As Ukraine Presses Military Offensive, The Facts Are Fuzzy
The Ukrainian government claims its armed forces have recaptured a large part of the eastern city of Luhansk following fierce battles Wednesday with pro-Russian separatist fighters.
This is part of a broader campaign by the Ukrainians that has been marked by a number of successes recently. But as is often the case here, it's impossible to independently verify what either side says. Both the military and the rebels prevent reporters from getting near embattled areas, and in many places like Luhansk, phones and Internet are not working.
It's certainly been difficult trying to confirm Ukrainian government claims that separatist fighters using mortars and Grad rockets killed a large number of refugees Monday who were trying to flee the fighting in Luhansk.
"The terrorists fired at a column of peaceful residents who tried to leave the zone of combat action," National Security Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said, calling it a "bloody crime."
"Many people died, including women and children," he added.
If true, Monday's shelling attack would be the largest single incident of civilian deaths in the escalating war. But Ukrainian officials have yet to offer any proof of the attack, including photos, videos, eyewitnesses or survivors. Nor have they said how many were killed, although the spokesman Lysenko later said 17 bodies were retrieved.
Pro-Russian separatists deny the attack happened and say even if it did, they didn't do it.
The U.S. condemned the attack, but couldn't say who was responsible.
Searching For The Scene Of The Attack
In hopes of finding out what really happened, I joined a small group of reporters invited by the Ukrainian military to interview survivors at a hospital in Lutuhino — near where it said the convoy was attacked.
A handful of Ukrainian soldiers from an eastern Ukrainian military airport led the journalists in a convoy of taxis and private cars into the no-go zone along the front lines. The hilly roads we traveled on at breakneck speed were small and badly damaged — due more to decades of neglect by the Ukrainian government than to the current war.
We hit our first snag as the besieged city Luhansk appeared in the distance. Our military escort explained that unexpected fighting ahead required us to change course.
We could hear steady shelling that sounded like it was getting closer. But the military escorts said they were determined to get us to Lutuhino, somehow. A short while later, we were told the rebels knew our media convoy was approaching Luhansk and planned to attack us.
One Ukrainian journalist asked the lead soldier with us: "How do you know?" His answer was rather vague — something about intercepted radio communications.
Not that it was hard to figure out who we were, given the large "TV" and "Press" signs taped to the front windows of our cars, which passed through recaptured villages where many people are sympathetic to the rebels.
The military escort took us to a nearby hilltop where the leader radioed his bosses to figure out what to do with us next.
Poor Conditions For Soldiers
But the stop proved useful, as Ukrainian troops securing roads for combat and supply units had set up camp there. They gave us a rare glimpse into the poor conditions of Ukrainian troops on the front lines and the pessimism they feel.
A small generator provided power to worn tents that were set up next to trees, where an aging armored personnel carrier was also parked. Thick logs were tied to many of the armored vehicles and heavy army trucks in lieu of winches and other equipment used to pull vehicles out of the mud.
In an interview with NPR in May, Boris Filatov, who is deputy governor to the oligarch in charge of the Ukrainian region of Dnipropetrovsk, said their country's military was so poor that he and his boss spent their own money to supply local troops with basics like sleeping bags. Millions of dollars were also collected in recent months in donations from Ukrainians to help pay for their military.
On the hilltop outside Luhansk, soldier Vitaliy Yakymenko said he believes the supply shortage, compounded by poor planning, is costing soldiers' lives.
Yakymenko added that he believes a military victory in eastern Ukraine is a long way off.
"We will have conflicts here again and again until the Ukrainian government closes the border with Russia," he said.
He was referring to the widely held belief that Russia is arming and reinforcing rebel troop numbers, something the rebels deny.
Fellow soldier Grygoriy Pisarenko was less pessimistic, but agreed that the lack of supplies is a problem — as is where Ukrainian troops are fighting.
"We are in our own country and these are our people, so we have to take care even if the Russians don't," he said.
As to the deadly attack on the refugee convoy, I still don't know what happened, as the Ukrainian military decided to make us leave the area before we met with the injured refugees we were told we'd be interviewing because the fighting was too intense.
Nor did we meet the military driver who served as an escort for that ill-fated convoy. Ukrainian officials said they would bring him to us outside the no-go zone since they failed to take us to see the wounded refugees. But in the end, the military did not deliver the driver, either.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In eastern Ukraine, government forces are battling pro-Russian forces over control of the city of Luhansk. It's one of the two separatist strong holds. NPR's Soraya Sarhdaddi Nelson spent yesterday embedded with Ukrainian troops. She sent this reporter's notebook on the challenges of working in a war zone.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: All week, Ukraine has been claiming pro-Russian separatists killed dozens of refugees fleeing the fighting in Luhansk. Ukrainian National Security Council spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, described the attack through an official translator.
ANDRIY LYSENKO: (Through translator) The terrorists fired at a column of peaceful residents who tried to leave the zone of combat action. Many people died, including women and children.
NELSON: If true, Monday's shelling attack will be the largest single incident of civilian deaths in the escalating war here. But Ukrainian officials offered no proof - no photos - no videos - no eye witnesses or survivors. Pro-Russian separatists, meanwhile, denied the attack took place and say even it if did, they didn't do it. Finding out who is right is impossible, given both are preventing reporters from getting to the embattled area. So I jumped at the chance the Ukrainian military offered a few reporters yesterday, saying it would take us to a hospital on the outskirts of Luhansk to interview refugees who were injured in the attack. A handful of soldiers led our convoy of taxis into the no-go zone along the front lines. We hit our first snag just after the besieged city of Luhansk appeared in the distance. Our military escort explains that unexpected fighting up ahead requires us to change course. The shelling in the distance punctuated those concerns, and we watched a couple of army trucks drive off in that direction. Later, we were told the rebels knew our media convoy was here and planned to attack us.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).
NELSON: This Ukrainian journalist asks how do you know? The media escort's answer is vague - something about intercepted radio communications. We moved to a nearby hilltop while the escort leaders talks with his bosses to figure out what to do next. Ukrainian troops are camped here and give us a rare glimpse into the poor conditions Ukrainian troops operate under. One soldier is Vitaliy Yakymenko.
VITALIY YAKYMENKO: (Foreign language spoken).
NELSON: He complains poor planning and a shortage of supplies, including ammunition, are costing soldiers their lives. He claims the enemy has better arms and equipment, which are widely believed to come from Russia even though the Kremlin denies it.
YAKYMENKO: (Foreign language spoken).
NELSON: Contrary to Kiev's claims that the rebels are nearing defeat, Yakymenko believes that a Ukrainian victory is a long way off. He says, we will have conflicts here again and again until the Ukrainian government closes the border with Russia. Fellow soldier Grygoriy Pisarenko says supply shortages aren't the only impediment.
GRYGORIY PISARENKO: (Foreign language spoken).
NELSON: He says Ukrainian troops have to be very cautious when they advance to minimize civilian debts and damage to infrastructure. Pisarenko explains, we are in our own country. And these are our people. So we have to take care even if the Russians don't. As to the deadly attack on the refugee convoy, I still can't tell you what happened for sure as the Ukrainian military decided things were too dangerous and we needed to leave before meeting the refugees. Officials offered us a witness to convoy attack instead. But we never met him either. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR, News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.