Are you with us or against us?

Journalists in the Ukraine are either 'nashi' or 'vashi'. Ours or theirs.

Eto nashi? He has turned his back to us, but through the scratching of the walkie-talkie, his superior’s question cuts through the nervous air. Eto nashi? Russian for: Are they ours? Meaning, are these journalists Russian, and therefore supporters of our cause? Meaning, if they’re not, they will not be allowed entry to the rebel-held Ukrainian city of Luhansk.

The commander of the checkpoint swings around towards us again, revealing his bloodshot eyes and letting our driver almost taste the alcohol on his breath as he looks into the car and barks down the walkie-talkie. No, they’re European!

Nyet! Of course not.

We’ve struggled to make it through at least ten Ukrainian army checkpoints to get to here, with warning shots fired over the car at the latest. In their opinion, we weren’t moving the right way fast enough. It’s 5PM, and we’ve been driving since 8 to get to this rebel city, where a Russian humanitarian convoy is to arrive today.  But now, after nine hours of driving on crazy roads dotted with the impacts of Grad missiles, we seem to have come to the end of the line.

We try one more time to ask the commander how we can document the distribution of Russian aid to the civilians of Luhansk if they won’t let us enter the city, and before he answers, the deep roaring of heavy impacts makes us all pause for a second.

Then his mouth opens in a teasing smile and he asks: Do you really still think it’s humanitarian aid?

Nobody really has a ready answer for that, and a younger guy approaches our bus and asks to see our phones. I’ve learned already that this is a classic and very dangerous ploy. You really do not want to show your contacts, pictures or emails to anyone in this conflict, as the typical conclusion is that you’re a spy.

My Ukrainian friend and colleague is in the front seat of our minibus, and the rebel, armed with a Kalashnikov, hunting knife and pistol, leans in to get a closer look at his pictures. Even though I’m sitting two seats back from him, I can feel the fear pumping through his veins. I ask him to ask the guy why they care, if they’re not going to let us through anyway. They let us go, and we do a U-turn. We don’t stop the car until we’re visibly out of sight, and I can see my friend in the front feverishly deleting pictures from the day before. That day we were at the front on the Ukrainian side, and there were several pictures with me filming the soldiers.

People have been taken hostage here for a lot less. But that was not our destiny.

This trip to Ukraine was probably around my tenth in six months. I’ve watched this conflict deepen into full-scale hate, full-scale violence and full-scale war. The hate, violence, suspicions and generally annoying conduct is not exclusively on the rebel side.

A week before being turned away from this scruffy checkpoint with breath held and palms sweating, I was subjected to my first interrogation ever. Standing in the immigration queue in Kiev, chatting with a new colleague, I lost track of my papers and didn’t notice the little white paper stuck in my passport.

I keep my passport in a black leather case, so as not to proclaim where I’m from. It’s just easier that way. It also has pockets for all the different accreditation cards needed in different countries. And it hit me the split second the officer opened the case and, as if in slow motion, pulled out that little white paper.

Please wait, ma’am. Oooh fuck!

Fewer than 20 seconds pass, and the officer returns flanked by two others. Both armed.

Please come with us, ma’am.

After the first round of “why do you have that little white paper, why do you travel so much in Russia, how come you’re interested in Ukraine?” my colleague and I are put in a grey, sparsely decorated room.

That little paper said that I was accredited from the People’s Republic of Donetsk. The rebels. A paper you really need to have on you to work in the Donetsk Region, and for sure not a paper you want to have on you at the Ukrainian immigration office in Kiev.

Eto nashi?

Though I don’t hear the question here, it’s been asked and answered. A happy looking officer informs me that deportation has been taken off the table. Great news—so what are we waiting for?

Just some senior officers from the intelligence agency, he says. And we’re off again for round two. The same questions, and then the: “Can we look at your phone?” Erm, I’d rather not.

Would you like to show us your pictures yourself, or would you rather we look ourselves? And so, we shuffle through hundreds of pictures and I answer hundreds of questions. Mostly with: “I don’t know”. As they want names and locations of rebel representatives and I neither have them in my phone nor do I want to provide anybody with that kind of information.

After four hours, no restroom, no water, no information, but a small apology for the inconvenience, we’re let through. Unlike Russian journalists, who have not been allowed in Ukraine for months and are now forced to cross into the country illegally if they want to cover the war.

Even though I prefer to look at myself and my job as fully and wholly my own, the rest of Ukraine doesn’t. Journalists are either nashi or vashi. Ours or theirs. M


By Matilde Kimer

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