Welcome to The Luhansk People's Republic: Following the Russian convoy into rebel-held Ukraine

By Yasha Levine , written on August 26, 2014

From The News Desk

IZVARINO, LUHANSK PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC — It's around 12:30 pm and pushing 100 F when Russia’s humanitarian aid convoy finally starts rumbling across the Russian border and into rebel-held Ukrainian territory under heavy militia guard.

In the lead truck, a Russian Orthodox priest rides shotgun, armed with icons and holy water for good luck. There are 300 trucks in all — tank-like army KamAZ semis painted white for the occasion. They spew black exhaust and kick up clouds of grime as they crawl one by one out of the border checkpoint and into the grim Luhansk People's Republic (LNR), a breakaway pro-Russian separatist region on Ukraine’s eastern border.

I crossed the border into Ukraine on foot with the trucks. LNR’s militia controlled the Ukraine side of the checkpoint, but they were too busy dealing with the convoy. So I passed from Russia proper into rebel-held Ukraine without getting my documents checked.

Once inside this fledgling breakaway pro-Russian “republic,” I take stock of my surroundings.

Even before the war, this part of Ukraine had been among the poorest regions in Europe. After months of warfare, it looked like something out of post-Operation Freedom Iraq. The contrast between the Russian side and the Ukraine side is stunning.

A permanent cloud of dust hovers over everything. The main highway is pitted with giant potholes and craters. Stray dogs circle a smoldering trash heap. Most of the small shops and roadside kiosks have long since shuttered. The only place I see open is a tiny convenience store that offers a few token items brought over from Russia: bottled water, soda, cheap sugar cookies sold individually. Small groups of tired and worn-down Ukrainians gather in shady spots, most of them waiting to cross the border into Russia.

Armed men decked out in irregular camo uniforms wander around. Some have AK-47s, others long barreled sniper rifles. Even the official press guy for the Luhansk People’s Republic walks around strapped — a Makarov pistol on his hip. He tells me that before taking up press duties for the LNR (the Russian acronym for Luhansk People’s Republic), he had worked in the militia’s internal police/intelligence division, rooting out looters and thieves. I guess you can call it muckraking of sorts.

Before crossing over, I had been hanging out on the Russian side of the border for the past few days waiting for the convoy to move, and had seen a steady flow of Ukrainians coming in from rebel held territory. They were of all types: elderly couples, young families, groups of elderly ladies and plenty of LNR rebels. Some were fleeing for good, headed to a refugee camp on the other side, where they'd be processed, given refugee status and sent to some provincial town in Russia to start a new life. Others were seeking temporary shelter with relatives and friends. Most were simply making their routine pilgrimage for food, medicine or to just use an ATM machine to get cash.

This crossing was not a happy place. People would sob or get hysterical as you asked them about where they were coming from and where they were headed.

This isn’t surprising to anyone who’s followed the conflict. At least 1,000 civilians — and most likely many, many more — have been killed since the Ukrainian army began its brutal offensive against the Russia-backed rebel forces in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Ukrainian armed forces have been shelling and bombing cities, towns and villages in the rebel zone non-stop for the past three months. Even schools and hospitals routinely come under attack. There have been thousands of horrific, crippling injuries — mostly from shrapnel. Somewhere around 300,000 people have fled the region, with more than half taking refuge in Russia.

While Ukraine continues to deny it targets civilian areas, the evidence is overwhelming and comes from all sorts of sources: eyewitnesses, firsthand accounts by Russian and Western journalists, as well as NGOs. Human Rights Watch investigated multiple unguided rocket attacks on populated areas, and concluded that Ukraine’s military strategy “violates international humanitarian law” and “may amount to war crimes.”

Even here at the Ukraine-Russia border, with the active frontline more than an hour away, people streaming across bring tales of the death and destruction.

A group of women carrying large burlap sacks with their belongings say they finally decided to leave the nearby mining town of Krasnodon after a building next to theirs came under GRAD rocket attack. They are visibly shaken and say they are moving in with relatives in Russia.

A woman in her 80s who is crossing into Russia from Krasnodon seems resigned to her fate: “I guess we'll just die here." She says her son fled with his family to Kiev. “They didn’t even take any warm clothes. What are their kids going to do?”

