It’s taken me a few days to wind down after the last couple weeks and to process the time I was in Ukraine. Soon after I left Ukraine, I felt ready to go home – to be in my own bed, to be around people who speak the same language as me and to simply be in a place that feels familiar. Thankfully I was convinced to stay longer in Europe and to spend some days writing notes and getting clarity on what this time has been and what I have learned through having this experience of going to Ukraine now.
In hindsight, I had expectations of what this trip would be like. I know now that having any expectations at all, was somewhat naive! After all, the only solid plan I had was to get to Ukraine, to interview the internally displaced Ukrainians for 2 days and to fly back to South Africa at the end of the month. There was a big blank space on the timeline and with that, the good possibility that I’d experience many things that I had not expected! Did I ever mention to you that I have mostly been with a group of dedicated Czech and German volunteers squatting in Slovakia and delivering food and supplies across the Slovakian/Ukrainian border post to places in Ukraine that are not being serviced by the bigger NGO’s?!!! To complicate matters, I am an African passport holder and this came with a whole set of unexpected challenges! Let’s just say that the Slovakian border post officials were not that happy about me being there and I was met with long, intent gazes – not the admiring kind! But I will save that for another post!
Before I got to Ukraine, I expected ‘communication’ to be difficult since I only speak English, but I really had no idea to what extent this would challenge me; how I would be heavily dependent on translators to communicate, but would not have them for the most part! That meant that verbal communication was mostly ‘out.’ Instead, I needed to focus and rely on non-verbal communication and to find the unspoken story. I needed to pay attention to the tone in someone’s voice, their gestures, the lines on their face, their hand signals, their expressions, their body language, their actions and the way they choose to spend their time. There were times when I managed just fine, but there were also times that ‘communication’ was urgently needed but just not possible!
Last but not least, I knew that I was going into a war zone but I had no real idea of what to expect. I was ‘green’ as you get. I quickly learned that travelling in a war zone comes with its own set of rules, of things to be aware of and things not to do. Though I did not go to any of the ‘hot zone,’ areas that are under attack or being occupied by Russian forces, there are constant reminders that you are in a country that is being violently invaded and the danger you feel is real. Tensions are high and most Ukrainians are on high alert.
My first day in Ukraine jolted me into reality, that I was actually in a war zone and needed to treat this experience as “someone’ in a war zone, and not as a tourist exploring a new country! Don’t get me wrong, I was already terrified. The fear of the unknown was immense and the friends who had travelled with me to Ukraine, had already crossed the border with a dozen boxes of cats and dogs and were hundreds of miles away from me, on the road back to Germany.
I was alone in Ukraine. A mother of 2, a blogger, a South African who does not speak a stitch of Ukrainian and who was travelling in a war zone with zero friends or connections! It was during those first couple days that I self-diagnosed myself as stark-raving mad, but that kind of thinking did not make me feel better or braver or change the fact that ‘it’s too late baby girl, you’re already in Ukraine. Now put your ‘big girl panties’ on and deal with what you have asked for!’
On my first day there I woke up to the sound of an alarm. Not the usual sounding Samsung alarm that gently nudges me from my slumber and into the new day, but the sound of a ‘missile alarm,’ alerting us of a missile on its way to somewhere in our region and that we should take cover immediately! But where was the damn bomb shelter anyway?
A ‘missile warning’ usually means you have between 5 – 20 minutes before the missile reaches its target. This got me good! I was already a wreck knowing that the night before, it had taken me over half an hour to ask the receptionist via google translate whether I could stay for another night in their accommodation! Did I even have enough time to ask the receptionist this question?!
First lesson: Find out if there is a bomb shelter and if so, where is it?
My second big lesson of the day came during an afternoon stroll in the town, when I took a photo of a dandelion, lit in golden light and perfectly positioned in front of an old garden gate that led to a cute match-box Ukrainian-looking house. It was picture perfect and I instinctively lifted up my camera and clicked the shutter button!
