As Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists continue to clash over territory and allegiances in Ukraine’s eastern regions, award-winning RFE/RL correspondent Levko Stek is braving the battle to bring news directly from the front lines.
The Fighting on the Ground
For the last two months, Stek has been reporting on the fighting in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, where, despite a September 5 ceasefire agreement, he says there has been no real lull in hostilities.
“When I ask the Ukrainian soldiers about the peace agreement, they just laugh, because there has been fighting every day since,” he said.
Stek filmed fighting between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian separatists that broke out on the night of September 21 and the following day near the city of Debaltseve in Donetsk. The violence erupted just as Ukrainian government forces were preparing to withdraw artillery and armored vehicles from a proposed 30-kilometer buffer zone.
Though the epicenter of the ongoing battle remains in and around the city of Donetsk, especially at the airport, as the two sides battle for that strategic stronghold, Stek also reported on intense exchanges of fire in the nearby village of Nikishino, which he said was divided between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army. He spent several nights in a foxhole with Ukrainian troops filming the heavy fighting taking place. His footage provided proof that, despite official statements to the contrary, the fighting waged on.
Stek, who joined RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, Radio Svoboda, at the height of the Maidan demonstrations earlier this year, says his typical day of reporting from the battle begins with a long wait at a Ukrainian army checkpoint. After a few hours of negotiations with Ukrainian soldiers, he says he is usually able to get to the front line to film and interview soldiers, and is sometimes able to spend the night there.
“The Ukrainian army position is on one side of the street and on the other side of the street there are separatist checkpoints,” he said. “There is no way we can report from the other side. It would be too dangerous if the separatists knew we were from Radio Svoboda.”
Stek previously reported for Radio Svoboda from Crimea after the Russian occupation of the peninsula, and is accustomed to working in hostile environments. He was abducted by unknown assailants on March 17, the day after the so-called referendum backing a Russian union, while boarding a bus in Bakhchysarai in central Crimea.
He says the men handcuffed him, pulled a black bag over his head, and pushed him into the back of a car. After driving around for some time, they left him in a field, warning him never to return to Crimea.
“And while I wandered around the vast Crimean fields to the road, I got scared again,” he later wrote about the incident in a blog. “I had clearly seen what lay ahead for the Crimeans. What had happened to me would clearly, one day, be the norm for them.”
The Battle over the Airwaves
Despite the obvious dangers, Stek says he is determined to bring Ukrainians accurate information about the events in their country, events which can be too easily obfuscated when fears are manipulated.
In an April report from the eastern city of Horlivka, Stek explained how, in his view, Russian propaganda was beginning to affect Ukrainians by turning them against each other.
“Many seem completely misinformed,” he said, recounting one local resident who was convinced the Ukrainian parliament had passed a law under which those found to have non-Ukrainian blood would be either deported or shot dead. The woman told Stek she had heard about this “law” from Russian television.
“Many here also repeat like a mantra that Right Sector activists from western Ukraine [radical Ukrainian nationalists portrayed in official Russian media as spearheading the Maidan movement] are bent on murdering eastern Ukrainians and their families,” he said. “And it's this fear that is driving them to support separatists.”