro-Russia protest groups here in Ukraine patrol the area suspiciously. Overall, the militia presence is less here than in Donetsk, but the occupied building has its own barricade that is manned by several of their most professional-looking members. Two guards with riot shields control access to the building. Eventually, I made my way to the makeshift barrier to meet a contact in the militia who had promised he can get us inside, but nothing is forthcoming. Vasillies, a mustached man in his mid-40s, is the man in charge, and he is adamant that we aren't getting in and tells us to return tomorrow.

As we leave the street to return to our hotel, some militia accost us, demanding to know what we're doing here. One of them is especially aggressive and looks drunk. He calls us "provocateurs" -- the ultimate insult here -- and becomes so agitated that he has to be pulled away by some of his friends.

On the morning of April 11, things are quiet in front of the SBU building. The weather is brutally cold. Small groups of people huddle by fires and the chanting is more subdued. But there is a sense of urgency in the air: There are rumors that forces from Kiev are going to storm the building imminently; the masked militia starts building barricades.

I approach the barricade in front of the SBU building -- my second attempt. Vasillies is in a more forthcoming mood and, as promised, allows me into the occupied building. As I pass through the barricade I see that the man guarding the door is dressed in full military uniform and holding a machine gun. Inside five militiamen in uniform -- each with a machine gun -- line the hallway. Knives and ammunition clips hang from their uniforms. Most are wearing masks. We are led through winding corridors filled with silent, armed men posted at strategic points -- some stand by walls while others sit on furniture that has been dragged out of offices.

We enter what must once have been a conference auditorium located deep in the heart of the building. Long tables with microphones are lined up across a large stage that covers the back end of the room. Six of the protest leaders, who we are told make up the security branch of the newly formed "People's Council of Luhansk" sit ready to take questions. Posted by the doors are more armed men. About a dozen protest leaders are there as well as some 25 journalists brandishing cameras and notebooks.

They begin the press conference by asserting their peaceful nature: "We are hardworking, decent mining people but we have had enough," they say. "We are being trampled on by the 'Junta' in Kiev." They want a referendum to give people the option to join Russia. If they are attacked by Kiev, they are adamant that they will fight but they call on Russia to protect them.

I ask if it's true that members of the Berkut (the riot police who fought protesters during the Euromaidan revolution and are accused of brutality toward them) are inside the building. "There are people with military training here," concedes Oleksiy Karakin, the head of the security branch, "but we don't make distinctions. We are all one people here."

The deadline set by the government for all protesters to leave occupied buildings across East Ukraine passed at 12 p.m. on Friday, April 11. Karakin reiterates that they are staying put. "We have the means to fight Kiev and we will if we have to," he says. In fact, it appears that military plans have developed beyond the need for immediate self-defense: Karakin announces that, along with militia from other cities in the region, a People's Army of South East Ukraine is being formed. It will, he says, give the people of the region the ability to hold and defend the referendums they promise are imminent. 

Their determination is palpable. Karakin tells the gathered journalists that Ukrainian Special Forces have arrived in the city to storm the building, but assures us that he and his men are ready for anything that might happen. There is no question of a negotiated surrender.

As I make my way out of the building two protesters accost me, grabbing my arm, though more for emphasis than out of any hostile intent, and urge me to make sure I report "the truth."

"The people in Kiev think we are nothing," they say. "But we will show them."

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images


Out of the Shadows, Onto the Screen

In a new video, a resurgent AQAP celebrates their latest jailbreak and warns what comes next.

SANAA, Yemen — The Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a video on March 29 showing its leaders and other operatives celebrating a Feb. 13 jailbreak. In that operation, armed men stormed the Central Security Prison in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, with an explosive-laden car and automatic weapons, freeing more than two-dozen prisoners in fewer than 30 minutes. The Yemeni Ministry of Interior said that 19 of the 29 escapees were convicted of terrorism-related charges.

In previous videos, AQAP leaders have generally appeared individually, spoken from off-camera, or were filmed in non-descript rooms. The last time AQAP released public footage of such a brazen celebration was in 2011, when militants seized control of a swath of Yemen's Abyan and Shabwa provinces. During the few months AQAP controlled the area, it operated checkpoints on roads and AQAP officials delivered public speeches and sermons in local mosques -- but it was forced back into hiding after the central government launched a military offensive to retake the region in spring 2012.

In the recent video, released online by AQAP's al-Malahim media office, the militants appear as audacious as before: Dozens of fighters are shown marching -- in the open and in broad daylight -- through Yemen's mountains exchanging congratulations and celebrating the jailbreak with gunfire, chants, and public speeches. Even AQAP's reclusive emir, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, makes an appearance to welcome the escaped prisoners.

The bold defiance on display is a sharp rebuke to reports that AQAP has been decimated by drone strikes.

The video features interviews with two of the escapees, Munir al-Bouni and Saleh al-Sha'oush. Bouni was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2009 for joining AQAP and plotting attacks against tourist and government facilities. Sha'oush was arrested wearing an explosive belt in January 2010 in the southern port city of Mukalla and was tried in October 2010 for having a role in attacks on oil and gas facilities in the provinces of Hadramout and Mareb.

