Pro-Russian militiamen beat a man near the Ukrainian airbase in Belbek in Crimea, March 22, 2014. (AFP Photo/Viktor Drachev)
By Kilian Fichou and Laetitia Peron
SIMFEROPOL, March 28, 2014 --- An alarm sounds, followed by an explosion. A tank has just destroyed one of the concrete walls. Second blast: Another wall collapses. At the same time, an armoured personnel carrier smashes through the main gate. It’s almost 4 p.m. on Saturday March 22, and the Ukrainian base in Belbek, near Sebastopol, is under assault following an ultimatum by the Russian army.
Since the end of February and the Russian blockade of military bases in Crimea, Ukrainians have been waiting for this day to come.
Given what is happening, officials have allowed about 30 journalists onto the base. They want the world to see.
We hear gunshots, then well-trained fighters swiftly invade the base. They’re in camouflage, wearing masks and carrying kalashnikovs -- and they don’t hesitate to point these at us. The atmosphere is incredibly tense, several Ukrainians get punched.
Russian soldiers storm a Ukrainian military air base in the small city of Belbek near the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 22, 2014. (AFP Photo/Viktor Drachev)
Things calm down after a while and the Russians, suddenly cooperative, let us film the “defeated” troops. However, I notice the Russians are confiscating material from some journalists.
We decide to entrust one of our video camera’s memory cards to my driver, who is attracting less attention. Especially since at least 300 pro-Russian militants are around the base and I doubt I’ll be able to leave without getting checked. A Russian soldier, smiling and unmasked, tells us they are going to escort us out, and he promises the return of press cards to those of us who’d had them confiscated. It seems almost too good to be true.
Pro-Russian militiamen near the Ukrainian airbase in Belbek in Crimea, March 22, 2014. (AFP Photo/Viktor Drachev)
Sure enough, before we get to the exit, a masked man demands that we hand over our memory cards. One by one we are searched. When it comes to me, only my bags and my camera are checked. The hidden card will get through. But they take the card that shows the surrender of the Ukrainians. It’s bitterly disappointing -- all that historic footage, gone.
It’s setbacks like this that many reporters have had to face in recent weeks. Material confiscated at the new “border” between Crimea and Ukraine, the questioning of journalists. The new authorities on the peninsula want to control the information about the political switch in the region.
A Ukrainian soldier in the base at Belbek, before it was attacked by Russian troops. March 22, 2014. (AFP Photo/Viktor Drachev)
Much of this work is carried out by the newly created “self-defense brigades”, whose members wear a red stripe on their arm. These guys are tough, and can be a nightmare for the press, and are happy to pick fights and make up new rules.
At one such “border” between Crimea and Ukraine, one of these militiamen says: “You can film, but if you so much as step onto Crimean soil I will break your video camera.”
When Kilian ventures over to a grassy corner to find a better viewpoint, the militant accuses him of staining his land. He yanks Kilian and tries to grab the camera, while letting loose a torrent of insults. Scenes like this play out all the Ukrainian military bases.
Pro-Russia militants block the road with a makeshift tyre spiker near Amyasnk, Crimea, February 28, 2914. (AFP Photo/Viktor Drachev)
These militants are unpredictable. The day before the referendum on Crimean independence, a dozen of them -- wearing balaclavas -- came into the hotel Moscow, which was mainly occupied by foreign press.
On the landing of the third floor, we were greeted by the barrel of an assault rifle and any questions we asked were met with a frosty “niet”. Colleagues who’d tried the lifts came back down quickly, terrified and stripped of their memory cards.
The first objective of this show of muscle is clear: intimidate journalists. It’s hard to trust the professionalism of an armed man who only a few days before was a civilian.
Aside from these militants, there are tens of thousands of troops. Though they carry no insignia, there’s no doubt they are Russian. Two hours before the attack on the base at Novofedorivka, in the west of the peninsula, two uniformed high officials from the Russian army negotiate the surrender of the final holdouts in the building.
Russian soldiers patrol near the navy headquarters in Simferpol, March 18, 2014. (AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte)" title="Russian soldiers patrol near the navy headquarters in Simferpol, March 18, 2014. (AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte)
We are the only camera crew there but are told not to film. However, when 200 anti-Ukrainian militants force open the doors on the base, Russian officers walk among them. It’s only after about a half hour of the building being tackled, amid a cloud of smoke grenades, that they intervene to organise the departure of the Ukrainian troops.
I shouldn’t actually have been there to see this. The few journalists present had been ordered to leave. Most did so quickly, but there were a few reporters lurking in the shade of some trees in a corner of the base that had been taken over by demonstrators.
A few Ukrainians gave a patriotic cheer before a blue and yellow flag - it’s a sad sight that accompanies the fall of each of these bases. It’s only a short while later that I learn from Olga, our fixer, that only Russian reporters had been allowed to stay on the base. This was the sort of systematic pro-Moscow favoritism we’d see play out time and again.
The new authorities in Simferopol, the regional capital, tell us with a touch of irony that the media can cover events, as long as they only talk about positive things. Russian media excel at this, and doors are always wide open to them. Few among them would dare criticise Moscow’s intervention here, plus most of the local population support them.
“Which channel, which country?” we are systematically asked whenever someone sees our video camera. After a bit of back and forth, people will often agree to speak to us, but Ukrainian journalists are now no longer welcome.
The Russian flag flutters over the port of Sebastopol, March 22, 2014. (AFP Photo/Viktor Drachev)