Preparing for the journey
Article by: Ty Faruki
As a photographer, I was looking for my cultural traits of ancestry, but then a fork in the road was served up. The chance to travel to my uncharted territory of Ukraine brought caution and intrigue. Seemingly, no one is a friend of Ukraine – if the right wing media is to be believed.
Sky News and the BBC led the way in painting this former soviet state with a bleak, twisted ideology. And on the left, RT News delivers poisonous rhetoric sure to stop anyone from travelling there. “Stay safe“ and “be careful” were the words most dispatched from friends upon learning of my travel plans. What I should expect. They said it was not as cosmopolitan as say, Russia or Britain. So my interest gathered momentum.
Ross Kemp had pushed stories of nationalistic ideas rife in the country. Though much has been taken from football fans as we entered a period of tournament fever in 2012. An investigation launched by western and Russian state news crews uncovered hateful amounts of racist commentary that did shock and appall. This is unfortunately prevalent in many pockets of society worldwide, and is not exclusively relevant to Ukrainian culture.
My journey seeking an insight to Ukraine began in August 2015 as I received my accreditation and press pass to enter the ATO zone (Ukraine’s conflict region) from the SBU (Ukraine’s security service, descended from the KGB). My contact Artem (a volunteer who delivers supplies to the army) had agreed to accompany me to the zone as I was still working out my idea of what the nation was really like.
After taking a detour into the city of Kramatorsk to collect my ID, we then ventured towards Donbas. Already in the country for a few days, I saw Ukraine was not the fascist country portrayed by many, and it certainly wasn’t oppressive in any shape or form. In fact, a day before we left, I was pulled into a room by the police for questioning. I did not have my passport, nor did I have any papers on me. After several rounds of gesturing, google translator entered the conversation. “Oh. Now we understand.” And through my phone we began talking about food in England and football teams. I could have left earlier, but I was having fun.
“The roads are singing,” Artem announced as the hum of roads flattened by tanks became apparent. “You know you’re going the right way when you hear that sound.” Right he was, we arrived shortly at our destination.
We delivered supplies to a brigade from Lviv, which was delighted to meet us. We journeyed through the base and passed a Lenin statue dressed by the soldiers as the national poet Taras Shevchenko, where we were asked by a soldier to pose by for a photograph. The base was in good spirits as they played volleyball and talked politics. The atmosphere was not one I had experienced in the UK, in particular England. There was a welcoming ambiance with and without eye contact. I was almost reluctant to leave behind a company of well spirited people but off we went to deliver more goods to a company further into the Donetsk Oblast.
As we rolled into one of many hidden bases, I was told we would stay the night with our current brigade. The sun descended and the stars appeared. I had not seen them this clearly for years. Not even the Sahara revealed such splendour. The war brought an end to electricity throughout much of the area and in its place, the universe came forward. In the middle of the woods, I engaged in conversation with one troop member who exclaimed his contempt for Putin before breaking into rhythms of empathy for Muslims. “There is nothing bad in your religion. And there is nothing bad in the Qu’ran. The news does not tell the truth.” Now my eyes were open and the deception of the media came full circle.
After this brief but revealing conversation, I was shown to where I would sleep. The Ukrainian army had retaken a boys’ camp from separatists and inside a sea of off-duty soldiers slept, and watched an old black and white movie. The sound of gunfire riddled in the background, a short distance from the forest, as I began watching television with my slumber buddies.
Morning came and I was collected from what seemed like an exhausted group of professional and conscripted Ukrainian soldiers. Coffee and biscuits for breakfast before Artem and I set off for our next brigade.
Again we were welcomed by hospitality. After tucking into my now favorite food, a bowl of buckwheat, a warning was circulated. Movement was spotted on the frontline only a stone’s throw from where we were seated. Soldiers made their way to line up, though two officers stopped in their tracks attending to two thumb sized shapes moving in the sand. As strange as it seemed, logic emerged. Compassion. Two kittens abandoned by their mother became priority over what could have amounted to a pretty messy scenario. I was beginning to see the difference between the rest of the world and Ukraine.
We left the zone, I was overwhelmed by an amalgamation of thoughts and ideas on what Ukraine is like. Though, it could be restricted to a war zone. Or maybe not. Since my first visit I was compelled to return, and I did, accepting two commissions from two different nationals and a third in July. Three trips and eight months later, I stand in full support of Ukraine. Having spoken to Russian defectors and those living in the zone, it is clear to me that the real fascists are not Ukrainian, but the world’s media. In particular, it is hard to ignore Russia’s continuing demolition of Ukraine’s personality through state TV and the political arena.
Though, I am encouraged through my experience to underline Ukraine’s NATO connection, which is by far superficial. As a former Soviet state, pushed and pulled by Russia since the USSR’s demise, Ukraine is pretty much on its own. Caught in-between the juggernauts of Russia and their appalling human rights collection, and the United States, whose track record should see them as allies, not enemies. Ukraine clings on to a distant hope for help from anyone. Not NATO. The West has not helped Ukraine in any way shape or form. And, if they have, it is merely from behind a microphone, as the west and Russia play a political Monopoly. Just like the race to the moon, theirs is a race for the Middle East.
Artem told me of a Euromaidan story, which saw revolutionaries approach the mosque in Odesa. Many feared the mosque would be attacked in the spur of the moment. Instead, they marched on past it, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great). Students from all over the world choose Ukraine as an academic destination. They walk freely, laughing and joking day and night, unlike what is portrayed in the mainstream.
Already planning my fourth assignment to the country, having been from both corners of the nation, the ideas of fascism do not enter my mind. I am reminded of Muslim Mustafa Nayyem, who was a main contributor to the start of the Euromaidan revolution calling on Ukrainians to rally in the square in November 2013. He was a main ingredient for the overthrow of a corrupt and puppet government seeking to cement ties with Russia. If Ukraine is fascist, why listen to the Muslim?
Landing in the UK opens up a sea of negative emotions. Already I am profiled. Already I feel the connotations of opinions spawned by British media. It is easy to be swayed by the pitch of governmental propaganda, regardless of differing societal worries. But if Ukraine really is the oppressive, power hungry, Jew and Muslim-hating country it is told to be, finding this kind of opinion is like looking for a Leprechaun. BNP, UKIP, Britain First, need I say more?
Following a brief moment in film, he pursued a passion in photography seeing it as a better way to document.
Ty has been published internationally in newspapers including the Irish Times and Financial Times.