Gonzo in Ukraine – part five: a rude awakening

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It had started like a perfectly regular day, slightly hungover but happy with ourselves. In five days, we’d filmed four great characters who’d all swanned through the interviews like real pros. They all had different life experiences but signs of a common thread had started to appear and a narrative was slowly emerging. Our film was taking shape and we all thought it had legs.

We’d also partied like there was no tomorrow which meant that though we were up for anything, we were also a little bit bemused to hear Phil banging on our door early in the morning. He was staying at a hotel nearby and had been woken up by a loud boom, an hour or so ago. His first thought had been of a fire-cracker or possibly a power line going bust but his gut was telling him that this wasn’t it, something more sinister was at play. He’d turned on the news and immediately saw reports of a car bomb having killed a journalist of the Ukrainian Pravda, Pavel Sheremet, in central Kiev.

We all scrambled to get ready to go to the scene and over coffee and cigarettes, theories as to who might be responsible started flying around the room. Jihadism was dismissed right off the bat by all, as highly unlikely; a foreign hit was floated around but I was doubtful. The Russians being the most obvious culprits, I thought this wasn’t their style, not when they’d got so good at cuppa-tea poisoning and assisted suicide. Plus, we didn’t know what the journalist had been investigating, so everything we came up with was pure conjecture. It only left two other potential suspects: organised crime or worse, the government.

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The media circus was already in full swing when we got there. The car had been taken away and the crime scene cleaned up but the swarm of cameras, most of them accompanied by an eye-pleasing reporter, let us know we were in the right place. Someone had set a picture of Sheremet by a lamppost and several people, some of them former colleagues, came by to lay some flowers. We approached a couple of them and learnt that Sheremet had been investigating reports of corruption amongst other crimes committed during the conflicts in the east . Being native of Minsk, he had also been fiercely critical of the government of Belarus as well as that of Russia. The man had made many enemies amongst some of the most brutal and ruthless people on Earth and today, they’d caught up with him.

We stayed for a while and eventually moved on to a brasserie down the road. I wasn’t hungry but I needed a drink. Everything we’d seen so far had been full of hope and crying out for openness. This was stark reminder that however open the Ukrainians wanted their country to be, there were still some questions one shouldn’t ask, and if one did, one had to know there might be consequences. A man with a strong American accent spotted our equipment and assuming we were part of the circus, which in truth we were, offered us his laptop to watch footage of the killing. Passers-by had tried to help, dragging Sheremet’s body out of the car in flames but to no avail. He was pronounced dead moments later.

We split up for the afternoon, all needing a little bit of space for ourselves. Sasha, Phil and I ended up walking around town and came across a protest in front of the Ministry of Energy. Miners on strike had setup gallows in the forecourt, complete with hanged manakins, to demand better working conditions. Riot police were guarding the gates and watching the crowd closely, effortlessly intimidating in their black body-armour. This was becoming more and more like a tale of two cities. We’d only seen the good so far and we were now getting a taste of the ugly, the repressive and the deadly. We’d waltzed in rather naively, thinking the country was defined by the dozen or so young creatives we’d met but, as we should have expected or at the very least, not forgotten, this simply was not the case.

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This was a country at war, a country that felt it necessary to remind foreign visitors not to bribe government officials at the airport, a country that up until recently had been lead by a corrupt puppet, one that had ordered soldiers to fire upon and kill unarmed protestors. It had been easy to be blind to the reality of things, easy to think the pictures we’d all seen were in the past and that now everything was sorted. And it was, up to a point. Despite the incredible changes Ukraine had gone through, there was still a very long way to go and it still wasn’t safe to ask too many questions.

Later, I decided to make my own way to the Maidan, thinking there might be a vigil in Sheremet’s memory. The small crowd that had already gathered, grew quickly. Flowers and flags came in bunches. The atmosphere was sombre but defiant and though I couldn’t understand what was said, it was obvious that these people weren’t going to be silenced easily. Colleagues, friends and who I assumed were union representatives, lined up to pay their respects and say a few words for their fallen comrade. A local official turned up to shake a few hands and offer a little comfort to those attending. He was easy to spot with the surly bodyguard standing at all times a few feet behind him, scanning the crowd, his hand never far away from the bulge in his jacket.

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There was a strange mix of fear and hope to be found on the Maidan that evening. Those responsible for the killing would probably never be caught and were possibly already hundreds of miles away, enjoying a beer after a hard day of ugly work. The people on the square must have known that, yet they still turned up, their faces uncovered for all to see, speaking harsh truths for all to hear.  The defining feature of the people of Ukraine was becoming more and more apparent and from what I could see, it looked a lot like guts.

I hung around for a little longer then left. I felt like an intruder, trespassing on people’s grief. As much as I pretended to, I wasn’t a journalist, only playing at being one. And there I’d seen someone get killed for having the courage to defend an ideal, for sticking it to the man and not budging even as danger ever came so near. I felt like a clown. I needed to get away, have a sit down and a stiff drink. I needed to see a familiar face and texted Yuliya. After a fashionable delay, she turned up.

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