Terror and Torture on the Eastern Front: But Also Inspiring Tales of Hope and Resilience
Caolan Robertson relates his life-changing journey into war-torn Ukraine while making the just-released ‘Eastern Front’ documentary with John Sweeney
Veteran war reporter John Sweeney and Byline TV filmmaker Caolan Robertson hit the road with war photographer Paul Conroy & journalist Zarina Zabrisky to gather compelling evidence for the use of illegal weapons and the torture of civilians in Ukraine, as well as examine the reality of life and conditions faced by ordinary people on Ukraine’s eastern front.
It was difficult to comprehend the scale of what was still happening in Ukraine when I arrived in Kyiv in March. Like many, I knew that since Russia invaded, tales of the brutality of its attacks against Ukraine and whispers of potential war crimes stood in stark contrast to the Kremlin’s ardent denials on the world stage.
I had gone to see John Sweeney to film a report marking a year since the invasion and the destruction and loss of life in its wake. Night after night I met people returning from the front lines in the east and the south, bringing with them stories of things I have never thought possible in 21st Century Europe. They told me that Russia was not just shelling cities, but actively targeting civilians, abducting and torturing them, and using banned incendiary weapons indiscriminately against residential areas.
Calling home, family and friends were shocked by the extent of what was happening. It became apparent that despite a wealth of reporting from Ukraine, much of what Russia was doing just wasn’t getting through. So we decided to investigate, to capture it all on film and bring it back for an audience at home.
Getting closer to the front line, the situation quickly deteriorates and signs of civilisation as we know it start to disappear. Those who have the money and means to do so have already fled. Business owners have closed their cafes, bars and shops and relocated, leaving many streets feeling eerily devoid of life. The Russians are targeting national infrastructure so in most towns there is no electricity and precious little water. It’s hard to describe the feeling of driving through a pitch-black city in the dead of night, navigating only by moonlit street signs and glinting roofs.
In the daylight, these scenes are somehow more bleak. Great plumes of smoke litter the horizon and when you ask locals, often they couldn’t tell you if the place they originate is under Russian or Ukrainian control.
There’s a road to Bakhmut civilians call ‘the Road to Hell’. It’s an apt description. The road itself has taken a pounding from Russian shells and is intolerably bumpy, owing to the craters that pockmark its surface. As you get closer to the city, signs of life fade and the ever-present craters begin to fill the fields all around.
All the while the sky ahead is dark, the sun blotted out by a thick blanket of smoke rising from the ruins of Bakhmut. Driving toward it feels apocalyptic like the fellowship journeying toward the ever-present darkness of Mordor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.
Then there are the sounds. The shelling becomes constant as you approach the front line. The incessant pops and crumps of incoming and outgoing artillery fire and the confronting wail of air raid sirens fill your ears while stray dogs howl in accompaniment in the streets.
As a filmmaker, I’ve worked in hostile environments before, in the mountains of Morocco or the borders of Turkey where the Jandarma jail more journalists than any other country. Nothing I’ve seen so far compares to the situation in Ukraine. We filmed one scene of the documentary accompanying volunteers as they raced to rescue embattled civilians from Bakhmut, and as one evacuee put it “civilisation left a long time ago.”
That’s it, that’s the only way to put it. The stories we gathered for this film are harrowing. In Kherson, we met a woman unable to leave because of her 85-year-old mother’s medical conditions. When the shelling starts her elderly mother crawls under the sofa on which she sleeps, and prays to survive.
Early in the war, the Russians occupied Kherson and when it was liberated in November, they retreated to the south bank of the Dnipro river and have been raining shells on the city ever since. As the city began to put itself together, civilians began to talk of abductions and torture. One victim took us back to the cell in which he was tortured, where Russian officials would shock and beat him and his cellmates unless they shouted “Glory to Putin!”
Other civilians showed us where Russia had attacked quiet residential streets with phosphorous, a silent incendiary weapon that burns at over 2000 degrees, breaking several conventions on war. We visited the home of a man whose neighbour’s house, attached to his by a partition wall, had burned down in the attack. He didn’t know until someone shouted through his window that the building was even on fire.
These are all allegations that Russia denies. Every day it commits these crimes against the Ukrainian people and every day its state-run media channels claim it just isn’t happening. It is.
The fact that this kind of war is happening in Europe is almost unbelievable. Perhaps that is why so many people in the West are buying into the Russian propaganda. But spending time with these people, hearing the blasts and feeling the floors shake, and seeing the damage these attacks are doing is utterly convincing.
One thing that sticks with me is on a day we were travelling to film with frontline soldiers in Chasiv Yar, our convoy got stuck in the mud. Stopped dead in our tracks and exposed, we became aware of the increasing nervousness of our military escorts. We were sitting ducks and we all knew it. But as we furiously strove to free the car from the mud, I noticed large diggers in the field next to us, surrounded by half-dug trenches, creating a fallback position if the Russians broke through.
Nothing prepares you for seeing trenches in Europe in 2023. Living, breathing, working trenches. The only reminder standing in that field that this isn’t 1914 is the mechanical diggers and men in hi-vis jackets operating them. We’ve become so used to watching modern wars, like Iraq or Afghanistan, where there are rules, and attacks are carried out by small teams in precision operations. To see the drudgery and the scale of the war in Ukraine is truly shocking, as though a one-hundred-year-old war has been lifted from the pages of history and is happening right in front of you. Spending time with soldiers in their muddy dugouts, drinking tea from tin cups as the wooden ceiling above spills dust with every artillery crump makes this war, and all the wars before it suddenly feel very real.
Maidan, Ukraine’s democratic revolution in 2014 started because of broken promises of Ukraine aligning itself with the European Union. The idea that less than a decade later its wide open countryside is scarred by trenches and craters, that it is happening in Europe, is unfathomable - until you see it.
That’s why we made this documentary. Because it is harrowing and unbelievable and very, very real.
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