At that moment, another alarm went off. It was the voice of a very, very angry sounding woman. I turned around and saw that she was shouting at me while vigorously waving her pointed finger up and down. I did not know what she was saying, but it didn’t take me long to realise that she was unhappy about me taking a photo. I tried to explain to her in English that ‘I mean no harm, that I am just taking a photo of a flower,’ but it fell on deaf ears and her shouting got louder and louder the more I spoke. I decided it was best just to keep quiet, to put my camera away and to continue walking down the street. That’s when I noticed her take out her phone and make a call. I had a bad feeling that this was not the end of it and I was right!
Minutes later, I watched in disbelief as a car came racing up to me at full speed then slammed on breaks in front of me. Two big armed men got out and approached me. They were also very angry. I realized then that these two men were in the military. They started shouting something at me in Ukrainian and I said to them “I’m sorry, I can’t understand you, I can only speak English.”
“Passport,” they shouted. “Give me passport.”
And then I realized, I had left my passport at the ‘accommodation’ and only had a photocopy of my passport! One of the few things I had been told to do, was to always carry my passport with me and I had forgotten the damn thing in my room! I fumbled in my camera bag for the photocopy, noticing how me doing this seemed to make them even more suspicious of me, as if I was about to whip out a gun and start shooting.
I handed them the photocopy, trying hard to stop my hands from shaking. At this point, I think my body clicked into survival mode, I started to breathe very slowly and spoke calmly and clearly ‘that my passport was not with me but I have this.’ I remembered the time I was almost arrested in Mozambique for taking a picture of a statue and how my reaction to the police threatening me, was angry and aggressive and only made the situation worse. I thought to myself, ‘No, don’t be that. Be calm and be friendly.’
They took the photocopy and looked at it and then looked at me as if I was stupid, or the enemy, or an illegal immigrant from Africa – I can’t be sure – and they said, “Get in this car.”
Now I was really scared. I was about to get in the car with 2 armed men, not knowing where they were taking me. I thought to phone a friend, but they were on the other side of the world from me and wouldn’t be able to help even if they wanted to! I thought of sending them a ‘location pin’ of the place I was last at… before she disappeared in a strange car, never to be seen again! Or I could just talk to them, be respectful, smile and be very unthreatening. I realized that that was really my only option! And in that moment, I felt very grateful for almost being arrested in Mozambique and learning what not to do in a situation like this!
I looked at the reflection of the military man in the rearview mirror and smiled nervously at him, then told him “I am now very scared. I have never been arrested before! I think I am going to be the first South African arrested in Ukraine!”
At this this point, something seemed to click and his face relaxed just slightly and he told me, “You, no scared.”
They took me to the military headquarters…which was not so far from the place I was taking photos at. Their extreme and aggressive reaction to me taking photos of a dandelion started to make more sense to me. How strange must it have been for a foreign-looking woman walking towards the military headquarters taking photos of flowers and buildings during a war! For the next hour, I was questioned by someone in the military who could thankfully speak English. They then called the commander-in-chief to interview me too, and to double check that I am who I am – a particularly naive photographer from South Africa genuinely taking photos of a dandelion in a war zone!
I showed them pictures of my kids, my dog and a lion I had spotted in the Kruger National Park in 2020 and invited them all on Safari once the war is over! They seemed to like this and they finally believed that I am who I am and told me not to take photos near the military again. They then offered me coffee and cigarettes. But I declined their offer and told them, ‘No, now what I really need is Vodka!’
I was relieved beyond words when this arrest was ‘diffused’ and it finally ended with a warning and some laughs! I think it was a good lesson to learn early on and besides, I needed a reality check. I was in a damn warzone, not on tour! Going forward, I would be very, very cautious about taking photos. It was only once I was in the Czech Republic that I dared take a photo of a dandelion again, a whole magnificent field of them!
I also learned that there have been cases of Russians posing as journalists with cameras in hand, walking down the streets as I did and identifying new targets for missiles. With this in mind, I fully understood why things unfolded like they did and I commend the Ukrainian military for taking something like this so seriously and for being so professional about it. I also began to understand the brutality of this war and what the Ukrainians are up against. This is a ruthless war, with every target being intentional, exposing the real reason for this war and not the propaganda Russia would like the world to believe. When buildings that house civilians are targeted, when children are deliberately killed, when busses full of civilians trying to flee the conflict are hit – Putin’s true intention is revealed. Actions speak louder than any words. And the streets are stained with blood.