There's a young doctor from Luhansk. He and his wife are taking their son to a water park for his birthday. The doc hands me a pocketful of metal fléchette darts —which apparently come from some kind of anti-personnel beehive weapon that explodes above a target and sends out thousands of tiny metal darts. They look just like the ones reportedly used by the IDF in Gaza. “This is American,” he says. “Keep them.” The doctor also whips out pictures of civilian injuries from the hospital in Luhansk — a young girl with chunks of flesh ripped out of her legs, another with a giant piece of shrapnel removed from her lower back. The doc shows all this off in full view of his kid.

It's gruesome. But people here are desensitized to this kind of stuff.

The journalist scene on the border crossing is just as glum and depressing. The convoy had been stuck on the Russian side of the border for over a week because the Red Cross was too chicken to accompany it without an official security guarantee from the Ukrainian government, a guarantee the Ukrainians were not too thrilled to offer. So while the Red Cross dithered, the aid convoy was stuck — and that meant a large pack of unruly, hungry reporters was stuck along with it.

They had ransacked the local scene for all the stories they could: stories about the local refugee camp, stories about the injured rebels in a local hospital, stories about Russian army gear entering Ukraine. Russian TV crews, which had been literally camped out on the Russian side of the border in trucks providing satellite feeds, would periodically stop Ukrainian civilians fleeing into Russia, digging for the most pathos-heavy, most violent stories. They weren’t always happy with the results. A reporter from state-run TV Tsentr was furious that two Ukrainian interviewees were too polite and smiled too much. “What kind of refugees are these?” Not everyone was playing their part correctly.

But now that the aid convoy is finally on the move, the journos are again in good spirits. They sprint over to the Ukrainian side of the border. TV correspondents do stand ups in front of a moving line of trucks, photojournalists snap photos of the half dozen people standing on holding signs supporting the convoy…

After the first few dozen KamAZ trucks pass the checkpoint and start driving deeper into Ukraine, I hop into a gypsy cab with a lone journalist from a Russian state TV channel, and we speed off after the convoy. The trucks are supposedly headed to the besieged city of Luhansk, located about 40 miles northwest of the border checkpoint, but no one is quite sure. We are set on following it as far as we can.

As we chase after the aid convoy, I learn that we’d be traveling through a combat zone controlled by fierce and jittery LNR rebel militia units. The area has been under siege by Ukrainian armed forces for months.

A few weeks earlier, it looked like the LNR’s days were numbered. Ukrainian forces seemed on the verge of taking Luhansk, having surrounded much of it. But the rebels — fortified with volunteers and weapons pouring in from Russia  — scored a series of surprise victories in counterattacks, and routed the Ukrainians’ advance. With the counteroffensive barely over, tensions in the region were riding high and there were checkpoints everywhere. Journalists — especially journalists with American passports like me —  wouldn’t make it far without some official accreditation from the Donetsk or Luhansk People’s Republics. I’d either be turned back or taken in for questioning...

Pando might be a household name in San Francisco, but it doesn't have much currency out here in the mean coal mining backwater lands of Eastern Ukraine. So I'm hoping that a Russian state TV journo — my riding companion — would be my ticket into the war zone.

We catch up with the first segment of the convoy — just a few dozen trucks, led by an agitated rebel in a VW van.

He heads straight up the the main Izvarino-Luhansk highway, which passes through Krasnodon, a small mining town about 10 miles from the border.

Krasnodon’s main drag is packed with people waiting for busses to go the other way, out to the Russian border. Armed militia men hold positions on just about every corner. The aid convoy speeds through town, running red lights and pushing all other traffic out of the way. But when we reach the other edge of Krasnodon, the entire of column of trucks suddenly starts pulling over and turning around.

Is there fighting ahead? Is the road somehow compromised?

It isn't clear. For whatever reason, the rebels have decided to change our route. We double back almost all the way to the Russian border and turn off onto a shitty backroad that snakes north along the Ukrainian-Russian border.

To our right, I can see a slag heap of a now-defunct Soviet coal mining settlements on the Russian side of the border. A day earlier, while we were still stuck on the Russian border, I walked around the neighborhood to get a sense of just how porous the border really was — it had once been a thriving neighborhood, but was now almost entirely depopulated — until I got chased out by a scary old man with a rusty grim reaper scythe. He had a tuft of snow white hair, leathery bronze skin, a pencil thin mustache and was wearing nothing but soiled euro-style briefs. He shuffled towards me menacingly, swinging the damn thing in my general direction, convinced I was some kind of Banderite fascist spy. No joke.

