Asia
12:56 pm
Wed August 6, 2014

Malaysia Flight Wreckage Was 'Like The End Of The World'

Sabrina Tavernise, one of the first journalists to arrive at the site of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine last month, says it was strange how quiet it was. The wreckage was still smoldering; she was surrounded by miles of fallen bodies.

"When you arrive to the scene of a disaster, you expect that there's going to be police tape and emergency responders and sirens and people yelling at journalists to get away," Tavernise tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And there was none of that. It was quiet. The fire had been put out, and it was dark. It was cloudy so the moon wasn't illuminating anything at all. We were using headlamps and just going through looking at people. And it felt so deeply sad that no one was coming to help them — that they were alone, basically, in those fields."

Tavernise, a reporter for The New York Times, could get to the site quickly because she was in Ukraine on her second reporting trip covering the conflict between the government and pro-Russia separatists.

After the downing of the airliner carrying 298 people, the U.S. said a missile fired from areas controlled by pro-Russia separatists took it down. Russia and the separatists have denied any involvement.

The Ukrainian military is trying to reclaim territory in the east now held by the separatists. In addition, more than 20,000 combat-ready Russian troops are amassed on Ukraine's eastern border, further heightening tensions.

"I feel worried about the next couple of weeks," Tavernise says. "What's going to happen? ... Will [the Russian troops] come in under the guise of a peacekeeping mission? ... I feel that it's a very dangerous situation."


Interview Highlights

On getting to the site of the wreckage the day the jet went down

It was like the end of the world looking at this thing. There were just a lot of people and a lot of bodies, but they weren't immediately visible. The grasses were very high, and it was a very strange juxtaposition because, in fact, the landscape was quite beautiful. It was wheat fields, sunflower fields and then this large grassy field where we were walking through. And you would come upon the bodies in their strange shapes, and some of them were still strapped to their seats and it was hard to process it. ...

We spent the night at the crash site, after many hours of looking through the fields. And the next morning, I remember seeing there was a little girl who had a little pink T-shirt on and she was in this distant area near a pond, totally thrown clear, not near anything at all. And it added to the deeply unnatural nature of the thing.

The villagers nearby had the same, in some ways, the same experience. I mean, there were bodies [that] fell through their roofs and into their gardens.

On the lasting impact of witnessing this scene

I guess the thing I came away thinking from that experience was that you think that as a journalist you have to be clinical and you're not really going to be affected. And you just go through and look at your notebook and number things and put things in logical lines.

But I think that, in a way, I sort of regret being so thorough, because they stay with you — the faces of the people, and how they lay in the grass. And they come into your mind and it's hard to get them out.

On the possibility that Ukrainian forces will launch a major attack to retake Donetsk and other eastern cities

Donetsk is really [the rebels'] most important stronghold. It's a city of nearly a million people, or had been before people started leaving because of the war and the shelling. It's incredibly important for the rebels in terms of their own strategy to keep a foothold there. It's a place where they drive around unprotected with no bodyguards. The leaders of the movement sit in a cafe, have coffee. They're absolutely safe there. It's their castle, if you will. If they lose that, then I think it would be a significant victory for the Ukrainians.

However, having said that, the border region further east is still extremely contested. And I think for Russia, in a bigger way, what makes me nervous is that Russia now really has almost nothing left to lose in terms of sanctions. The sanctions have really been ratcheted up, and Russia has really made it clear that even if it seems irrational, they will press their case for — some say — over the future of ... Ukraine and over Ukrainian politics and what happens in that country.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. One of the first journalists to arrive in Ukraine at the site of the downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was my guest, New York Times Reporter Sabrina Tavernise. The wreckage was still smoldering. She was surrounded by miles of fallen bodies. This is during her second recent reporting trip to Ukraine, covering the conflict between the government and pro-Russian separatists. She was there from mid-May through mid-June. Returned July sixth and stayed three more weeks. Currently in Ukraine, the Ukrainian military is trying to reclaim territory in the east, taken by pro-Russian separatists. About twenty thousand combat-ready Russian troops are massed on Ukraine's eastern border. Tavernise speaks Russian and covered Russia for the New York Times in the early 2000's. She's covered war and conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Chechnya. Sabrina Tavernise, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you were already in Ukraine when you learned about the downed Malaysian jet. What was your reaction when you knew you would be driving there? I mean, on the one hand it's a big story which reporters all want. At the same time, you knew this was not only a tragedy but you were going to be witnessing something quite gruesome.