In the video, Bouni says that they began planning their escape when they were transferred from a prison run by the Political Security Organization, Yemen's secret police, to the Central Security Prison. Two days after arriving in the new prison, Bouni met other imprisoned members of AQAP, including Sha'oush, Mansour al-Dalil, and Mubarak al-Shabwani. Dalil and Shabwani were sentenced to death in July 2011 for killing eight soldiers in November 2009 in Hadramout province. Together, they settled on a plan to make 10 hand grenades in their cell, as well as a more powerful explosive device.

"All [bomb-making] materials were smuggled into the prison and we began making bombs," Bouni says in his interview. "The brothers [outside the prison] were tasked to destroy the wall and we would deal with the inside."

Sha'oush claims to have helped build the explosives in prison, then signaled AQAP members outside the prison to launch the attack. Rather than attack the main gate, AQAP blew through a wall of the prison with a car bomb followed by an assault by armed men.

Sha'oush describes the prisoners waiting impatiently for the car bomb to explode. "They wanted to leave the prison even before the car went off," he says. After the blast breached the prison wall, the inmates then used their prison-made explosives against the guards. Then, "even before the smoke cleared, they quickly ran into the wall and ran away," he says. "When we got out of prison, we turned right and the guys were waiting for us at the end of the road."

The jailbreak was met with a large celebration. In the video, masked men in a mountainous area fire machine guns and chant "God is great" as a convoy of brand new pickup trucks loaded with fighters drives past. Apparently to prove that they were present, the escapees appear unmasked, while most of the AQAP members in the video have their faces blurred. Keeping with Yemeni tribal customs, a man called Abu Yasser welcomes the freed prisoners with a short poem and al Qaeda fighters sing to the gathering. The men are served fruit while they listen to speakers. "As you can see, we enjoy great freedom," Mohammed al-Saadi, one of the escaped prisoners, says at one point. "We ask the Almighty to help us to slaughter the oppressors."

Among the speakers at the AQAP gathering is Ibrahim al-Rubaish, an AQAP religious leader and former Guantanamo detainee, who promises more al Qaeda jailbreaks around the world. "We have [incarcerated] brothers in Guantanamo, al-Hair and Dhahban [in Saudi Arabia], and Palestine," Rubaish says in the video.

Wuhayshi, who rarely appears in AQAP's video and audio releases, can be seen among the crowd. Despite AQAP's tit-for-tat killings in Yemen, Wuhayshi reminds his supporters that their target is the United States. "We should remember that we fight the biggest enemy. We must overthrow the leaders of infidelity and remove the cross and its holder, America," he says in an interview in the video. He reiterates the al Qaeda philosophy that they fight Yemeni soldiers because they stand in their way and prevent them from fighting Americans.

Despite the international threats like Wuhayshi's, AQAP has seemed to focus on more local concerns recently. In addition to the jailbreak in February, AQAP has staged attacks on military installations, and on March 31, the organization announced a new armed division, Ansar al-Sharia in the Central Regions, to specifically combat Yemen's Houthi movement. The Houthis are a Shiite revivalist organization based in Yemen's northern Saada province that fought several wars with the central government during the 2000s, but since 2010, they have clashed frequently with Yemeni Salafists, and AQAP has rallied to support armed opposition to the Shiite group.

But the video is a bold piece of propaganda directed at multiple audiences, says Saeed Obeid, an independent Yemeni terrorism expert. It is designed to reassure al Qaeda supporters that the organization looks after its own. In August 2013, Wuhayshi pledged to release al Qaeda prisoners, though he didn't name any specific prisons.

"He wants to benefit from his accomplishment and say that he honored his word and released prisoners," says Obeid. AQAP now wants to spin the successful jailbreak operation into good publicity abroad. "Al Qaeda sees propaganda as important as armed battles," said Obeid.

Two days after the release of the video, airstrikes hit suspected AQAP hideouts in al-Mahfed district in Abyan province in response to the video. Local media outlets attributed the strikes to the Yemeni Air Force, but Western reports suggest it was a U.S. drone strike. At the same time, the Ministry of Interior said it would gather information about AQAP havens across the country.

Despite al Qaeda's ruthless attacks on military posts that have killed tens of soldiers this year across the country, the Yemeni government still insists that it has the upper hand in the war against AQAP. Shortly after the deadly assault on an army complex in the southern port city of Aden on April 2, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi sent a message to the military, praising soldiers for "foiling" AQAP's assault and saying the country's armed forces are "recovering and regaining their strength." According to the Yemen's state news agency, 10 AQAP militants and six soldiers were killed when attackers detonated a car bomb at the gates of the base and stormed the facility, but security forces hunted them down before they reached the main building of the complex.

The Ministry of Interior has admitted recently that the trend of the war on al Qaeda is mainly based on reacting to and repelling AQAP attacks and has indicated it will be shifting to a more proactive policy. "Security services should take the lead and begin attacking al Qaeda instead of foiling attacks," the ministry said in a statement on its official website.

Recent reports have indicated that the United States is exploring the possibility of giving the Yemeni Air Force a fleet of armed crop dusters to allow the Yemeni government a larger role in what has largely been a U.S. effort to target AQAP leaders with airstrikes. But as the Yemeni government takes the fight to AQAP, it is going up against an emboldened enemy, and as this new video shows, it's not hiding in the shadows anymore.