At the village of Bezimenne, where you can see the sea from the road, we stopped to ask some people who was manning the next checkpoint and if it was safe. There was a Russian checkpoint at the exit of the village, they said. They could have used “Russian” to mean “rebel,” but in this case the men, who had modern communications equipment and some jeeps of a type which I have not seen elsewhere, did not seem in the mood to chat and ordered us to go. On the other side of the road was a tank, whose cannon was not pointing ahead to the Ukrainians whom we met a few minutes further down the road but out to sea.
As we sped away from the “Russians” we could see a column of black smoke rising from the sea. When we got to the Ukrainian checkpoint the men told us that it was a coastguard cutter that had been hit, they thought by a tank. They were from the Azov Battalion, one of the Ukrainian volunteer militias. On their vehicles and their arm flashes they had the “wolfsangel,” a neo-Nazi symbol, which is their insignia and which tells you much of what you need to know about their background.
On the road back to Donetsk there is a long straight stretch lined by tall trees. In the distance we could see something. Realizing it was a military convoy, we pulled over and I jumped out. The car leading the convoy of four tanks and three APCs topped with dozens of men screeched to a halt, as did all the cars that were behind us. Armed men jumped out of the car demanding to know what we were doing—one jabbing his fingers at the TV tape on the car. A fat, angry man with gold front teeth demanded our phones. A stocky lady in her fifties sat in the back of their car pointing her sniper rifle out of the window at my colleague a few meters away.
After a few minutes the neat tall man standing in front of me told me to put my hands down and asked me in good English where I was from. He told me he had once lived in Lausanne. As the situation cooled the angry fat man returned our accreditations and passports and the woman still pointing her gun at my female colleague began blowing kisses at her. The fat man got back in his car with our phones but our translator stuck her foot in the door yelling at him to return them, which eventually he did. The entire convoy then juddered back into action.
The tanks looked relatively modern. As they pulled away, a man whose head was sticking out of the hatch at the top of a tank waved at us. His features were central Asian. A large proportion of Russian conscripts are central Asians. The men on top of the APCs looked like locals, but if the tanks were Russian army ones, this could explain the otherwise inexplicable rage of the fat man encountering journalists seeing his convoy.