The first time I set foot in the war zone, a Ukrainian soldier chastely kissed my cheek before confiding he was excited to tell his mother that he had kissed a Frenchwoman. A few minutes later, just beside me, his fellow soldiers were perched on a tank, firing shots in the air to disperse residents who were opposed to their presence. The ringing from the shots caused me to lose hearing in one ear for a full 24 hours.
Un souvenir me revient: j’ai cinq ans et j’enfile les talons de ma mère.
Excerpted from There’s No Poetry in a Typhoon: Vignettes From Journalism’s Front Lines by Agnès Bun, translated from the French by Melanie Ho (Abbreviated Press, November 2018)
Such is the absurdity of reporting on a military conflict. Everything and anything can happen at the same time, defying all the melodramatic conventions seen in war films. Blushing teenagers barely out of childhood are able to pull the trigger if it’s in the service of their flag.
In the spring of 2014, I packed my bags and atop them placed a tourist’s guide to Ukraine and a Russian-English dictionary. These two oeuvres neatly summarized my familiarity with the country I was about to spend one month in: non-existent.
For months, the situation in Ukraine had been intensifying. In the south, following a controversial referendum, Crimea had proclaimed that it was part of Russia. In April, 2014 pro-Russian supporters in the eastern part of the country were also threatening to secede and pledge allegiance to Russia. Whenever I’m offered the opportunity to cover these types of situations, I don’t hesitate. But this time, I also didn’t really understand what it meant: I had never previously covered a war zone. The words from the French photographer Robert Capa came to mind: “I hope to be unemployed as a war photographer for the rest of my life.”
Despite this stated wish, there was no lack of work. I arrived in eastern Ukraine, weighted and heavy. In addition to my camera equipment, I carried from Kiev several bullet-proof vests for my colleagues who were already in the field, as well as one for myself. I tried on the vest in the office and the results were inconclusive: the vests were all too big for my 160cm frame. Holes gaped from under the armpits; it felt like I was wearing a disguise. A memory: I was five years old and wearing my mother’s heels.
In Slavyansk, a city that had fallen into the hands of pro-Russian rebels, it wasn’t always necessary to wear a bullet-proof vest. There were moments of serenity: cows grazed in the fields; babushkas, flowered kerchiefs knotted around their heads, sat on benches and gossiped; market stalls overflowed with charcuterie and fruit. This normalcy was disconcerting. I learned a few Russian and Ukrainian words, I ate the local cuisine, I made friends. At times, we forgot we were covering a war.
One detail, however, reminded me of the reality of the conflict: there were no children in the streets. Only once did I see some kids playing in a vacant lot.
* * *
In Ukraine, I learned, violence gives no notice. Violence invites itself into daily life with the brutishness of a guest kicking down the front door. My colleagues and I spent a sunny day interviewing residents before returning to our rooms, our hearts warmed by these happy encounters. Then we learned that a little boy was killed earlier in the day, just steps from our hotel. At that time, we had been sharing beers and peanuts with locals in the park of a nearby residence.
I was often in the wrong place. I’d hear about attacks after the fact and my videos captured only the bullet holes in the walls, the shattered glass on the ground, incinerated buses and empty bullet casings. But twice I found myself in the middle of an attack: the best place for my job and the worst possible place for my own safety.
The first time was the day I arrived in Slavyansk. The situation was extremely tense: the city had been completely abandoned by the authorities and was under rebel control. There was no order and chaos reigned. It took several days to get there. We were stopped at checkpoints several times and forced to turn around. Finally, I managed to reach the city. My colleagues dropped me off before leaving—they needed to return to another city that was not yet in the rebel hands, while I needed to find a journalist who was already in Slavyansk. As my colleagues drove away, I read the look on their faces: a mix of both relief and guilt to be leaving this cursed city. I was a woman, I had no experience; my bulletproof vest was too big.
My colleague saw all of this straight away. From the moment we met, he was affable and remained so for the entire time we were stationed together, to the point where he became a good friend both during our assignment and afterward. Without him, my experience would not have been the same. But during our first meeting, I also read in his eyes and on his pale face a fear for me and for the new responsibility that had just fallen on his shoulders.
Suddenly, gunshots rang out from close range. They came from the center of town. “This never happens,” my colleague said. “They’ve never fired from so close.” The sniper fire lasted for several long minutes. Our heads lowered, we quickly moved in the opposite direction without a word, our bodies skimming the walls and jumping at the slightest sound.
Throughout our stay in Slavyansk, we moved like wild animals: soft steps, an ear tuned to the noise of danger. The next week, as we sat in a restaurant in a safe zone, the sound of a blast made our bodies go stiff; alert, we were ready to dive under the table. We raised our eyes to the sparkling sky and our shoulders relaxed as we exchanged a nervous laugh. We had confused fireworks with mortar fire.
