– “Zhurnalisty! (journalists)
– “Portuhalʹsʹki zhurnalisty (Portuguese journalists).
Alex explains who we are to the Ukrainian military peering into the car after having already requested identification documents – both personal and for the vehicle – as they ask where we are heading.
– “Bashtanka”! (the name of the location, situated between Mykolaiev, the buffer city against the Russian advance on the southern front, and Kherson, already occupied by the invading forces) explains our driver and causing a mini-conference among the soldiers and police who were manning the checkpoint with their Kalashnikovs drawn, the umpteenth we’d encountered since leaving Odessa over two hours earlier.
The response drew the attention of an officer.
– “Ziydy z dorohy! Potyahnutysya do krayu!” (Get off the road! Pull up by the kerb!) – the officer ordered, pointing to a queue that already contained various other vehicles and their assorted occupants.
Then, on hearing that I and Rodrigo Lobo (the RTP cameraman with whom I was dispatched to southern Ukraine) were Portuguese journalists, he asked for our passports and then the credential issued by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, which were photographed on his smartphone and sent off for verification by the state security services.
Patience. In large quantities. One of the many requirements for working as a journalist in a warzone. And particularly so in this case given how the suspicions of the military, police and secret services had multiplied in keeping with evidence of infiltration by spies and informers identifying targets for Russian artillery strikes.
-“Bez vyshchoho dozvolu ne mozhna khodyty na Bashtanka! Ts’oho razu tse zona boyovykh diy!” (Without higher authorisation, you cannot go to Bashtanka. At this moment, it’s a warzone!”) – the officer stated. Alex tried to argue that we had been authorised by the spokesperson of the Ukrainian armed forces in Mykolaiev, Lieutenant-colonel Dmytro Pletenchuk, to visit the recently bombed town but this did little to appease the officer’s mistrust.
Our ‘fixer’, Maria Gorbunova, stepped into action and called Dmytro and, when he answered, told him about the situation we were stuck in. She put him on the phone talking to the checkpoint officer and the thick-set expression on his face was giving way to the faint outline of a smile in less than a minute.
-“ Mozhe sliduvaty. Vse harazd!” (You can go. It’s all ok!) – he gestured to Alex, while indicating to the soldier to move away from the front of the car.
Back on the road but with an added concern. The half-hour lost at this checkpoint had already eaten in to the margin available for the report, from close proximity to the front lines, as there was still the need to do over 200 kilometres in the opposite direction, get back to Odessa before the curfew and edit the report for the Telejornal (RTP1) evening news broadcast for which it would still need subtitling.
However, after the decades of journalism already experienced (39 years), a third of which spent in complicated scenarios, I return my focus to where it should be, particularly at such times; attentive to the not always obvious signs of danger.
Alex pushes on the motor of his Daewoo Nexia. The 107 horse-power seem to be in top form despite the ten years of the vehicle accelerating its way along the twisting road running between fertile agricultural lands, the natural wealth of one of Europe’s largest cereal producers.
The road divides at the site of yet another checkpoint. Behind the sandbags protecting the military unit, there stands the road sign, left to Bashtanka, and straight on to Kherson and, by the side of this junction, a few dozen metres from the checkpoint, the remains of two military vehicles.
Once again, the same questions, the same checks, the same patience. When insecurity becomes routine. Now, deepened by the proximity to the frontline of combat. Loosening the bulletproof jacket to “fish” for my journalist credentials was a gesture that attracted the looks of two soldiers who, with tired looks, stood guard over the intruders.
– “Vse dobre!” (It’s all okay!)
We turn left, crossing a short bridge and coming across the first sign of the impact of Russian artillery; in front of us stood a burned-out ruin that had, until a few days ago, housed a pharmacy, the “Аптека АНЦ (with only the letters “A” and “H” still surviving) but what drew my attention was the figure, flanked by a colourful mosaic, of an astronaut alongside a rocket.
I approach from the left side of the building and finally understand the reason that figure seemed familiar to me; it’s a depiction of Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to travel in space in 1961 (an area that has fascinated me ever since I was a young lad).
The twists that life has; the Russian missile destroyed a façade paying honour to the man who sixty years earlier had placed Moscow in the lead in the space race at the height of the Cold War. With the same “blindness” applied to the other projectiles that hit the Bashtanka hospital in the same mid-afternoon bombardment.
– “There was an operation taking place when the explosion happened. The shockwave blew out the windows and doors of this entire ward. Thankfully there were no deaths. The operation was to amputate the hand of a civilian” – describes Alena Vasilievna, the hospital clinical director.
