Press "Enter" to skip to content

Dean O’Brien — Donbass people don’t want to re-integrate Ukraine

Hi Dean could you please present a bit yourself? Who are you, how old are you, where are you from, what is your job, and since when?

I am 52 years old and a freelance documentary photographer from Coventry in the UK. Whilst studying for my photography degree at Coventry University I was working on various photography projects in Ukraine at the same time. I’d been traveling to Ukraine for over 10 years. In 2014, I witnessed how the government in Kiev was illegally overthrown in the so-called ‘Maidan’ revolution, backed by the US to destabilise the whole country plunging it into the war we see today. I saw how the far-right managed to intimidate people who were speaking Russian etc… So when the conflict started I naturally wanted to document what was happening.

I then decided to travel East to Kharkov, Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and then Mariupol. I wanted to speak to the people there and document the impact that the conflict was having on their lives. I only travelled to residential areas and spoke to civilians and had no interest in visiting Ukrainian army positions. Whilst there, people were telling me to visit ‘the other side’. They had relatives in ‘non-government controlled’ Donbass and said that I should go and see what the Ukrainian government is doing to them.

Why did you decide to come in the Donbass?

It was to give my work some balance. I’d already witnessed the Maidan revolution and now needed to hear from the people on the ‘other side’ of this divide. Those who were affected by this massive change of the legally elected government being overthrown. Who were the people in the East? Were there really Russians trying to invade Ukraine? I had to hear their side of the story. And more importantly, to keep an open mind.

I’d read so many conflicting articles regarding what was happening there, so the only solution was to come and see for myself. To see what was really happening. I’d heard that there was no food in the shops, that the streets were full of Russian soldiers. I’d been told that the people there were imprisoned. That the streets were dangerous. So I had to come. None of this turned out to be true.

Bars and coffee shops were all open. Supermarkets all had food. There were no Russian soldiers, only volunteers who were all local men and women. People were going about their daily business like travelling to work etc… In the evening people sat on benches playing chess, teenagers were texting on their phones and listening to music. So life is fairly normal there in the city centre. That is until dusk arrives and you can hear the boom of shelling in the distance. Then you remember where you are.

When did you come in the Donbass, what did you see and what impressed you the most?

I travelled to the Donbass in May 2019. It was a good time to come. There was the Victory Day parade and the ‘Republic Day’ parade as well. I managed to meet and speak with the people on the street and get a general feeling of what was going on. People were happy and pleased that I had travelled all the way from the UK to hear their side of the story.

I was most impressed with the cleanliness of the streets. Virtually no graffiti. That although there was a war going on people were happy. They never spoke about revenge only the desire for peace. One thing they did make clear though was that they were not prepared to give up their new republic and re-integrate back with government controlled Ukraine. That is not on the negotiating table.

Did your travel in the Donbass changed the way you saw the conflict, why and how?

Of course. My life was never going to be the same after this visit. It really opened my eyes to how the media control how and what we think. Once I’d been to the Donbass I knew that it would never be possible for me to return to government controlled Ukraine.

I was also recently informed that I had been placed on the ironically named ‘Peacekeeper’ (Миротворец) website. That confirmed to me that they do not like objective reportage. I’m now on their list with many other photojournalists and correspondents. But in all honesty, it’s a small price to pay to get the truth out there about this conflict.

As a westerner, how do you assess the work of the OSCE mission in the Donbass, and the attitude of the West towards the conflict in general?

From what I understand the OSCE report what is convenient for them to report. Nothing else.

As for people in the West, it would be fair to say that the majority of people here are not even aware that there is a conflict going on. It’s hardly ever reported. But those that have heard about the conflict believe that Russia have invaded Ukraine, simply because that’s the message western media is sending out to them. The media fail to mention the West staging the coup which helped Ukraine fall into a civil war and overthrow the legally elected government. That’s what started all of this. Thus turning Ukraine into the mess of a country that we are witnessing today.

How are your native country media covering the Donbass conflict, and are there differences between what they say and what you saw with your own eyes? How do you assess the work of your native country media about the Donbass conflict?

The coverage of the conflict in the Donbass by the media in my own country is virtually non-existent. In fact, many people in the UK are not aware that a conflict is still going on. They only recently became aware after the media started to mention the build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. But before this, everyone thought the conflict finished long ago.

Most western media correspondents are based in Kiev and only report from one side. It’s biased lazy reporting at best.

You made a series of interviews with women in the Donbass. Why such a focus on women, while most journalists focus on soldiers?

That’s a good question. When people talk of war they automatically think of men. But I’ve studied Soviet history and know that women played a massive role in the Great Patriotic War. I saw the nuances between that war and the ongoing conflict in the Donbass. They were tank drivers, snipers, nurses and performed many other vital roles. When I arrived in the Donbass I was already aware of the work that you and other women like Katerina Katina were doing. Going straight to the frontline positions to report and showing incredible bravery. It’s not something people are used to seeing.

I think it’s vital that we recognise the roles that women play in conflicts. Not just as correspondents or soldiers, but also as ‘women’. They have to hold themselves together both emotionally and physically. I’d witnessed how mothers are often the first to take to the streets to protest, to bury their children, to try and find money for food and hold the family together. I wanted to look into this further and also to give them some recognition.

I’d read about Anna (Zvyozdochka) who was a fighter in the Donbass and managed to interview her in Moscow last year. She was a real child of war. I then managed to interview numerous other women who were not only correspondents or fighters, but some who were victims of the war by losing limbs such as Anna Tuv and Liliya Nikon.

What would you like to say to people who believe that Russia invaded Ukraine, who shout about Russian propaganda when some journalists denounce Ukrainian army war crimes, and who believe the western narrative about the Donbass conflict in general?

People need to wake up to how the media control the news and spin narratives to control how they think. It’s fairly simple when you understand how mainstream media operate. In the West, the media seem obsessed with Russia and people seem blind to what’s really happening.

At least now with what many class as ‘new media’ (the alternative to ‘old, mainstream media’) people are searching social media channels to get a more balanced view of things that are happening. Media is no longer a ‘closed shop’. People are searching for alternative sources of news to get a more unbiased opinion. The future of mainstream media is coming to an end.

What are your next plans regarding your work in the Donbass?

Like many other correspondents, due to Covid travel restrictions I’ve not been able to return to the Donbass, but as restrictions start to lift I will be returning as soon as possible.

I want to continue with my photography projects and travel more around the Donbass to the hardest hit areas. To speak to the people who face daily shelling. Their stories need to be documented and shared.

But even when I am not in the Donbass, I work very closely with trusted correspondents (like yourself) on the ground. I’ll share their reports on social media to get the message out to a wider audience. People are waking up to the truth and being able to share images and videos via social media helps people to see what is really happening in Donbass.

I’m also now working on a small self published photo book ‘Shots From Donbass’ which will be a collection of images from my visit to the Donbass in May 2019.

As Dean is an independent journalist, you can support him through his Patreon or his PayPal.

Interview made by Christelle Néant for the Hague Times

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *