It’s midnight. My cameraman and our taxi driver have been told to face the wall of a tumble-down farmhouse. The Russian photographer we’re with has already been blindfolded. I’m in the dark. A man in a mask and military fatigues has taken me aside to question me. He wants to know if I know members of the Jewish community in Moscow and the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk.
He’s a member of the secret police and he doesn’t believe me when I tell him I have no idea who the heads the Jewish diaspora are in either city. I answer with a question: Do you know who the head of the Ukrainian community is in Manhattan? He shrugs and sends me back to the others facing the wall.
My interrogator is an officer of the SBU, the Ukrainian security service that took over from the KGB after the break up of the Soviet Union. Now, for the most part, the SBU is busy fighting Russia-backed rebels and Russian agents in eastern Ukraine, but only a couple months ago they were working to disrupt the anti-government protests that toppled their Russia-friendly boss, former President Viktor Yanukovych. They were also implicated in the shootings that killed dozens of protestors in Kiev’s Independence Square this past winter.
A few hours earlier, filmmaker Freddie Paxton, photographer Petr Shelomovskiy, our driver and I had been captured by a convoy of Ukrainian troops. We filmed the convoy as it passed us and caught up to try to overtake it. Instead, soldiers blocked the road, stopped us, ordered us lie face-down on ground, before bundling us into the back of a truck with more than a dozen new recruits on their way to the battlefield for the first time.
The SBU picked through our things, sorting memory cards into one pile and papers into another. We’d registered with the SBU the previous day for the express purpose of avoiding this kind of a situation. But the apologetic spokesman for Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operation, Vladislav Seleznyov, said there was nothing he could do: “Now that this incident has happened, they have to follow their operational protocol; I have no influence over them. I’m really sorry.”
Another press officer, Alexei, recorded everything on a video camera for their records. During a break in questioning he asked me if I would take a picture with him. “I’m from Lviv. I’ve watched all of your reports. I love the Russian Roulette series. I never thought I’d get to meet you in person!”
As Alexei filmed, a SBU officer asked me to confirm that we hadn’t been mistreated and that no physical or psychological pressure had been applied to us. “Well,” I said, “You’ve got us facing a wall, you’ve blindfolded my colleague, and you’re not letting us go home; wouldn’t you call that psychological pressure?”
That’s when photographer Petr Shelomovskiy, piped up from behind his blindfold: “Can you uncover my eyes please?” “Okay, take the blindfold off,” the SBU officer said, reluctantly. It wasn’t our camera, but still, you can’t be too careful.
We spent the next two hours being questioned in turn, mostly about our Russian friend, Petr. “When you were in Sloviansk, did it seem like he had a personal relationship with the separatists? Where did you meet him? How can you be sure he’s not a Russian agent?” The fact that he’d been published in the New York Times that day wasn’t cutting it with this crowd. It was 2 AM on Wednesday, May 21 before we were released.
Our taxi driver, no doubt regretting the worst fare he’d ever landed, pulled the car up to a checkpoint, where we were told to wait for an escort. I thought, “nice of them to make sure we get home safe.”
“Out of the car! Into the jeep! Heads down!” Our escort had arrived. We were forced out of the car for the second time that day and hustled into a jeep, unable to see where we were going. It peeled out, turning left, then right, then right again, before pulling over to the other side of the road, in a bootless attempt to mask the location of their base. It was well known to journalists, and we’d personally visited two days before to interview the spokesman Seleznyov.
We were ordered out of the jeep and told to walk ten paces into a nearby field. A lot like if, say, you wanted to summarily execute some people by the side of a road. We looked back to see if they were cocking their weapons, but no. The soldiers got in their jeep and drove off, leaving us with the taxi, now crippled from rough riding on bumpy, potholed roads. We were stuck on a dangerous, empty highway, in a warzone, at night.
The next day I called Seleznyov to ask if he could take us down to the front line to film at one of the Ukrainian checkpoints. “I’m sorry. Not possible. It’s for your own security.”