Democracy Lab

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.

Photo by Emily Timoney

Democracy Lab

'Girls, Stop What You're Doing or Die'

In Ukraine, women militants are taking up weapons on both sides of the barricades.

The folk dance reached its culminating moment. Young women with bright red boots and flower wreaths around their heads spun and jumped, dazzling an audience of passing art lovers. A year later, I still have a vivid picture of the opening of the Ukrainian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the renowned, biannual contemporary art and film exposition in Venice, Italy. Whatever feelings you might have about the hopak, the traditional Ukrainian folk dance, it was hard to resist the lure of the colorful ribbons running down from the dancer's wreaths, or the warm lipstick smiles with which the pretty Ukrainian dancers wooed their viewers.

Westerners aren't the only ones vulnerable to the charm of Ukraine's female folk traditions. Many generations of little Soviet girls grew up admiring every detail of happy Ukrainian national costumes, ironed their own ribbons, and danced to folk songs filled with romantic lyrics. Even now, Ukrainian families still value their heirloom shawls, thick cotton towels, and shirts embroidered with graceful flowers: all the handmade heirlooms passed down from grandmothers to granddaughters, to be pulled out of chests or closets on wedding days or other big occasions.

These days you won't see many Ukrainian women performing happy dances. Traumatized by the slow slide into civil war, and with Russian military forces maneuvering on the border, Ukraine is looking ahead to a presidential election that many fear will accelerate the country's fragmentation. The current split between pro-unity and pro-Russian groups is deepening, exacerbated by the casualties from fighting in the East -- and the process of polarization also includes women. The day after the horrific May 2nd fire in Odessa that took the lives of more than 40 pro-Russian demonstrators, photographs of young women with ponytails pouring gasoline into bottles for Molotov cocktails appeared on the door of the incinerated building. "They burned Odessans," the sign said.

Millions of Ukrainian women on both sides of the conflict have been caught up in intense emotions. First there was the violence of the February uprising that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych, leaving dozens dead. Then there was Russia's surprise takeover of Crimea, which meant exile and loss for many families forced to leave the peninsula, and a source of "patriotic" exaltation for many others. And now there are the victims of war in Eastern Ukraine. For all these reasons, the traditional image of the happy, flower-wreathed Ukrainian maiden is giving way to another: that of the woman warrior, a figure increasingly common on both sides of the political dividing line.

Women build barricades, pour gas for Molotov cocktails, or throw bricks at policemen -- sometimes with more passion and anger than the men. On the Maidan, some of them joined Unit 39, a largely female group within the demonstrators' Self-Defense Forces, where their tasks included persuading members of Berkut, the paramilitary police, to defect. Last month, activist Irma Krat, one of the leaders of the Maidan's female militia forces, was detained by rebels in Sloviansk. The interrogators have accused her of torturing anti-Maidan activists and killing a Berkut officer.

But the pro-Ukrainian contingent certainly doesn't have a monopoly on women militants. Since late April, leaders of the separatist movement have been calling on both men and women to mobilize and prepare for a real war against Kiev. Last weekend, a pro-Russian website issued a video that showed four masked women warriors from Lugansk declaring "a war against the junta," as pro-Russian forces refer to the interim government in Kiev. In the video, women dressed in camouflage with Kalashnikov rifles slung across their chests introduce themselves as female fighters in the Russian Orthodox Army: "We took up weapons because we're fed up," one of the women says. Apparently addressing officials from the Kiev government, she continues: "Leave. You have 24 hours." A taller woman standing next to her adds that she wants to send a "special hello" to the Maidan's Unit 39, which she accuses of killing boys from the region: "Girls, you've got a chance: Stop what you're doing or die."

So why are women preparing to risk their lives -- or to take the lives of their compatriots? During my recent visit to Lugansk, I posed the question to a group of blond, blue-eyed women sitting on a bench outside a wooden church at the back of the main camp of the pro-Russian militia. Their answer was simple: The Ukrainian authorities had sent tanks against their husbands and sons fighting for the separatist cause in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, so the women had no choice but join the militia troops, too, and fight on the side of their loved ones.

But even at moments when there haven't been obvious threats, women in eastern Ukraine have followed the call of male rebel leaders by joining violent battles against government officials. In Donetsk, women dressed up for a peaceful demonstration began throwing bricks at government representatives. Some of them were still holding balloons or children's hands when the police started firing stun grenades and gas into the crowd. The women were undeterred: they were too angry at the government. Women of all ages continued the battle until the building was seized by the militia of the so-called People's Republic of Donetsk. (The photo above shows the Republic's female supporters marching during a recent demonstration in the city.) Many in the crowd demanded the public punishment of  captured officials, but the rebel militia used shields to protect their captives from the bloodthirsty crowd, which included many women.

Yet such images don't come as a complete surprise. Local contemporary artists, sensitive to any changes in the social environment, starting painting images of lost or violent women months ago. Valery Tsagolov was painting images of ballerinas in suicide bomber belts long before the conflict caught fire between pro-Russian militia and Ukrainian security forces caught. In early March, soon after one hundred people tragically died in street clashes in the heart of Kiev, the M 17 Gallery presented a painting of a young woman in a traditional Ukrainian costume with long curly hair, a machine gun over her shoulder and a grenade in her hand. Igor Pereklita, the artist, created the painting months before thousands of women joined the protests on the Maidan, as part of a show called "The Fire of Love," devoted to the idea of revolution. "Death to the occupiers from Moscow" was scrawled at the woman's feet.

The recent works of Maria Shubina, a Kiev painter famous for her solemn self-portraits, feature a girl guerilla armed with a revolver and receipts for Molotov cocktails. Shubina  display the paintings next to grenades and guns made of chocolate (no reference, she says, to Petro Poroshenko, the chocolate king currently campaigning to be Ukraine's next president). She told me that the installation is supposed to serve as a pacifist protest. It will fall to Ukrainian women, she said, to heal the wounds caused by the conflict and bring together the fractured country.

Meanwhile, Natalya Zabolotna, a Kiev museum director, is worried about the lives of her friends, the artists Pavel Yurov and Denis Grishuk, who have been held hostage in a rebel prison in Sloviansk for over a month. She reached out to the Moscow Orthodox Church. "The priests told me they couldn't help, because the violence and anger of war have flooded people's mind and souls," Zabolotna said. "Something is seriously wrong. The world has let the genie out of the bottle. Even women have taken weapons and formed militia troops in despair and fear." I can't help thinking, though, that most women in Ukraine are waiting for the guns to melt like chocolate so that they can once again open up those chests filled with family heirlooms and dance the hopak.

GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images