Donbas Through the Eyes of a Foreign Correspondent
16 February, 2018

Are all wars the same? Till Mayer, a freelance journalist from Germany, says in some ways they are.  

“I think every conflict [means] loss of lives, human lives, which makes no sense for me. And it makes no sense when you see people dying in the war or a conflict,” he says.

Mayer has been to war-torn Balkans, Gaza strip, Somalia and Donbas. But he says that Donbas is different to the Bosnian war in a way that the Ukrainian conflict is much slower.

“When I've been to Avdiivka... If it would have been at the Bosnian war, where I started my career of going to war and conflicts, the city would already have been destroyed,” he says.

He also says Donbas is special to him because “it’s in Europe” and it's a part of a “country that's very close to my heart and the people close to my heart.”

Hromadske sat down with Till Mayer, a German journalist, to find out about his work in Ukraine’s Donbas and Lviv.

Till, you just returned from your trip to Donbas actually and you're writing a story about a family. Can you please tell us more what this story is about?

For me, it was important to show [it] because winter is the harshest time, both for civilians and for people who fight. This is what I wanted to document with my camera.

What was your story about?

The story was about families who get [torn apart] because it's not just the frontline. There are two sides: they got torn in their head sometimes and sometimes in their hearts. But also it's very hard, for example: your grandfather's on the Donetsk side and you live in Avdiivka, then it's very hard to keep in contact. It's very complicated. So that is one story. And the other story was mainly about showing death, how torture copes with the situation in winter times with all the snow. And also this year a new book of mine will be published; and for this book especially I took a lot pictures, now at the frontline in Promka.

It's your second trip to eastern Ukraine, to Donbas. Why do you do that? Why is it important to go there and then show this story in Germany?

Because I think that it is a very dangerous thing that in Western Europe this conflict is really forgotten [about]. And for me, it's really a shame that we have a conflict in Europe again. And for me, it's not about showing who is responsible for it, who are the good and who are the bad guys. I just want to remember that something is really going wrong and we have a conflict again in Europe. And where to bring it in the headlines again. That's why I went. Because now the mass media is gone. The mainstream media, they don't care so much anymore. And this was when I started this work. When the other cameras are gone, I try to remember that something is not ok.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

How do people in Germany react to such stories about Donbas? Because you said that it's not in the media anymore and people forgot these things. How do they react now?

Well, I can remember when I was traveling for my first trip. It was October, we were on a train, and I had my helmet with me because I took it in hand luggage. And there were two young university students in their early 20s. And they asked me "where are you going with this helmet?" And I said, "I'm going to Donbas, eastern Ukraine." And they didn't even know that there's a conflict. And this was very upsetting for me. And this is why I also did one story, for example, about a very young soldier who was 21 years old and already an officer and responsible for the life of his men: how he copes with this situation. And it's the same age, so hopefully, I managed so that they can identify and get more interest in this topic.

But after you published this story, did you get any feedback? Comments or letters? Or how do people react after you publish these stories?

Well, yes, there are a lot of comments Spiegel online and working as a freelancer, of course, you get feedback. Sometimes you get some extremist people, like pro-Russian, for example, who just get annoyed that I was only on the Ukrainian side, for example. But I also get feedback from a lot of Germans who say "ok, we really didn't know that something was going on," as they thought this issue was already settled, which it's not in my opinion. And also in my hometown, Bamberg, we have a quite lively Ukrainian community, and they like my story. Which is also interesting: the wife of a good friend of mine is Russian, so she's on the other side, but also for her it was ok. This is important for me because, of course, as a journalist, I must stay neutral.

In Germany, as far as I see now, the society is not solid on this question. And there's a big part of the society that is loyal to Russia and thinks that in Ukraine the things are as they are. How would you, as a German, describe how the people – not only the media but ordinary people as well – see this conflict? How do they see Ukrainians in this conflict with Russia? How do they react?

It's a tough question because, for many people, they don't have much background knowledge of what is going on actually. And, unfortunately, it's not really a topic anymore. And I think that now in these times we have a lot of conflicts – in Syria, for example, which is pretty much in the headlines – the situation in Donbas gets more and more forgotten. But for me, you know if I'm neutral, I say when we have a time when borders are not respected in Europe anymore; it's a very very dangerous thing. And when I personally see the situation for Ukraine, it's getting harder and harder to find a way to a peaceful living together. It will not be easy if the conflict is settled.

