Democracy Lab

The Forgotten Victims of the War in Ukraine

We're right to mourn the dead of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. But that doesn't mean we should forget the others whose lives are being forever altered by the war.

DONETSK, Ukraine — In the last three months of covering the war in eastern Ukraine, I've often seen people's tears. Crying children, crying men, crying women of all ages: lost, despairing, torn by fear, absolutely heartbroken. The fight that broke out in the city of Donetsk on Monday morning changed many lives; it ended at least five of them. Grad rockets and artillery struck all along Slavatskaya and Kuibysheva streets and around the Zapadnaya railway station. Among the sites that were hit: a city market, a pharmacy, a local factory, high-rise apartment buildings.

Horror seemed to be concentrated in the stuffy and crowded basement of School 51, which was filled with thirsty, sweating adults and children. The dull thuds of rockets landing in the city outside filled everyone with panic. "Misha, what's happening there, can you see?" a middle-aged woman shouted to her husband, who was smoking by the door to the basement. (And yes, there were tears in her eyes, too.) He answered that the two of them could count themselves lucky: Unlike the three dead people whose bodies were lying in the courtyard -- the woman's head had been blown away -- they had made it to safety. Misha's wife, wracked with emotion, agreed.

Ever since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 fell from the sky on July 17, TV news channels around the world have been covering the crash and its implications virtually nonstop. You'd think that was the only story happening in eastern Ukraine right now. But there's actually another big, newsworthy event that's going on, virtually unnoticed: the Ukrainian army's military offensive against the separatists holed up in Donetsk and its environs. And if the previous fighting in places like Slavyansk or Krasny Liman is any indication, civilians can expect to bear the brunt of it. (The photo shows a man in Donetsk inspecting a garage destroyed by a rocket.)

One woman, still shaking, scolded my photographer friend for taking pictures: "It's all your fault! Your Russian propaganda is to blame for this war!" My Italian friend didn't understand what the woman was saying, but she stopped taking pictures for a while. An older woman said she wanted him to go on, that it was important for the world to understand where Malaysia Airlines had crashed and how much the population of the area around Donetsk was suffering. "We have deep sympathy for the families of the victims of the Malaysian plane," an older woman told me, a cup in her hand. "But we want the world to hear us, too. We're being killed here. The Ukrainians are bombing us." Two women, still shaking from the shock, yelled at us about Ukrainian murderers and Russian murderers. You could hear the whole range of views in our basement -- as one might expect in a city with a population of 1 million.

Men listening to the murmur of artillery by the door spoke in words peppered with harsh Russian obscenities. If Kiev had decided to fight the war on the streets of Slavyansk, Luhansk, Donetsk, and the other cities in the region, why not declare a curfew and let people know when they could expect the fighting to start so that they'd have time to hide? A tall, gray-haired man told everyone that it was all easy to understand: "[Ukrainian President] Poroshenko is using the airplane catastrophe and the visits by foreign experts as cover for winning this war and clamping down on the DPR guys" -- a reference to the militia of the separatists' Donetsk People's Republic.

The world's attention is understandably focused on the downing of the Malaysian airliner, but in the process everyone seems to have forgotten that the war in eastern Ukraine is still going on. What both sides in the conflict seem to have forgotten is that they're fighting over places filled with civilians: Both the Ukrainian army and the rebels are using heavy weapons in a densely populated city. Sources at Human Rights Watch tell me that they've documented evidence in at least four cases proving that Ukrainian forces were responsible for Grad rocket strikes on residential areas. That's terrible news for people living in the region, since the operators of Grad batteries rarely have precise targeting information. It's a highly indiscriminate weapon.

Later that day, I called Kiev officials, who denied that any Ukrainian commander ever ordered a Grad attack on Donetsk or other cities. They did admit, however, that "a war without mercy" has finally entered its active phase in eastern Ukraine. And that, of course, means that we'll see more tears and broken lives. Donetsk is not the only city in eastern Ukraine today where citizens are sheltering in basements from bullets, shells, and bombs. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has reported 250 killed in neighboring Luhansk over the past few weeks. The map of hot spots is growing by the day. And one wonders whether the government of Ukraine is really helping its own cause. Its heavy-handed use of weapons like the Grad is radicalizing the population and driving many into the arms of the rebels.

Many people are fleeing the region around Donetsk. But leaving a home that's turned into a war zone is rarely as clear-cut as the superficial images of refugees might suggest. For every person who gets away there are loved ones, friends, and precious belongings left behind.

A few days ago I was trying to comfort a grown woman who was sobbing like a little child. It was a warm July afternoon, and we were standing under the apple and cherry trees outside her place of work. Larisa Zvereva, 49, is a teacher at the orphanage in Torez, the village at the center of the debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

In the past few days, she told me, she'd witnessed "the most unimaginable horrors" -- human bodies falling from the clouds. Eight of them landed on the street outside the orphanage fence, and two more fell right into the garden, as rebels and government troops fought a violent war just a few kilometers away from her doorstep. (As we spoke, the sound of mortar and artillery fire continued to murmur in the outskirts of Torez.) The worst part, she told me, was that the children at the orphanage, ranging in ages from 9 to 16, and already living in constant fear of the war, had also watched the bodies of the passengers falling from the sky. Some of the kids described them to me as "big birds."

