Photographer Maximilian Clarke recounts his experiences at the hands of soldiers in Donetsk
“Where is this journalist?”, a heavy set fighter demanded before escorting me off the bus and into a small room filled with soldiers and cigarette smoke at a block post some 20km north-east of Donetsk.
Our bus from Artemivsk had sailed through a number of checkpoints on both sides of the line separating Ukraine from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic without mishap. But at the final checkpoint the young soldier checking the documents of passengers grew suspicious of me and the fact that I wasn’t carrying the correct documents and called to his superior. Carrying a DNR press card is mandatory in the ‘People’s Republic’ but as the only way to collect one is in person from the administration building in the centre of Donetsk, I had yet to possess one.
I had contacted the press centre the week before notifying them of my arrival and requesting their written acknowledgement of my trip in case of precisely this eventuality:
“Welcome to Donetsk!” came the reply. “You will not have any problems but if you do, call this number”. How wrong they were.
The soldiers began to ask a number of questions before making me turn out the contents of my bags. Two busied themselves by rifling through my possessions, while another made me trawl through every file on my laptop. Periodically, outgoing fire from what sounded like a small howitzer battery would cause the walls of the building to shake whilst further away the thunder of artillery could be heard on all sides.
As I continued to show and explain my photos, another fighter asked for my phone. My phone had been taken from me two days previously during another lengthy and tedious interrogation at a checkpoint on the Ukrainian side and my cheap replacement had just a handful of numbers and no outgoing or incoming calls. This aroused further suspicions and one soldier, convinced I was hiding something, began to shout:
“You are an American spy”, he yelled and in a moment that fills me with dread even as I recall it, unclicked the safety on his Kalashnikov, cocked it and pointed it directly at my face. “You are a spy”, he repeated.
Gripped by a wave of intense nausea inducing terror, my mind began to race. Would I even know if he pulled the trigger? My family certainly would as would my girlfriend and many people back home. Home. Why wasn’t I there? Why do I choose to put myself in these ridiculous situations? A feeling of bitter self-loathing crept in.
Eventually a smaller soldier in a white winter camouflage poncho stepped between me and the soldier whose rifle was still raised at my head and implored him to lower it. Then he turned to me and grinned with a mouth full of gold teeth, before gesturing that I should repack my bags and step outside where a car was waiting for me. After a brief drive sandwiched between two broad shouldered separatists, we arrived at a high walled compound where I was escorted into an office adorned with pictures of Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky.
An older man with a flat-topped crop of grey hair sat behind a desk and I was told to sit on a chair in the centre. My eyes couldn’t help but rest on a stout, heavy looking rubber truncheon hanging from the desk and the terror returned, manifesting itself this time as a persistent, dull ache throughout my entire body.
Again my computer came out as I again went though every single file stored on it and again two soldiers unpacked my bags and again trawled through my every possession in minute detail.
They continued to question me, asking the same few questions. I explained to them again and again that the press centre was expecting me and I had intended to collect my documents that afternoon. But with my limited Russian and their limited grasp of English, I was unable to elaborate much and their suspicions persisted.
From time to time someone would enter the room to collect or return a set of keys hanging from the desk. The compound was behind a manned steel gate that had been opened by sentries and by not by a key. I assumed the locks were for cells. I had noticed a narrow staircase by the front door leading to a dimly lit cellar. Were they down there? I felt a sudden pang of pity for the souls I imagined incarcerated down there. Each time the keys were moved, the truncheon swung from side to side.
After another hour or so a young woman entered the room and she spoke fluent English. She asked me to explain myself and the reason of my trip in minute detail: where was I from; where was I staying; for how long; who was I working for; who were my friends in Donetsk and a host of other tedious details too pointless to repeat.
After several hours and numerous phone calls, they eventually accepted my story; the feeling of relief was indescribable. But despite the constant fear in the back of my mind, no one had actually laid a finger on me and once they began to realise I was not an enemy provocateur, even made me a cup of tea. As I stood up and prepared to leave, bizarrely, the grey haired man raised his right hand in salute to me and wished me good luck.
Stepping back outside that grim, dread-filled building, the sky was illuminated by one of the most achingly beautiful sunsets I can recall. An inverted ocean of flame stretching across the entire sky casting a warm pink glow across the desolate, icy plains surrounding Donetsk. A fitting backdrop to accompany my sudden joy: I was free.
Maximilian Clarke first worked as a teacher in Afghanistan and then moved on to a local human rights organisation. He more recently been documenting the escalating crisis in Ukraine as a freelance photographer and has experienced everything from the riots in Kiev to the war in Donbass.
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