News / 17.06.2014

Ukraine: “This is war. Each side has their own truth”

By Oksana Chelysheva

Slavyansk, a small town in Ukraine’s Donetsk Region of approximately 110 000 people, has now become known all over the world due to its role in the armed crisis developing in the Eastern part of this European state. Founded in the 17th century, until recently its flight of time was tardy. Now Slavyansk is one of the few Ukrainian town overtaken by separatist militant groups who declare their allegiance to Russia although it is still not clear what their provenance is. It remains dim. The two military leaders, Igor Girkin and Igor Bezler, of the rebel forces in Slavyansk remind filibusters more than officers of the regular army.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slavyansk, became known for his regular press conferences on behalf of the groups controlling the town. He is a local person who used to run soap-making business. Now he has been reportedly arrested by his former associates and apparently being kept in the basement of Slavyansk office of SBU (State Security Service) together with unknown number of hostages who have been taken into custody by militants since March when the crisis started to develop. A few days later after the reports of Ponomaryov’s arrest started to appear, his mother appealed to save her son. In a matter of a few more days, the unconfirmed reports of ex-mayor of Slavyansk being executed appeared.

There were members of the OSCE observation mission kept as hostages. They were later exchanged for several leaders of Donetsk People’s Republic detained by the Ukrainian side. There were strong suspicions that both Ponomaryov and the chiefs of the paramilitary formations fighting for Slavyansk have been involved into torture and killings of those who were taken hostages.

There are still theater director Pavel Yurov and artist Denis Grischuk among them. All attempts to appeal to the captors with requests to release the abductees have been to no avail. All assurances of them being unlucky to be in a wrong place in a wrong time have been useless.

These facts are important to understand the situation in the town and the desperate plight of the common people living there. As there is no single spot in the town which is safe more and more people are trying to flee it. People’s evacuation is not organized by the state agencies or huge international organizations. It is being coordinated by volunteers. One of them is Pyotr Dudnik, a local Protestant priest from Slavyansk. He tells on phone, “We are very short of human and financial resources. But we do the maximum in our capacity. Buses and cars are organized from a particular spot in the town, one shop at Vatyuk St., 64. People come them and we take them to the nearest safe town of Izjum”.

The main concern are the elderly, the disabled and the children. One of them, 8-month-old baby boy, Evgeniy Ezjakyan, was especially helpless. Mikhail, the boy’s father, explained the situation, “When Zhenya (a shortened version of his first name) was diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffman spinal amyotrophy, a neurologic disorder characterized by severe pain and muscle wasting, doctors didn’t leave him much chance for survival. But he holds on to life. He smiles and develops. He wants to live”. By the time Zhenya’s parents asked for help, he had been in hospital for approximately half a year. Being absolutely dependent on the work of the revival apparatus, doctors could not move him into the hospital basement for protection when the town center happened to be on the firing line. 

To organize the baby’s safe evacuation, it was necessary to procure the emergency vehicle with ventilation system and ensure safe passes through areas of combat. The agreements on corridors of safety with both sides of the conflict had been reached by the evening of June 4th.

Zhenya’s parents, Mikhail and Viktoria, insisted that the family be taken to Russia. Mikhail told that journalists he met in Slavyansk were also helping them. Among those he mentioned was Andrey Mironov, a Russian human rights campaigner, who was killed in Slavyansk together with his friend, Italian freelance photographer Andrea Rochelli. 

Mikhail told, “My wife is staying in hospital with the son. She remembers both of these two journalists. They had been to the hospital to take photos of its patients just two days before their death. Andrey was speaking on how to help Zhenya out”. Mikhail also told that Russia’s NTV channel Savva Morozov had arranged that the baby be admitted to the hospital in Rostov-on-Don, the regional center in the South of Russia.

There was another person who got involved into the rescue attempts at this stage. Elizaveta Glinka is the executive director of “Fair Help” humanitarian fund established in 2007. She has become known after she had founded a free clinic which helps Moscow’s homeless with medication, food and clothing. Doctor Liza as she is better known now among those who get help delivered by her and other volunteers, immediately responded to the request to facilitate Zhenya’s evacuation. It was not the first of her trips there. Doctor Liza and her fund which raises money mostly through private donations has been delivering humanitarian aid to the Eastern part of Ukraine since the crisis had started the transition to war affair.

