KRASNY LUCH, Ukraine—They were on edge and ready to shoot. They had “nothing to lose,” they said, after two of their militia comrades were killed a few hours earlier in a firefight with Ukrainian border forces. A big sign by the barricade said this was the People’s Republic of Luhansk, one of the self-declared breakaway states now struggling to survive in the east of the country near the Russian frontier.
The checkpoint had been set up at Krasny Luch, a mining town less than 30 kilometers from the border, and was guarded by gloomy looking militia, some of whom admitted they were former secret service officers. We knew as we approached that this roadblock was supposed to be one of the most difficult to get through in the region.
“I told you, we were not some bloodthirsty barbarians.”
Several men approached the car, one of them was training his rifle on us. They checked our accreditations. I and my two colleagues had gotten People’s Republic of Donetsk press credentials in the neighboring region, so they let us pass. But, then, something made them change their minds. Minutes after they’d waved us through the checkpoint, a black Toyota Camry came rushing up, pulled in front of us and blocked our way. A militia member in black pants ran toward us, yelling that we should stop using our cell phones.
“I will shoot, I have nothing to lose,” he said.
The rebel militia checked the photographs on our mobiles and on the cameras of Stanley Greene, a famous war photographer who was traveling with us.
The tension increased. We were told that we came to the Luhansk region “at the worst moment.”
Our car was turned back to the checkpoint, where angry interrogators questioned us about our day. “That’s it, I think you have arrived,” said the rebel commander, a stout man with rough, reddened face. It sounded like he meant our journey was over, which would be very bad news indeed. He called someone on his phone, and the decision was made to take us to “korobka” (a box), which we understood to mean a headquarters in the town of Antratsit. Worse news: we knew that local rebels in that area had detained four members of an observer mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
A gunman with a black mask over his face got into our car while another automobile full of armed militia drove ahead of us, taking us deeper into what seemed a no-man’s land where uniformed militiamen positioned themselves at checkpoints every few kilometers. The rebel in the car received a call from his commander. “Got you,” he said and demanded we give all our cell phones to him.
His name was Alexander, and he had a rifle in his hands, but the eyes you could see through the slit in the mask looked friendly. As much as he could, he tried to comfort us. He said we would be okay, that we could go back to Donetsk that same day. He even invited us to come back to the Luhansk region after the war and go mushroom picking with him.
But that day seems very distant just now. Earlier on Saturday, the Ukrainian border patrol brought four of its wounded soldiers from Luhansk to a hospital in Amvrosyevka. Outside, Ukrainian Lieutenant Colonel Vasily Polevoi explained that the fighting on Saturday morning was the continuation of previous attempts by Luhansk rebels to establish a better control of the region. “There are multiple hot spots in the area along the border,” Polevoi said.
The trip from Krasny Luch to Antratsit took about 30 minutes, but it felt much longer as we seemed to be traveling down a corridor completely under rebel—or perhaps Russian—control. At every checkpoint our interrogators waved to other members of the militia on the barricades as if to good friends, there among the sandbags and tires decorated with flags of the People’s Republic of Luhansk, flags of the Donbass Defense Forces and various placards. One of them on top of a pile of tires said, simply, “mines,” like the kind you dig, not the kind that blow you up. Antratsit was a small mining town.
A group of local people gathered in a park on the side of the road. It was hard to say whether they were protesting or waiting for something; otherwise, most of the city looked deserted. The parking in front of the “Box” headquarters had both military and civilian vehicles in it. About a dozen militiamen were hanging around it, including a uniformed woman with bright red hair. As we looked at mattresses and pillows piled up in the windows of the barricaded building, each of us wondered how long our detention might last and whether there were other prisoners behind those cluttered windows.
The decision maker turned out to be a gray-haired Cossack ataman, or commander, in a traditional sheepskin hat. He immediately decided to let us go and asked his militia to escort us out to the closest checkpoint. Our convoy driver Alexander looked at me: “I told you, we were not some bloodthirsty barbarians, as they are trying to present us.”
As we were driving back along the barricaded highways of the separatist People’s Republic of Luhansk back to Donetsk, the capital of the breakaway People’s Republic of Donetsk, we did not see a single Ukrainian flag; no sign of Ukrainian presence.