By Constantinos Psillides
ON MARCH 16 the people of the Crimea in Ukraine became the epicentre of world news interest. Following unrest in the country that had begun on November 2013, the question of secession from Ukraine was put to a referendum. Crimea, predominantly Russian in origin, decided by a margin of 96 per cent to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.
With the region in turmoil, reports poured in of a growing military presence and unidentified militia units roaming the streets. The world held its breath as it seemed that Ukraine and the Russian Federation might actually go to war.
For Tatiana Tkachenko, a journalist for the Cypriot-based news portal CJN Online, those tension-filled days last month provided dramatic and traumatic first hand experience of the real dangers in reporting from a region in crisis.
In an interview with the Sunday Mail this week she explained how she was sent by CJN to report on the referendum.
“I wanted to interview regular people and learn their views on the proposed referendum. Not politicians, but people one could encounter on the street. What their feelings were, their expectations from the Russian and Ukraine governments, stuff like that,” she said.
Tkachenko made it to Sevastopol on March 15. Having nowhere else to stay, she spent the night with her fixer (a person that operates as a liaison for journalists in foreign countries) Dimitry who was himself staying at the house of fellow activist Evgeny. Both men described themselves as “Euromaidan activists”, or part of the wave of demonstrations against former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych which marked the beginning of the Crimea crisis. The name itself is a reference to the Maidan Nezalezhnosti square (Independence Square), a major landmark in Kiev where much of the protest originated.
But while the name was grandiose, the same couldn’t be said for the apartment.
“There wasn’t much in the apartment but I didn’t complain. What a journalist really needs is a place to lie down and free wi-fi right?” she said laughingly, explaining how the three of them made supper and got to work.
That’s when the nightmare began.
“Somebody called Evgeny and told him that men carrying guns were heading for his apartment. We panicked and I ran to the balcony to hide. I seriously considered jumping off the fourth floor balcony but it was already too late. I could see some of them stationed outside, keeping watch,” Tkachenko recalled.
“Dimitry started filming the raid while Evgeny called a Ukrainian TV station that put us on the air. We could hear the sound of their boots approaching the apartment. Then came a loud knock on the door. They asked us to open up but we were too scared to do so. We could hear them whispering about charging in. They told us that we were behaving like children and that they were running out of time. They broke the door down and rushed into the apartment, brandishing their guns.”
Tkachenko said that the men who burst in wore no insignias, were dressed in black army uniforms and black camouflage. She said that they immediately immobilised her two flat mates and then went for her.
“They started yelling and I was told to lie on the floor, face down and put my hands on my head. They put a gun to my head and started asking questions. I was so terrified I lost track of time. I don’t know for how long they kept that gun on my head,” she said.
The armed men began to rummage through the apartment, looking for guns or explosives. They found her credentials but that wasn’t what drew their attention, according to the journalist. What resulted in her arrest was, according to her, some chocolate and a pack of cigarettes.
Tkachenko explained that during the Second World War Ukrainian soldiers died after being poisoned by candy and cigarettes laced with poison. Since then the army and police have been very suspicious of chocolates and cigarettes.
“They accused us of being terrorists, planning to lace the chocolate with poison and kill soldiers. They force-fed me the chocolate to make sure that it wasn’t poisoned. When that was done, they dragged me to my feet, put a hood over my head and took me to their car. They drove me to their base and left me in an empty room with a chair and a table.”
The Cyprus-based journalist said that she was interrogated for almost six hours, sometimes by six interrogators at the same time.
“They were shouting at me, demanding to know who I was, accusing me of spying for the Ukrainian government and that I was a terrorist. I kept telling them to check my credentials but I think their databases were down, or they didn’t have access to verify who I was. I told them that work for CJN Online, that I was from Cyprus and that I was only there to report on what was happening. They didn’t believe me. They kept shouting at me, threatening to throw me in prison for 15 years for terrorism. They actually said that since Crimea was to be part of Russia soon, under Russian law the penalty would be 26 years. I kept telling them that I wasn’t a terrorist and to prove that I was working for CJN I asked them to Google an article I had written about mushrooms!”
Tkanchenko said that when she came back to the island, a colleague of hers told her that her article on their website had been accessed three times from someone in Ukraine, at around 3-4 a.m. local time, around the time Tkanchenko was being interrogated.
The journalist said that after six hours of intense interrogation she was taken to a cell where she was given breakfast. Following that, the soldiers put another hood on her head and transferred her to another building where she was again interrogated, this time by one man.
“After the first interrogation, they were a bit nicer to me. They didn’t grab me and shove me around like the first bunch did,” she said showing some bruises on her right arm. “That is how hard they pressed my arm.”
Tkanchenko’s ordeal was finally over on the afternoon of March 16 when she was released from the second facility.
Unbeknownst to her, she had got off easy compared to the two activists. Tkachenko learned what happened to them only after she took her story to the media and appeared in a press conference before live TV in Ukraine.
Evgeny and Dimitry were both beaten by the armed men who had rushed into their apartment. Evgeny suffered a broken jaw while Dimitry was diagnosed with a broken rib, concussion and other injuries.
Appearing on Ukraine TV, Tkanchenko said the following: “If it had not been for my accidental presence in the Euromaidan activists’ flat, if I had not witnessed the detainment and violation of rights of a person and a journalist I would have never been able to tell such a story. And about what actually took place in the Crimea on the eve of the referendum.”
Tkanchenko has uploaded an edited video with pictures and video of the raid and the press conference. It can be accessed at the CJN website on http://cjn.com.cy/zaderzhanie-aktivistov-i-zhurnalistov-v-krymu/