The ugliness of war makes getting at the truth no easy matter. In the fighting in eastern Ukraine, the pro-Ukraine media is blaming all abuses on anti-Kiev insurgents and pro-Russia media is demonizing Ukrainian government forces. The intense information war, with the media and social networks spewing all sorts of horrific myths and falsehoods, has buried rather than clarified the truth in a calculated attempt to prove that this side is righteous and that side is evil.
So, if you want to find out what really happened, you need to be there, speak in detail to witnesses, carefully document casualties and destruction, examine shell entry points and fragments. When we read news reports about alleged civilian casualties from the July 2 aerial strikes in the Luhansk region of southeastern Ukraine, about 15 kilometers away from the Russian border, we hit the road straight away.
Ukrainian authorities denied responsibility for the attacks that hit the villages of Luhanskaya and Kondrashevka. They tried to blame the attacks on Russia first, suggesting that the villages were hit from a Russian jet, which sounded rather ludicrous as the region is controlled by pro-Russia insurgents. Then, they said that people died and homes were damaged as a result of insurgent fire from GRAD multiple rocket launchers. The latter version did not seem too credible either.
Before entering Luhanskaya village, we made a quick stop in Luhansk itself. Numerous media sources and bloggers claimed that fighting between Ukrainian forces and insurgents was in progress, but in fact the city seemed quiet, even sleepy, small children riding their bikes in the streets, shops and cafes bustling with customers. When we arrived at the local administration, however, this illusion of normalcy vanished immediately. Since April, insurgents have occupied the administration building, reportedly holding numerous captives in its basement. In the lobby, lots of men in fatigues with Kalashnikov assault rifles and combat knives were being waved through by security guards next to a sign, “Give up your weapon at this entry point.” Next to that sign, a picturesque poster featured two large photographs of a prominent journalist from Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s leading independent paper, describing her as an “enemy” and “provocateur” who was supposedly on the way to the region and had to be stopped.
I stepped outside to quickly call the paper and was almost knocked down by a slim blonde who ran after me. Tears were streaming down her face as she pulled a cigarette out of a pack and begged for a lighter. I lit her cigarette, and between deep drags and hiccupping sobs, the woman blurted out that her “dearest men in the world,” her husband and brother, were both in the basement, held by local insurgent forces on suspicion of sympathizing with the Ukrainian government. Armed men in fatigues came after them the day before. When she tried to pass some insulin on to her diabetic husband one of his captors yelled, “He won’t need it anymore, you can stick it up your ass!” We went back inside and in another 10 minutes one of the guards deigned to hear the woman out. He listened, nodded, picked up his radio, and uttered, “Basement? Yeah, listen, do you have X and Y? I see…” He switched off the radio and turned to the crying woman. “So, why are you asking those questions? You know why they were taken away.” He finally agreed to take the insulin and the woman left.
During the 30 minutes that we spent in the building’s lobby, waiting for an official while aggressive armed men were rushing past us, we saw a mother whose son was also held captive. She said the insurgents demanded US$5,000 for his release but the family had no money, and he called her recently from his captors’ phone crying and saying he’d be killed unless the ransom is paid promptly. Then a middle-aged local businessman entered, his face black and blue and swollen, complaining to the insurgents that he was beaten by “your people” a few hours earlier, and the assailants took away his car as well as all his valuables.
I could’ve stood there all day, but I knew how important it was to go to the villages. And the villages, it turned out, sustained a nightmare of an entirely different sort.
Luhanskaya village appeared deserted. For a while, we were driving around the silent streets, then finally saw a man peeping out of a house. He said the funerals had already happened and gave us directions to the street hit in the July 2 attacks.
A young couple, Katya and Alexei, led us into what remained of their home – the house built by Katya’s ancestors 203 years ago. Rubble, shards of glass, damaged walls and roof. A shaggy dog with a bloodied rear lying flat on the floor, its eyes full of suffering, and not even budging as several strangers walk in the house. Katya said that there was artillery shelling over night on July 1-2, and they hid in the local shelter with some 50 other villagers, returned home when things quieted down after 4 a.m. and went to sleep. They were awakened by a thunderous noise around 10:30 a.m. on July 2, as their beloved house was collapsing upon then, debris flying in all directions. Alexei covered Katya with his body. Both somehow were unharmed. They no longer have a home and appear shell-shocked. “This house survived World War II. How could it happen at all? Is this our punishment for living not far from the [insurgents’] checkpoint? Does this make us terrorists?” The checkpoint is indeed some 700 to 800 meters away, on a small hill. None of the villagers questioned gave any indication that insurgents were in the village the night of the attack. And as we wander around, we just see civilians who are numb with fear.
Stas, a young father of a three-year-old, is showing us around his largely destroyed family home. He says his daughter was napping as he heard the rumble of a plane and looked out the window trying to see where the jet was – then, the wooshing sound almost deafened him and he screamed to his wife and daughter, “Run, run!”
He said they literally rolled down the stairs. His wife is badly bruised. His daughter, whose favorite Barbie doll is lying abandoned on the edge of the bathtub, is utterly traumatized and cannot sleep through the night. Stas’s family is staying in Luhansk with relatives while he stayed behind to clean out the rubble and salvage whatever belongings aren’t beyond saving.
We walk through six destroyed houses on Donbas-Moskva Street and people tell us about the plane, the noise, and a neighbor and his visiting friend who both died – but keep flagging that in the neighboring Kandrashevka things are much worse, with the entire Ostrovskogo Street basically “wiped out,” and insist that chunks of human flesh were hanging off trees and fences.
Indeed in Kandrashevka, which is 3 kilometers from the insurgents’ checkpoint, nine houses were destroyed, including two four-apartment homes razed to the ground by fire resulting from explosions. Another two are notably damaged. As we collect fragments of undetermined explosive weapons, measure the entry points for size (two meters in diameter suggests airstrikes – and there seem to be no traces of GRAD rockets) and photograph what’s left of the street, elderly women are combing through backyards in search of the scattered remains of their loved ones left behind.
Though the funerals had already taken place, there is still that sickening, sweetish smell in the air. Women and men, young and old, tell us about the plane appearing in the sky close to noon on July 2, the noise, the awfulness, and worst of all, the loss of family members and neighbors. They jot down the names of the dead, including a 5-year-old boy whose legs had been torn off before he died of blood loss. He had happily celebrated his birthday with family and friends the previous day. They describe the state the bodies were in and how the walls and the fences were dripping blood. People are crying. Some have their limbs and faces scratched and burned. Their stories are consistent and need to be heard beyond the reaches of the village. And given the civilian losses, a thorough and impartial Ukrainian government investigation is necessary.
Our quick visit is not enough to determine who carried out these attacks, and whether they violate international humanitarian law. We certainly documented loss of civilian life and property, and if indeed there were no insurgents deployed in these villages at the time, the attacks would have been unlawful. Reaching judgments on these issues is not easy, and a deeper investigation into the actions of both sides is needed.
Meanwhile, international law is quite clear about holding civilians captive and torturing anyone in custody. Those responsible for abuses need to be prosecuted. Any war is ugly and we’re there to tell the story – and to make sure there is justice for the victims of war’s atrocities.