On the operating table, there was a civilian who had been wounded days earlier by Russian artillery fire. Only by chance had there been no fatalities;
– “During the war, this clinic is open until 3pm… the explosion took place after 3pm” – the doctor explained, pointing to the building with its corner left in ruins by the shelling. “If that had happened earlier, with the clinic open for appointments, there’d have been a massacre”.
The force of the explosion is clear throughout the building’s structure, the last hospital located before the frontline. The operating block, located in another wing, escaped the bombing but the appointment rooms for the radiology department were destroyed in an increasingly frequent situation caused by a strategy that does not even exclude targeting the emergency services.
The witness account comes from Svitlana Sokol, the senior hospital paramedic who described the most recent incidents experienced by her team when one of the ambulances got hit while tending to victims from a previous attack in a nearby rural zone:
“We were leaving Bashtanka when there was another bombardment”, she explained. “We came across an entire family with wounds… children, including a one-year old baby. And even animals hit by shrapnel. The ambulance itself also got hit”.
Next to the paramedic, the end of a twisted red metal sheet jutted out from among the blocks of pulverised cement. This was the remains of the door to the boiler room hit by the missile. Rodrigo and I climbed some stairs at the back and looked out over the effects of the impact and explosion of the missile.
Particularly shocking was the scenario awaiting in the room signposted as for mammography scans; the radiology machinery destroyed, projected against a wall along with the remains of window frames, ripped out by the blast, the flooring covered with shards of glass and the remains of various things and through which we made our way carefully.
Present, in my recent memory – days before travelling to the Ukraine – the vehement protests of the Russian ambassador to the United Nations Security Council, Vassiy Nebenzia, when confronted with evidence just like that which we witnessed ourselves in the terrain. A position seconded by the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova; “Of course this is all lies!” – she guaranteed in Moscow about events taking place thousands of kilometres away.
We leave the hospital and return to the centre of Bashtanka. We stop next to a supermarket with the windows boarded up and reinforced by sandbags. The bulletproof vests clearly labelled with “Press” attract the attention of a military patrol who approach us with their AK-47s out. Once again, we get asked for our credentials and our passports that are again photographed by smartphone for verification at the “other end of the line”. They stayed there, surrounding us, until receiving the green light to let us move on; in the meantime making us the centre of suspicious looks from passers-by.
One of them came out of the supermarket – when we’d already been released from our temporary detention – and agreed to talk on camera to RTP; while awaiting the signal from Rodrigo Lobo to begin the interview, I hear “rosiysʹkoho telebachennya”! (Russian television!). I didn’t immediately get it but it sounded something about Russian and was stated in a hostile tone. I ask Alex what the people are saying and he translates. He warns me that they are confusing the RTP abbreviation with that of a Russian television station and right in a location under bombardment.
Our driver then swiftly explains to them that we are Portuguese. From a Portuguese T.V. station. And the agitation that had been building up fast disappeared as quickly as it’d begun. However, the warning was made; that microphone “cube” is unadvisable in zones under Russian occupation.
“The risk of getting taken out by a sniper or some other “bad luck” by somebody desperate at all the atrocities the Russians are doing to our civilians” – a Ukrainian soldier warns us after the initial hostility dissipated into warmth.
I again engage in conversation with our potential interviewee. However, I have to wait for the precious help of our ‘fixer’, who was meanwhile attempting to calm the owner of the supermarket who was determined to get us far away from her establishment.
– “She’s telling me that we put her store in danger if we film here! That the Russians might bomb the supermarket as they’ve already done to other places in Bashtanka!” – Maria explained to me.
– “I told her please, we’ll be leaving immediately! It’s just to interview this gentleman….” – in response while approaching the middle-aged man who’d begun to tie his bags of shopping with hooks and elastics to the back of his motorbike, which was in a very praiseworthy state of maintenance.
I explained to him that I shared his passion for motorbikes as my maternal grandfather would ride one to travel to a distant land called the Alentejo. He smiled at the sound of the name. Having broken the silence and in exchange for me presenting myself as António, backed up by extending my hand, he offered me his and told me he was called Yaroslav. Yaroslav Michailov, resident in Bashtanka.
We chatted awhile without recording and for another while on-the-record. I recall his words, just before we got back onto the road and away from all that tension:
“Nobody could think that this would happen. But despite that, this was predictable. This story began in 2014… and continued bit by bit but we thought it would just pass by”.
Far from this, the war has become a daily routine.