SABRINA TAVERNISE: You know, I initially - when we set out I didn't really have much in my mind of what I was going to see - I mean, I thought OK, we're pretty sure at that point that it was a passenger aircraft. But I didn't know how many people, what would look like, who had done it, and when we got out of the car, I think I was just kind of unprepared for what I was going to look at. I somehow expected a big hulk of the plane and that would be all sort of immediately clear right there. But it wasn't, it was confusing. There were sort of pieces of plane and there was a fire going, a pretty intense one. So the fight had taken off from Amsterdam and it had only - it hadn't gotten very far, so it had a lot of gasoline and it was burning. There was kind of a ragtag group of firefighters that put it out of around - I'd say 11 pm, I guess. It was burning for quite some time. It was - it kind of - it was like the end of the world looking at this thing. I mean, it was - there were just a lot of people and a lot of bodies, but they weren't immediately visible. The grasses were very high, and it was a very strange juxtaposition because in fact, the landscape was quite beautiful. I mean, it was wheat fields, sunflower fields and then this large, grassy field where we were sort of walking through and you would come upon the bodies in their strange shapes. And some of them were still strapped to their seats. And it was - I don't know, it was hard to - it was hard to process it actually.

GROSS: You described that in one of your articles, that there were bodies still with seatbelts on them strapped to mangled remnants of seats, and that - that was just one of the images that really stuck with me from your reporting. I think the reason why they were still strapped in is because the plane was blown up - it's not like the plane crashed. So fragments and bodies were scattered all over.

TAVERNISE: That's right, it split apart way up in the sky and they came down you know - some of them completely intact-- for some reason, particularly the children - although many of the children had been thrown clear - maybe it was because they had smaller body weight. We spent the night at the crash site after many hours of looking through the fields, and the next morning I remember seeing - there was a little girl who had a little pink T-shirt on and she was sort of in this distant area near kind of a pond, totally thrown clear. I mean, not near anything at all. And - I mean, it added to the deeply unnatural nature of the thing, you know? I mean, the villagers nearby had the same - in some ways, the same experience. They had - I mean, there were bodies that fell through their roofs and into their gardens. One colleague talked to a villager who had come upon the body of a little boy and brought it to the hospital just thinking - and leave it lying in the street like this, it's too strange you know - but also part of the crash site. And it was such a massive area I mean, 35 square kilometers is about what Lockerbie was so you could walk for miles and miles and not get to the end of this thing.

GROSS: What did you see as your job as a reporter when you were faced with this huge scene of bodies and mangled pieces of jet?

TAVERNISE: I kind of just went into reporter mode - so I wasn't really absorbing any of it. I was just categorizing, describing, writing numbers of bodies I had seen in my notebook and trying to describe in as detailed a way as possible what they looked like, where they were. And in that sense, sort of give people a picture of this thing. The other very strange aspect of what happened was that there really weren't - there were very few people out there that first night. I mean, when you arrive to the scene of the disaster, you'd expect that there's going to be police tape, and emergency responders, and sirens, and people yelling at journalists to get away - and there was none of that. It was just - it was quiet. The fire had been put out. And it was dark. It was cloudy, so the moon wasn't illuminating anything at all. We were using headlamps and just going through, looking at people, you know? And it felt so deeply sad that no one was coming to help them, you know? That they were alone basically in those fields. And...

GROSS: Why weren't there more people? Why weren't there rescue workers or you know, police, whatever?

TAVERNISE: What happened was they fell - the plane was blown apart and fell into this kind of no man's land. I mean, it was a - it's a land where there's a war and because there's a war, many, many people have left as refugees. There's, you know - it's largely depopulated, so there just wasn't a lot of manpower I think, in terms of rescue workers - you know there were a handful of them that first night but they sort of melted away as it got dark. Certainly after the fire was put out, they left the fields completely so there was really no one at all in the fields except for a handful of journalists going through with their headlamps. And you know, the response throughout had just been very incompetent and extraordinarily understaffed until Sunday, which is a full four days after the plane came down. There really weren't that many people out there helping or collecting. I mean, at one point I remarked to the colleague that there were more journalists than there were rescue workers at the site. And they were going around, kind of looking at things and Saturday, the bodies were still lying there. So is really quite - I mean, it wasn't even really a response at all.