How did we all get connected? The main channel has been various social networks. Both Facebook and its Russian analogue, VKontakte. Actually, VKontakte is a lot more in use in Ukraine than Facebook. Trying to get more information from Slavyansk I was searching for users registered in VKontakte from the town. Looking through their profiles, reading their posts, I was drawn to what one young woman, Ekaterina by name, was telling about their life. I have been communicating with Ekaterina for more than a month. I was mostly sending her news from the outside world. Her questions were centered on the opinions of European politicians, “Do they care about us? Do they understand we don’t want any war? Do they understand that people here are getting more and more desperate?” Mine were mostly about their everyday life.

Then the day came when I had to explain Ekaterina what she should do in case of a shelling. One morning I got a message from her, “The previous night was scary. It happened so that we had to follow your instructions. I had to settle the child off to sleep on the floor in a bathroom as it was far from windows”. A few days later I got another message from Ekaterina, “Together with the neighbors we managed to change the basement of the house into a shelter”. I was happy to receive that particular message as Ekaterina had been silent for a few days. It was then when we decided to exchange phone numbers. Just in case…

It was Ekaterina who helped me get the phone numbers of Yevgeniy (Zhenya) Ezjakyan. I saw the story of an 8-month-old baby sick with spinal amyotrophy in the Russian media. They described him as the only patient of Slavyansk children’s hospital who could not be taken into a basement during shelling because he could be disconnected from the lungs ventilation system. I called his father. Mikhail told how the symptoms developed. When I asked how to help him and the boy, he told, “Please, tell people that there are still many children and elderly in the town. Our flat is in 5-storied apartment house. All our old people are still in their flats. As for my son, some Russian journalists are trying to help but it is impossible to leave the town as it is under heavy bombardment. What I ask for is to help us organize safe corridors”. Mikhail also told about the growing shortage of medicines in both hospitals and pharmacies. In the situation when neither pensioners nor disabled were getting no money after Kiev had stopped paying social benefits to residents of several towns in the east of Ukraine, people were left with the choice to leave or die.

In less than an hour after the post with the boy’s father’s appeal had been posted in my Facebook and sent out to both Kiev and Moscow, I got a phone call. “Good afternoon, I am a representative of Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers”. That is how the mediation about the “safety corridors” began. Soon after another FB-friend of mine from Moscow sent me Doctor Liza’s phone number. Before calling her, I had talked to the boy’s parents once again asking to send me the medical papers of their child as well as his photos. Mikhail also mentioned that among those journalists who were considering ways to help the baby out had been Andrea Rochelli and Andrey Mironov killed just two days after their visit to the children’s hospital.

The same day I got a FB-message from a woman from Israel, “Oksana, please, respond to me. I’d like to help the baby. I can do it as I can connect you to someone in Ukraine influential enough to ensure that the National Guards would open the corridors. Trust me, please”. That was how there appeared two more people in the rescue chain. By late night of June 4 a long-awaited confirmation came from Kiev, “The Ukrainian side is confirming the guarantees for safety of the car with the boy”.

It was not that easy to receive them. By then the situation had gained a lot of publicity. There were also people who felt negative, utterly negative. Publicity is always a two-side coin. Without posting a story, it would not have been possible to draw attention to the situation and find people eager to help. By posting a story, it also touched off a reaction from those who wanted to use the situation for their own political purposes.

Early morning of June 5th Mikhail told on phone that the bombardment of the town had ceased. The previous evening there appeared news reports that the town was experiencing problems with electricity as the line had been damaged. The father calmed us down saying that the hospital still had electricity. “In case something happens, there is a generator with good supply of gasoline,”, Mikhail assured. Doctor Liza was supposed to reach Donetsk early morning the following day and drive to Slavyansk in a reanimation car, immediately drove back to Donetsk where the boy would stay in hospital overnight and then taken to the hospital in Rostov-on-Don with which, as Mikhail claimed, journalists with Russia’s NTV channel had reached agreement about the place for the boy. It is significant to note that neither journalists who the boy’s father mentioned had ever responded to our requests to coordinate the rescue. Doctor Liza herself contacted the hospital in Rostov-on-Don and they confirmed that they were really waiting for the baby from Slavyansk.

The boy’s parents insisted that the family be evacuated to Russia. For me their will was the ultimate priority. The family had all the rights to choose where to go. There were “I have been living in Ukraine since the age of 6, Mikhail told. - My wife is from Kharkiv. But she is afraid to move to even there”. He was vague in his explanations why they were so much afraid. The Ukrainian side insisted that they would be helped if they agreed to be taken to Kharkiv or Kiev. The parents refused to go there. In the situation when there was an official confirmation from Rostov-on-Don and only words from either Kiev or Kharkiv, I could not push the parents change their mind. There were moments when it looked that there were some people on either side who just wanted to use the case to demonstrate that their side was better than the other. However, all the people who were directly involved into organizing the evacuation, regardless of the side they were with, did all which would be for the baby’s benefit. “If the parents are firm in their decision to leave for Russia, they would be given such an opportunity”, the contact person with the Ukrainian military assured.