The second time I found myself in the middle of an attack, we were in a hurry. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that had been taken hostage by rebels had just been freed and we were rushing to arrive in time to cover their release.
Our driver, Roman, was a mixture of efficiency and good manners. He commanded his vehicle perfectly, telling jokes, talking about his two young sons, and bemoaning the rebels at the checkpoints. While en route to cover the hostage release, we suddenly saw thick, black smoke rising. We approached a checkpoint; a truck was blocking the road. Roman stopped, we got out of the car in our helmets and vests and tried to find a way to pass.
I felt a whoosh close to my face, as if a dart had brushed my cheek. Not far from me, a passerby crumpled. It took a few long seconds to understand that he had been shot, perhaps by one of the bullets that had flown past me.
My colleague and I bolted and flattened ourselves against the side of a wall. What was happening? Behind a wall and protected by our safety equipment, we slowed down and caught our breath.
I began to film. Work helped me to focus and make sense of what was around us. Mortar shots exploded and then hissed. In the distance, the Ukrainian tanks advanced. The country’s army wanted to retake this rebel post and we, along with a few other civilians clutching their shopping in their hands, were caught in the middle of the fighting.
I don’t remember what went through my mind at that point. I did not see my life passing by my eyes. I did not stop in front of the tanks; my body was not paralyzed by fear. I do remember the sound of my heavy breathing and the weight of my bulletproof vest. I remember my knuckles white from holding my camera. I remember telling myself I needed to exercise more.
And then, my colleague and I counted.
Every 10 seconds, after mortar fire rang out, we ran, half-crouching, to try and distance ourselves from the conflict zone as much as possible.
On the road, we saw a car with its door open, a man with a stomach injury who was half-collapsed in the passenger seat. My colleague and I looked at each other briefly. Without saying a word, my colleague took the man’s arms and I his legs. We dragged him under the cover of a tree. But he didn’t survive. Maybe when we found him, he was already dead.
What should we have done? It was necessary to be able to look in the mirror the next day. Three people died that day, all of them civilians.
That evening, we ate with other journalists. The food was delicious, the wine—from Georgia, I think—was excellent. With a glass in hand, my eyes fell on a blood stain on my colleague’s trousers, surely the blood of the man we had failed to save just hours earlier.
Roman, our hero of a driver who stayed in his car, who could have left us to surrender to our fate, probably saved our lives by waiting to pick us up a half hour after the violence began. He died in a car accident a few months later when he was driving to pick up some colleagues. I still have a picture of him on my cell phone, one taken on the day of the checkpoint attack. He was on the telephone, giving me a big sign with his arm, a reassuring smile on his face as I sent my video, my own breath still short, my own hands still trembling.
His photograph reminds me of the face of ordinary bravery which manifests itself every day without ever making headlines.
The American war correspondent Marie Colvin, who died covering the siege of Homs in Syria in 2012, wrote in the The Guardian: “You can’t get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people be they government, military or the man on the street, will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen.”
A final frustration: the microphone on my camera became unplugged as we ran. All of my videos had lost the distressing sounds of mortar fire. I risked my life for a mute video. And Roman saved us, only to die a few months later.
* * *
Sous les gilets pare-balles enfilés tous les jours, il restait tout de même un peu de place pour de la douceur.
My memory is filled with other encounters. A local resident walked towards me as a I was filming, his hands curled into a tight ball. He opened his fist and handed me a bullet casing: “A souvenir,” he said, before moving away, the shadow of a smile on his lips. Today, the socket is placed on a piece of furniture in my living room. It reminds me of Ukraine, of the war, of the kindness of people, and the humour dented by bombs.
One night, a photographer braved curfew and, wearing a bulletproof vest, crossed several streets guarded by snipers to bring me beers. We spent several hours discussing our favourite photographers, pretending we could ignore the walls as they trembled from nearby mortar fire.
Another time, I joined a group of photographers going to the front line. My feet moved, but I went nowhere; a colleague had been holding me by my backpack. He told me I was the same age as his daughter and my annoyance melted instantly. In hostile terrain, without knowledge or mastery of the language, any attention is greeted with gratitude.
And then there was one meeting, on the front line where this same colleague and I were facing a pro-Russian rebel—a giant with a hard face and a Kalashnikov in his hand. My colleague tried to break the ice: he asked in Russian if the rebel was going to shoot us. The rebel looked at us and then responded, impassively, while cocking his chin, his fingers all the while on the trigger: “I will not shoot her.” A half-relief. His response softened the atmosphere and my colleague even took a photo of me posing beside the rebel. This photo is also still on my phone. The rebel, colossus, with his AK-47 in his hand, and me, a smiling pixie with a camera in mine.
Under the bulletproof vests we wore daily, there was still room for kindness.