GROSS: As a journalist, did you feel it was OK to go through people's personal remains or to touch those personal remains, to examine them - or did you feel like - well, this is a crime scene so shouldn't touch anything?

TAVERNISE: I think I felt a little bit of both. I mean, there were areas on the grass where some papers were scattered, and the next morning I remember kind of lifting up a couple of them, looking at them - someone's notes on a seminar it looked like they were giving, someone's Avis parking garage ticket, people's boarding passes. So yes, you felt a little bit like you perhaps shouldn't be looking but again - it was very strange because it was - you know, there was no one there. It was a - it was a crime scene but it wasn't.

GROSS: So how much contact did you have with the separatists at the crash site?

TAVERNISE: So, I had a lot of contact with the separatists at the crash site. I mean, they were - they were there - a number of them were there sort of on the - in the early days and you know, it's - it's interesting because I think that the narrative that very quickly established itself out there was that you know, the separatists - and this is the villagers - all of the villagers were saying this to me - you know, the separatists are so - you know, they're so bumbling, and they're poor, and they don't - they have old guns, and they - you know, their pants are tied together with string, and they can barely kind of do anything for - I mean, how could you - how could these people shoot down an airplane? And so that kind of took hold, and the Russian television version sort of eventually hooked into that and then kind of ran with an entirely different narrative from our narrative, which was the rebels shot down the plane. And we don't think they did it on purpose, we think they did about mistake but still you know, they were the ones who did it. But our narrative was very different than the narrative on the ground.

GROSS: And our narrative is also that was probably Russian-supplied weapon.

TAVERNISE: That's right. It was difficult, particularly as the days went on, to really engage in any type of conversation that was open and honest about who had done it and what had happened. I mean, the area had - some parts of that area out there had had some Ukrainian bombing, so a lot of the villagers when it first happened thought that a Ukrainian plane had bombed something - I mean, that was their logic, that's what they thought happened. And - and essentially - when I first went into the village the first morning, it was - Russian TV hadn't figured out a narrative yet. Everyone was just very raw from watching what had happened. I mean, it was terrifying for them. I mean, the plane came very, very close to crushing the village and as I said, there were bodies who had fallen - that had fallen into their - into their gardens and into their - onto their homes. So they were - you know, they were sort of trying to make sense of it themselves, and most people thought that Ukrainian jet had shot down the plane. That's you know, a version obviously that the Americans have - have discounted and said is not - they don't think that that's a - remotely plausible as a theory. There were two people in that village that morning who said that they had seen the flash from a missile. And so - but both of those people - one was a 15-year-old boy who didn't really of any political persuasion, but the other was someone who really hated Putin. He lived in the Czech Republic for a number of years. He said you know, people here are so misguided, they don't understand, they're, you know - that this is - really the Russians have done this and they should be held responsible. But he was very frightened. He wouldn't say it publicly. He didn't want his name. So it was difficult to sort of go on in the reporting in the following days because people's interpretations of what happened tended to follow their political beliefs.

GROSS: Sabrina Tavernise - she's a New York Times reporter, a former foreign correspondent who's covered many wars and now covers public health. But she speaks Russian, and she was sent to cover Ukraine in May. She's made a couple of trips, and during one of those trips she covered the downed Malaysian jet. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Sabrina Tavernise. She is a reporter for The New York Times who speaks Russian and was in Ukraine during much of May, June and July. And she was there when the Malaysian jet was downed, and she covered it. She was one of the first journalists on the scene. Did seeing so many dead bodies sitting in this field for days make you think about what are your own beliefs about what happens to the body or the soul - is there a soul after death? - you know, just all your thoughts about what death is and what happens after.

TAVERNISE: You know, there were a number of remarks in the Dutch press of people saying, you know - that we're mourning our loved one but - and, you know, we just don't want to think about the current, you know, where the body is or what is happening because the soul has left. I mean, I feel - I guess the thing that I came away thinking from that experience was that you think that, you know, you won't be - as a journalist, you're not going to be - you know, you have to be sort of clinical. And you're not really going to be affected. And you just - you just kind of go through and look at your notebook and take - and number things and put things in logical lines. But I think that in a way, I sort of regret being so thorough because they stay with you. I don't know, the faces of the people and how they lay in the grass and, you know. They come into your mind, and it's hard to - it's hard to get them out.