How much longer, Zvereva asked me, will the people of the region wake up to the sound of shelling? How many more nightmares will they have to endure? She began to choke up with tears. "I'm so scared to tell anybody the truth about what I really want for my life, for the future of our orphans," she whispered to me. Unheard, misunderstood, the people who live in this part of Ukraine were already struggling to endure the horrors of war before the tragedy of MH17. Now many of them feel that the world is blaming them, on top of everything else, for shooting down a plane filled with men, women, and children. The realization that the rest of humankind has little idea of their daily tribulations merely adds to the pain.

Rob Stothard/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

More Reporters Die in Eastern Ukraine

Should journalists killed in action be mourned less because they were working for the Kremlin?

Last week, another journalist was killed on the job in eastern Ukraine -- this time a correspondent working for one of Russia's state TV channels. His death prompted an agonized discussion about the role of Russian journalists in an increasingly polarized conflict.

Igor Kornelyuk was working on a story about refugees in eastern Ukraine. On June 17 he was standing at the side of a road with a group of pro-Russian militia when unknown assailants (presumably the Ukrainian military) opened fire on them with mortars. Kornelyuk was hit. He died not long after on an operating table at a local hospital.

Kornelyuk's colleagues recalled that he had zero experience of covering conflict. He spent years running a newspaper for children, then reported court and shipyard news for a TV channel in Russia's northern port city of Murmansk. Nobody could explain to me why the reporter eagerly accepted an assignment to cover the civil war in eastern Ukraine, where dozens of victims die each week. Apparently I wasn't the only one to wonder. A reporter for the Russian service of U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty asked why the country's main TV channel was sending reporters to the front lines without body armor or any special training for work in hostile conditions. Kornelyuk left behind a wife and a 7-year-old daughter in Moscow. (He was buried on Friday.)

On the day after Kornelyuk's death, a Russian TV cameraman identified the body of another colleague, video engineer Anton Voloshin, who was found dead near a checkpoint in the region of Luhansk, close to the Russian border. (Like Kornelyuk, he also had no prior experience covering a conflict zone.) That brought to four the number of reporters killed in less than three weeks in Ukraine. The deaths of Kornelyuk and Voloshin topped news reports in Russia. Kornelyuk's colleagues accused the Ukrainian military of specifically targeting him, saying that his status as a journalist should have been visible to those who fired on the group.

Journalists covering wars always risk their lives. When they die, we find in the eulogies differing degrees of truth about who is blame for our tragic losses. This time around, leading Russian officials quickly got into the act: the Russian parliament demanded that Ukraine open an investigation into the deaths. On Thursday, the deputy head of the State Duma, Sergei Zheleznyak, declared that the killing of the Russian reporters was an intentional act: "our reporters are being hunted, arrested, taken hostage for money, and deliberately killed." Zheleznyak blamed Ukrainian authorities for destroying reporters' lives, to silence "the truth they are trying to make public."

Tatyana Lokshina, of the Moscow chapter of Human Rights Watch, told me she agreed that parliament should investigate the deaths of the Russian reporters in eastern Ukraine. At the same time she drew a distinction between the "the deaths of journalists traveling in hostile war zones with a high professional risk" and the "targeted killings" of Russian journalists like Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova, two reporters who met untimely deaths after long careers after publicizing truths that ran contrary to the Kremlin-approved version of events. Both Politkovskaya and Estemirova earned official disfavor for their highly critical coverage of the wars in Chechnya, where they threw a spotlight on human rights violations and atrocities committed by both sides. (Putin famously went out of his way to dismiss Politkovskaya, after her death, as someone whose "influence on political life within Russia was very minimal.") Earlier this month, a court in Moscow sentenced five men to prison (two of them for life) for their involvement in Politkovskaya's killing. But trial left Politkovskaya's defenders with little sense that justice had been done, since the people who ordered her killing remain at large.

Lokshina has an all-too-intimate knowledge of the dangers facing journalists on the front. Last month, she and her colleagues made a narrow escape from mortar fire outside of the city of Slovyansk -- just a day before two other journalists, Andy Rocchelli and Andrei Mironov, were killed on the same road.

Kornelyuk's death quickly became the object of heated exchanges among activists and "patriots" over the role of state-employed journalists. Reporters at the independent Internet publication Slon started their obituary for Kornelyuk this way: "In spite of ideological contradictions, the editors at express sincere condolences" to the state TV company that employed him. That prompted a bitter reply from Aleksandr Kots, a correspondent for the popular newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, in which he assailed the Slon journalists: "He who expresses sorrow while adding ‘but' or ‘in spite of' is no longer a person." "I feel disillusioned by the entire journalist community," wrote Alexander Raskin, an experienced war reporter for the state-owned newspaper Izvestia. "This isn't an appropriate time to blame each other; it's a time to be together and to mourn our loss."

The reaction to Kornelyuk's death by official Kiev wasn't exactly characterized by sympathy. President Petro Poroshenko called for an investigation into the deaths of Kornelyuk and Voloshin, but then went on to report that the Ukrainian military had responded to "terrorist attacks" on its forces by killing "ten terrorists" (referring to members of the rebel groups that are trying to establish independent republics in Ukraine's East). By Thursday, the Ukrainian prosecutor general had begun its inquiry into the deaths of the two Russian reporters, and quickly concluded that both were killed by anti-government rebels rather than by Ukrainian forces. It's hard to regard that finding with anything other than skepticism, given the testimony of many who were at the scene of Kornelyuk's death. But will the official Russian report arrive at a more trustworthy result? As someone once said: "In war, the first casualty is the truth."