HORLIVKA, Ukraine — The pro-Russia militants who stood guard at one of the tire-strewn checkpoints littering eastern Ukraine presented a fearsome picture on Friday morning, their faces wrapped in black ski masks and pistols tucked into their body armor.
But with a new government offensive underway in the nearby city of Slovyansk — the militants’ capital of sorts about 30 miles down the road — they also seemed confused and afraid. As we pulled up the men became unsettled. They weren’t sure what to do about the American inside. Could a Western journalist be trusted, or might he be a spy? They directed our driver to pull over to the side.
The campaign in Russian media against the U.S. had lately been running on high. On Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry repeated claims that the U.S. was to blame for the violence. It’s a trope repeated endlessly by Moscow’s state-run media. “Do you know the things America has been doing here?” one man asked angrily; another said: “I should kill you right here.”
What remains unclear is if the crackdown on journalists — done through the brute force of kidnapping — is a result of the chaos on the ground or a directive from on high. Russian media operates largely freely in the region, fueling suspicion that critical views are being purposefully scared off as a new stage in the conflict begins.
With the threat of war rising, these suspicions seemed to have kicked into overdrive. The ragtag militants may or may not have had orders to specifically target journalists today; those at the checkpoint seemed to be amateurs, there for the cause, or maybe just the rush. But they also seemed to feel that Western journalists were the enemy. A man in fatigues made a call on his radio, and a dark SUV arrived with a tall local businessman who appeared to be in charge. Soon after my translator and I were forced into a car and driven away.
Outside a nearby government building that had been converted into a base for the militants, there were other journalists being held, about 10 Western reporters and their local staff. The journalists were put into a mini-bus and blindfolded with towels over their eyes wrapped with masking tape.
As the bus pulled away, the armed and masked captors inside alternated between loud warnings to keep silent and quieter assurances that everything would be OK.
The drive was maybe an hour long, winding through bumpy side roads and highways, the captors likely going a roundabout way to avoid government checkpoints. At one point, someone asked for directions. When the bus approached other pro-Russian checkpoints, meanwhile, the armed men inside cocked their guns. The militants couldn’t even trust themselves, or their supposed allies.
This only reinforced the sense in eastern Ukraine that confusion now reigns supreme, a situation made worse by the increasing difficulty for journalists to cover it. Ukrainian reporters in the region are regularly reporting threats; some, like a growing number of pro-Kiev activists, have fled. No one seemed to know what exactly was going on in Slovyansk, and an information war over the day’s events was already raging, with Russia accusing the authorities in Kiev of firing on its own people in Slovyansk while Kiev said that the separatist rebels who shot down a helicopter in the region Friday morning could not have done so on their own.
The mini-bus finally came to a stop at a local security building turned militant headquarters in the small city of Horlivka. We were perp-walked into something like a storage shed, pushed up against the cement walls, and told to spread our legs on the dirt floor. One of the blindfolded women in the group began to cry. “Please don’t hurt us,” she said.
There was an English speaker among the militants, a woman who alternately intimidated the captives and tried to console them, saying they would soon go home to their families, and insisting that the possessions removed from their person would be returned.
She decided to perform an interrogation on the prisoners, to determine that they were really who they claimed to be. The questions were basic, almost laughable, as if a regular person — which most of the captors certainly were — were trying hard to act like they thought a hostage-taker should.
To prove that I was a U.S. citizen as advertised, the woman asked me to name the U.S. capital, then to pronounce the word “garden.” I passed, but a British journalist wasn’t so lucky, receiving two stiff punches from one of the armed men when the English-speaking woman questioned the integrity of his accent. “Are you American?” the woman demanded of the poor man.
A translator in the room overhead the captors discussing the idea of keeping the journalists as hostages, but instead they began to cut off their blindfolds with a buck knife, one by one. The woman — young and petite, wearing pink nail polish, a ski mask, and a sparkly black watch — insisted that they count their money and affirm that nothing but the bulletproof vests and helmets of the journalists were missing. Asked about the fate of those, she said the militants needed them and would keep them. “Something for us to remember you by.” I asked if my body armor and helmet would ever be returned, and someone suggested that I call when the war was over and “we don’t need them anymore.”
Around three hours after we were first arrested, we found ourselves in the surreal situation of being served tea in plastics cups by our captors. As we drank, two of them felt the need to explain to us why we’d been taken in the first place. They mentioned the rumors they’d heard of the violence of the Ukrainian government raid in Slovyansk and seemed to suggest, in effect, that they’d been overcome by the emotion and confusion of the situation. Asked if they thought it was possible for journalists to visit Slovyansk, they seemed not to know.
Though everyone was too afraid to take notes, the men answered questions in front of the half-circle of dazed journalists in the shed, in what had the feel of a hastily organized press conference — their own contribution to this increasingly murky information war.