The bloody battle for Donetsk’s airport: The view from the front lines

May 27

Smoke rises outside the airport in Donetsk after pro-Russian separatists seized the facility. (Photos by Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

The seizure of Donetsk International Airport by pro-Russian separatists seemed more theatrical at first than menacing as Monday dawned.

Maybe a mile from the terminal on broad, tree-lined Vzlyotnii Boulevard, local police had set up a roadblock at the airport’s access road that was well mobbed by journalists when we arrived. TV crews were doing stand-ups or filming close-ups of police officers shooing away motorists. A bunch of taxi drivers who had brought the journalists were milling near their cabs, smoking cigarettes and curiously watching while waiting to drive them back to their hotels.

The odd scene seemed in keeping with a rebellion in a city where militants with the Donetsk People’s Republic had holed up behind barricades in the regional government building and people were dining in posh outdoor cafes a few blocks away or pushing their children on playground swings.

About 12:45 p.m., a minivan streaked from the airport toward us. As it approached, we could see that its occupants included armed rebels in masks. When the minivan jerked to a stop, a gunman slid open the door, and journalists popped out. They had been invited by pro-Russian separatists to take a look at the rebel-held terminal. We asked a few what they had seen, but they shrugged us off. They had an exclusive to protect.


Pro-Russian separatists drive in a minivan toward the airport in Donetsk.

Twenty minutes later, four Ukrainian helicopters flew past in quick succession toward the airport.  Machine gun fire crackled from that direction. Then came the whump of heavy explosives and the staccato of automatic weapons. Now the shooting was very close to us.

Police ran from the checkpoint. Another minivan rolled up, this time from the city, with about half a dozen gunmen in masks. They stepped out and almost strolled toward the airport.

The fighting grew in intensity. A Ukrainian military jet soared overhead, releasing little puffs of silvery orange chaff to counter possible antiaircraft missiles. There were more explosions, and black smoke rose in the distance behind a Lexus car dealership.

It was extremely chaotic now. Volleys of machine gun fire rattled off to one side of us, near the runway radar, and off to the other, around the corner from the Lexus dealership. Police, journalists and pedestrians ran through the tall grass along the boulevard. It wasn’t always clear whether people in flak jackets were journalists or militants until you were close enough to see their body armor marked “PRESS.”


A pro-Russian separatist takes cover behind a tree outside the airport in Donetsk.

We — photographer Evelyn Hockstein, who had experience in conflict zones, and our young translator, Anastasiia Fedosova, who had no such experience — started toward the city away from the fighting, but then gunfire came from that direction, too, so we hunkered down behind trees or stones and moved when we could.

The fighting pushed us toward a neighborhood with small, tightly packed houses on narrow streets. An old man came to the end of his garden and invited us to shelter with him. Anastasiia (also known as Nastya) agreed. We told her we would stay in touch by cellphone and promised we wouldn’t leave her.

Then, just as things seemed to reach a lull, we heard the crackle of a rifle very close to us, perhaps within 100 yards. We threw ourselves down at the base of a tree behind a small heap of stones. It wasn’t long, however, before we discovered that a mound of ants had found this spot first. They started crawling over us, but the ants were preferable to the bullets whizzing around. When the shooting came even closer, we made a dash for the houses.

We pressed against a concrete wall in a courtyard to catch our breath. But then we heard the crackle of more gunfire so close that we thought it was on the other side of the wall.


The body of a civilian, apparently killed by a stray bullet, lies outside the train station in Donetsk.

One neighbor did not want us there. He started yelling so fast that I had a hard time following his Russian, except for the part where he said he’d shoot me if we didn’t leave. But another neighbor cut flowers for Evelyn. Yet another gave us a jug of water.

About 4:30 p.m., the fighting had died down long enough that we pleaded with Nastya to leave the house and walk out with other journalists who had emerged from hiding and were now headed out of the neighborhood.

But just when things seemed safe, militants in the wooded area along Vzlyotnaya Street where we had just been opened fire at a passing helicopter. Two Ukrainian gunships returned moments later, swooping in over the rooftops, with one pouring fire into the area where the rebel shots had come from. The three of us crawled inside a section of concrete sewer pipe on the street for cover. Nastya began to cry.

At last the fighting calmed. Nastya got directions from a woman that sent us cutting through several back alleys until we flagged down a car and rode out to safety. By then the airport’s siege had seemed all too real.

You can read our continuing coverage from Donetsk here.

 

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