Sometimes what we journalists write doesn’t depend on our ideas but on the actions of a uniformed intelligence officer. Like the one who was standing at a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine on a cold day in January. He shook his head and said, "You can’t pass this way!"
We were standing at a checkpoint called "Oktyabr." An icy wind was chasing across the flat plain, the sun reflecting in a frozen lake. Around about us were the remains of what once could have been a farm. Bullet hole-ridden walls, roofs torn to shreds, fields rutted by mortars. They had set up provisional barracks, from which emerged uniformed men, who wearily searched through our car for the fourth time.
We were here because we wanted to report on the work being done in Ukraine by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and on the separatist territory. We all had the necessary authorizations to do so with us. To obtain them, we had pledged we would merely accompany the OSCE observers and under no circumstances would we strike off on our own. But now the separatists’ intelligence forces were interrogating our Ukrainian coworkers. It would appear that here, wedged in between two fronts, agreements are meaningless. This is where the control of the Ukrainian state ends. And the realm of arbitrary despotism begins.
It is now almost two years since the signing of the Minsk II treaty, which is being monitored by the OSCE observers. The agreement is supposed to guarantee peace in Ukraine, but it isn’t working. Every day the dull sound of mortar shells and Grad rockets can be heard somewhere. Weeks with no dead to report are good weeks, and they are rare. People are dying again in this war, not since mid-December have there been as many; the situation is escalating.
After an hour, our colleagues returned from their interrogation. They reported that one of the uniformed agents told them they had instructions not to allow the two Germans through – meaning the photographer, Sebastian Bolesch, and me. They knew our names and our car registration number. They even knew we would be traveling this way. Apparently, they were already waiting for us.
On the first day of our reporting trip, we visited school classes together with Alexander Hug, the deputy chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. These schools were near the "contact line," as the front is called in the language of diplomacy. We lumbered beside deserted fields no one was plowing anymore because of the mines lurking in the ground. We went to see the village of Shyrokyne, where no one was living anymore and no house was intact, but where, after nightfall, the sound of gunfire echoed.
The suffering on this side and the destruction caused by the attacks carried out by the separatists is only one part of the story. The other part lies behind the checkpoint that we now cannot l pass through. It lies in the Donetsk People’s Republic that was proclaimed by the separatists, where residential areas are repeatedly being shelled by Ukrainian soldiers.