After the home of one of their colleagues was shot-up with machine-gun fire, Ukrainian journalists Olena Kolgusheva and Yaroslav Kolgushev realized it was time to leave.
Their home city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, population 950,000, has been a battleground between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military since April.
Kolgusheva, 49, Yaroslav and their 9-year-old daughter left for the Lviv region in western Ukraine in May, an area relatively untouched by the conflict. But in August they received a phone call from a friend warning them their lives were in danger.
After the threat, the couple’s 27-year-old son, Roman, a graduate student and Fulbright Scholar at the University of Missouri, helped arrange for his family to come to the United States on a two-month visa with the help of the university and others.
Listen to an interview with the journalists.
Kolgusheva grew up in the Soviet Union and had studied physics. When the Soviet Union collapsed, she opted to pursue journalism and began working in 2000 at the Ukrainian Independent News Information Agency (UNIAN).
Though she’s more than 5,000 miles from home, Kolgusheva continues to report on events in Ukraine from her son’s apartment in Columbia, Missouri. With the help of a translator, she spoke with Global Journalist’s Tracey Goldner about her family’s flight, what it’s like to interview victims of torture and how pro-Russian forces treat journalists.
Global Journalist: What was it like to live in Donetsk during the fighting?
Kolgusheva: There’s just one word: It’s war. It's the absolute spread of gangs. The police don't work, special forces don't work. Most Ukrainians left a month ago...the Army left. There are a lot of pro-Russian separatists and militants. We had a lot of gangsters of the local type before, but then the separatism, the military intervention, rocket artillery started....the fighters play with the city like it is a game of Battleship.
Global Journalist: How did things start to get dangerous?
Kolgusheva: It began in April. Russian militants seized our regional administration building. Journalists were hunted, threatened and intimidated at pro-Ukrainian public gatherings. For some reason, they were very aggressive towards journalists. They only talked to and accepted Russian journalists. Asking journalists to leave events was the least offensive thing they did. We had to hide our identities. If they found out that journalists were at one of the[ir] events, they would make the crowd aggressive toward them.
Global Journalist: Can you give an example of the violence you reported on?
Kolgusheva: This is a very precise example with students from the Donetsk National University. Seven boys were just hanging around their dorm, sitting and talking and suddenly some armed people came wearing masks and strip-searched them. They were standing there in their underwear for absolutely no reason. Nothing indicated what political opinion those boys had, the only thing was that one boy had a small Ukrainian flag.
They took them to the regional government’s administration building, which had been seized by separatists, took them to the fifth floor and started torturing them. They had a personal conversation with each boy after that. When I interviewed them later they didn’t want to talk with me actually, but they did confirm that they were indeed tortured by people wearing masks. The separatists were trying to force them to claim that they were fighters for the pro-western Ukraine side.
They hit their toes with a shovel, crushed their ribs. When I spoke to them they couldn’t walk straight. One boy was wearing a hat because his head was covered with stitches. These were second, third and four-year students from the physics faculty, actually.
I thought when I was talking to them that some young psychos tortured them. They told me, ‘no, we could see that those were grown-ups, over 40 that must have been the work of people [with professional experience.] They said they were skilled in what they were doing....they tortured these boys separately and wanted them to admit that they fought for Right Sector [a far-right pro-Ukrainian group].
About 4 a.m., they were put into one single room, were forced to lower their heads, and the separatists put guns in front of them. And at that moment Life News TV (a Russian outlet), rushed in. The separatists said they had captured Right Sector soldiers.
...We tried to do whatever we could to release them. We found some international organizations and tried to buy them out. We did succeed and just paid cash for their release. That’s when I interviewed them. They were quite afraid to be in Donetsk after that.
Global Journalist: How are journalists working in Donetsk now?
Kolgusheva: No one is working...everybody is working from a distance. Newspapers are long gone. Armed people would come into a newsroom and spend several hours explaining how to report, scare them very much and they were basically told how they should start working. All they could do is close the newspaper. People just stopped going to work.
Global Journalist: Your life is in Donetsk. What's happened to your house and property?
Kolgusheva: I have no idea what's happening with my house...we live downtown pretty much and so shells hit the stadium that you can see from our window several times. I have no idea what's happened to our car. We left it in a garage. We still pay the monthly payment. My mother said armed people were checking around garages to see if anything was open...here with our son is a relaxing situation for me. But every morning I wake up and see my house in front of me.
With assistance from Tatiana Darie