At around midday on June 5th, Mikhail told that the boy’s condition started to worsen. His temperature went up. The heart rate became very rapid, up to 180 knocks per minute. Mikhail sounded extremely anxious. He complained about a number of Russian media outlets which, in his words, were giving erroneous information. He told that the whole family had spent the night in the hospital ward together with the baby. It was when his wife Victoria had receiving a phone call from Moscow from a producer of some TV-shows, “When you are in Moscow, do come to our show”. Mikhail kept repeating, “Show… We are just show for them…” “Don’t feel hurt by them, I asked. They are of no concern. Just don’t talk to those who you don’t trust”, that was the only possible advice I could give him.

What happened soon after still remains a mystery. The same journalists with Russia’s NTV who had been always unreachable for both us and Doctor Liza had published an announcement entitled “Doctor Liza is rushing to Slavyansk to save a dying baby”. Doctor Liza was a bit surprised as she had received a phone call from NTV asking for comments but refused to give any. At that, NTV quoted her in their article as if she had been talking to them. Then the father stopped answering the phone calls. When we got through to his wife, she told that they had been taken to the neighboring town of Kramatorsk. It had happened long before the hour agreed for evacuation and without Doctor Liza’s escorting them in a well-equipped medical car.

The father finally answered the call. He was crying on phone, “I have lost the family. I am absolutely confused. I feel ashamed”. It was difficult to make out what he wanted to explain. Another shocking fact was that he was still in Slavyansk. “Why didn’t you leave the town together with the family?”, I just asked. “I was told that I would endanger them at the border”, he told. “Why? Who told you that? We were mediating with the Ukrainian side that the whole family would leave the town”, I was bewildered. “I told you I am a policeman. They told me I would be stopped at the border and sent to prison for 12 years”. It turned out that the “they” who warned Mikhail against leaving the town with the family were the same Russian journalists who remained so discreet while staying always by the family. They were the same journalists who were quoting Doctor Liza although she never commented on anything to them. They were the same journalists who took the sick baby from Slavyansk disconnected from a ventilation device. “Zhenya was in a doctor’s lap and he was giving him oxygen through a mask”, that is what the mother told me on phone when she claimed they were in Kramatorsk.

Having learnt all that, Doctor Liza made an attempt to try to influence the hasty rescuers not to endanger the boy’s life even more. They were even proposed that they would stop at any town on the way to the border, take the boy to the nearest hospital where he would stay overnight in a resurrection ward. In exchange, they would have been given a chance to shoot their reportage claiming that the boy was already in Russia. They were assured that the next morning they would be taken out of Ukraine.

It was the father who finally gave a hint of the route the car with the baby would probably take. We still continued to negotiate with the Ukrainian side that they would keep the safe corridors open and would not impede the vehicle crossing the border with Russia. Needless to say, the Ukrainian side was infuriated with the complete breach of all the agreements. They kept their word, despite everything. By midnight of June 5th the boy was delivered to the hospital in Rostov-on-Don. All those who were involved into organization of safe corridors sighed with relief that he had survived 400 km of non-stop drive. At the same time, all of us were appalled with reportage the NTV hastily published the same hour. It was entitled, “The NTV journalists have rescued the baby from Slavyansk”.

They risked the baby’s life, the lives of quite many other people with the sole purpose promote themselves, not even Russia as the life-savers. The logic of what NTV journalists hazarded to do would have been more comprehensible if they had published a piece on “Putin sending the rescue team for a baby”. Certainly, one could act in accordance with their own ethical standards. However, acting as a professional journalist applies additional responsibility, especially when a journalist works in an area of conflict. There they face a choice of either distorting the truth for the sake of deliberate misleading the public or providing a comprehensive account of facts.

On June 6th, Doctor Liza greeted her FB friends. She wrote, “I am making another attempt to say “Good morning”. Especially to those who are helping people in need despite war and personal opinions, despite the risk they are facing. However, there are other people who, unfortunately, put other people’s lives in danger to gain some weird and incomprehensible PR for themselves. They don’t even hesitate to expose other people to danger. Fortunately, there are a lot more people who never do it. Good day to everybody”. A few days later I received an unexpected comment from a TV-presenter affiliated with Russia’s 1st Channel. The person made an attempt to explain the developments around the baby-boy, “This is war. Each side has their own truth”. However, it refers only to a side in conflict which seems to be the reality for quite many Russian journalists connected with official media outlets.


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