As the convoy keeps heading north up the Ukrainian side of the border, we run into a long convoy of green Kamaz trucks going the opposite direction. They are green army trucks — very similar to the Russian army trucks that I and other journalists had spotted lumbering towards the Ukrainian border late at night the day before.

Are they the same ones? Are these army trucks resupplying rebels in Ukraine?

I can't tell. But at this point, there is no doubt that Russia is outfitting anti-Kiev rebels with weapons and manpower. About a week before I got to the border here, Roland Oliphant and Shaun Walker  spotted a column of Russian armor casually driving through a gap in the border fence. Russia may deny it, but at this point it is doing very little to hide its involvement. The border is huge and porous. Why drive a bunch of armor into Ukraine at the one spot that was crawling with bored journalists? It seemed like they wanted us to know — either that, or there was an Ivan Chonkin type managing the arms supplies.

We keep driving north. At some point, our taxi maneuvers us into position directly behind the lead rebel car. After a while, our tailing the rebel van annoys the driver. He pulls over, storms up to our car and demands to know: “Who are you that you think you can follow me?”

Nerves are high, for obvious reasons...

The Russian state TV journo in our car shows the rebel driver his media accreditations — Russian and LNR — but that doesn't satisfy him. He finds some tiny discrepancy in the documents — there is always something wrong with a Russian document, for situations just like this. So he calls in another guy from a different car and they both demand an explanation for the tiny discrepancy before letting us go on. Oddly enough, they pay no attention to me at all.

I'm surprised that a Russian State TV reporter is getting hassled and not getting VIP treatment. In fact, he is surprised, too. Last time he was here the mere mention of Russian TV worked like a charm, got him nothing but cordial smiles. Not anymore.

“There are a lot of new faces. Fewer locals," he says. “Don't speak too much — or better yet, don't say anything,” he warns me after the rebels finally cleared us for passage. He is afraid that they’d notice the slight American accent in my Russian.

We keep driving on up the narrow road, veering from side to side to avoid giant potholes and sucking on a cloud of dust.

About an hour into our journey, the sides of the road narrow and we enter a shallower ravine, lush and thick with trees and foliage. The woods are suddenly crawling with armed militia members — some are camped out deeper in the foliage, but there are armed sentries every 100 meters or so. Some of these guys are scary-as-shit thugs, hardened fighters and killers. Others are younger and softer looking - you can tell they aren't very experienced. There’s no military draft in the LNR, but until recently the local government forbade able men between the ages of 18 and 60 from crossing the border into Russia, which all but assured a higher rate of “volunteers.” Maybe some of the newer guys were “recruits”…

The ravine narrows even more and we enter a tiny Ukrainian village that has been converted into a small army base. Tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks and other gear are tucked under trees, parked between dilapidated wooden houses and camouflaged. One tank — either a T-84 or a T-90 — is parked at a mound at a bend in the road, its giant barrel pointing at oncoming traffic. There is even at least one truck mounted anti-aircraft machine gun — its wide twin barrels pointed up to the sky. Some of the gear has “UKR” painted in white on the sides. And there are plenty of fighters. Some are bumming cigarettes from passing vehicles, others are lounging in the grass with not much to do. All the while, local villagers are going about their daily business.

It is an impressive collection of firepower this far away from the front. It doesn't feel or look like an army that was losing or retreating.

The road turns west and enters into flat land with blooming fields of sunflowers. A bombed out military truck stands on the side of the highway, it isn't clear who it belonged to or when it was destroyed. We see three plumes of thin black smoke rising up. My Russian TV colleague insists that they are the result of a Ukrainian attack. Our driver disagrees — he says there is really no way to tell what the smoke was coming from.

We are about 15 miles from Luhansk when my Russian colleague says he wants to turn around and go back. We aren't equipped for operating in a live combat zone — no flack jackets, no helmets, not even a band-aid. So we turn around.

When we get back a few hours later, I read online that Ukraine’s government is making the absurd claim that Russia’s humanitarian convoy is a “direct invasion” — which would have meant that I was embedded with an invading army. Meanwhile, Russian TV is broadcasting fake evidence that the convoy had come under attack by Ukrainian armed forces.

Suddenly there I was, one foot in the real war, one foot in the information war.

Next: Hanging with rebels on R&R in Russia…