You've been in many countries, in many conflict zones, at many wars. What was the most difficult for you, as a reporter, as a documentary filmmaker? What was the most important thing at times of war, when you see all these victims, when you see all these broken lives, when you see the whole situation... What is the most difficult for you?

To manage to keep your distance is important because, of course, I'm feeling with the people, but also you must be able to close the door when you're at home. It's like [...] when you're working in a hospital and you have a little child with cancer, you want to help this child, but somehow you must manage that when you're at home you have your own life. It's sometimes not easy when you see a lot of sad things happen. This makes it very hard for me because I feel very close to Ukraine, because I'm here for ten years and I [come] very often to this country. Of course, that's very sad for me that something like Donbas is happening. Especially because all the people, you have to cope with lots of challenges in your life and now there's also a conflict up: that's really terrible for me. The most terrible thing that I ever saw in my life I was in a drought in Ethiopia, and I saw children dying because they didn't have enough to eat. After that, I stopped traveling for one year.

Then you decided to...

I did all of my job at home in Germany as a journalist for [...] newspaper. But I decided to stop traveling for one year because when you continue like this, I think it's also not good for you.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Compared to other conflicts, compared to other wars you have seen, let's say, in Balkans, in the Gaza strip, and in the Donbas. What is the difference between Donbas and other conflicts? What makes [Donbas] different for you, why is it special?

Donbas for me is special because it's Europe and it's a [part of a] country that's very close to my heart and the people [are] close to my heart. And that's why it's special to me. When I compare the conflict itself to other conflicts that I've been to, for example, in Somalia. There's a big difference because there are no structured armies, for example, like now in Donbas. You have militias who are more or less under control. But in general, war is all the same... It's the worst thing human beings can do to each other.

Some people say there is a concept of the so-called hybrid war, that Russia is playing a hybrid war. On the other hand, many journalists say that "it's not a hybrid [war] when you see troops of soldiers and they are shooting at each other." In your opinion, is it hybrid or is it like something else you had seen before,  just another conflict? How would you describe this concept of a "hybrid war" in Donbas?

Well, for me, for example, the difference is when I've been in Avdiivka, if it would have been at the Bosnian war, for example, where I started my career of going to war and conflicts, the city would already have been destroyed. At least, because both sides see the people on their own people. But for the people living there in this place, it's a really hard life, in my opinion. And sometimes when I speak with the people, I sometimes get the feeling they just can't believe what's going on. And also I've never been to a city that is so silent, like Avdiivka, it's like there is no sound. It was very strange for me but maybe that's only because I was a little bit too sensitive when I was there. But if I [can] call it a hybrid war? For me, it's not so much thinking in these political dimensions. For me, it's really to be with the people and show how they suffer, and they suffer all the time. They had not the best life before; they had a lot of challenges and now the things get even worse. And when I was there in October, I was at the old lady's who lives in a village behind the frontline. And more or less all the young people had left, of course, because in this village there is no future anymore. Only the old were left behind. And most of them spend their childhood in the war already. 

So you do many stories about Ukraine, about the war in Ukraine, about people with disabilities, about older people in Lviv. So, from different, different regions, about different people. And you tell [these stories] to Germans. Why is it important to tell about Ukrainian life to German people? You said that Ukraine is forgotten now, but why, in your opinion, is it important to keep it alive?

Because we are Europe. That's important for me. And we must understand each other, and I'm really very much European. And it can only be when we all accept that we're living in diversity. And this is what I believe in. And I believe in the hope that one day we'll have a really big Europe, where there are no citizens and no borders anymore. A Europe where everybody has a socially stable life, and we can manage living in peace. That's what I dream about. And it was by fortune, or destiny maybe, I came so close to this country.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

You've been there in Donbas, you've seen ordinary people like families, children, old people there. Based on your experience, how do you see the future of this conflict situation? Based on your experience in speaking with people, how do you see that? Can it be solved? And if yes, how?

I think anything can be solved, that's what I believe in in life, first of all. But I think that as long as the situation continues like this, it will get harder and harder to find a good solution for everybody. Maybe the first solution is that the hardliners from both sides who should respect the pain of a mother lost her son at the frontline. Nevertheless on which side the mother lives. That's the first step towards peace. And I think the hotlines on both sides are far away to respect this. But for the ordinary people I've met when I was in Avdiivka, most of them just want to [see this] situation end. It wasn't much about them talking politics with me, it was just that they wish that there should be an end to this situation and there should be peace again.

/Interview by Ostap Yarysh