GROSS: Do you feel that there is definitive proof that the rebels shot down the Malaysian jet with a Russian-made weapon?

TAVERNISE: You know, I don't, honestly. I mean, I was so hoping that the Americans would have something much more persuasive than they have at least shown us. You know, there were a lot of sort of photographs and videos of the alleged offending buk, this is the large missile system that's supposed to have shot down the plane, that the Ukrainians had distributed - largely sort of Ukrainian intelligence photos. But, you know, it was unclear that that's what it was. The photographs - two of the sort of, you know, quote-unquote, "conclusive photographs" were of this missile system sort of driving around in different places but on the day, supposedly, of the downing of the plane. But two of the photographs had very bright, sunny skies. And the day that the plane came down was very cloudy all day. So it was difficult to tell, you know, kind of looking at these, you know, kind of photographs that were supposed to have proved that, you know, where it was shot down and who shot it down, that that was actually what happened. I mean, we spent a bunch of time actually looking for the exact locations in eastern Ukraine where these photographs were taken from, going back, interviewing, you know, people in gas stations, people in supermarkets, people right around the places where this, you know, large weapons system was seen passing through. But it was very difficult. I mean, essentially, you know, all witnesses were very flawed at that point because the Russian narrative it taken hold. It was a pretty hostile population, generally, against the Western version. They were angry that the Ukrainians had been bombing out there and didn't want to - you know, you would start sort of asking, well, have you seen anything strange over the past couple of days? A plane was shot down out here. And they would say, oh, yes, you know, the bad Ukrainians - they're animals. How could they have done such a thing? There was a great hunger, I think, in the U.S., for understanding, you know, who these people were, who had done it and where it was shot from and to go back and reconstruct the last 24 hours. But as a reporting mission, it was, you know, very difficult. And in the end, I sort of ended up writing a piece that was almost more of a comedy. You know, it was, the buk was seen slinking behind a supermarket and peeking outside a gas station. And, you know, you saw the photographs, and you could match them up with the spot in these villages where the photographs were taken. But did that mean that was the offending missile system? No one knew or was willing to say.

GROSS: During the time that you covered the site of the downed Malaysian jet and during the period that you were covering the conflict in Ukraine, you spoke to - I assume you spoke to a lot of the rebels who want to separate from Ukraine and identify with Russia. What can you tell us about who the rebels are and how much support they appear to have from Russia?

TAVERNISE: So the rebels are - it's important to remember that it's not a monolith. There are a lot of different groups. And we see, as the sort of head of the rebels or the few guys who lead them - who lead all of these disparate groups, some of which pay attention to these guys and some of which don't - but there are a handful of Russian passport holders, Russians who have very extreme ideas about Russian nationalism and Russia's rightful place in the world and almost paranoid ideas...That in the 1990s, you would see these people kind of giving away these sort of semi-nationalist, fascist newspapers in the underground walkways in Moscow. And you would think, oh, those people, you know, they're so fringe. They're not important, and they're crazy. But thank goodness they don't really run things. And these people run things in eastern Ukraine. So I say run things, but they're nominally the head of this kind of rebellion. They have very inflammatory language about Ukrainians. You know, there's this very kind of nasty streak that essentially is igniting - is igniting an ethnic conflict where there really wasn't one. So that's one layer. But then, if you remember back to Crimea, that Russia actually seized with soldiers, Russian soldiers with Russian military power this spring, the rebels in eastern Ukraine are very different than those soldiers. They are not, for the most part, Russian soldiers. They're locals, for the most part, who feel - who are, you know, largely impoverished. Oftentimes they're coal miners. They're sort of local workers. They have sort of misguided notions about what Russia really wants. You know, they think, oh, you know, we could become this territory that - not part of Russia, but close to it. And they're our big brother, and, you know, they'll pay our pensions. And they'll pay our pensioners more than our pensioners currently get from Ukraine. I mean, there's a lot of sort of misguided notions about the potential kind of statehood potential of the area. But I think part of what they are complaining about has some merit because the Ukrainian military has pressed a pretty brutal offensive, actually, in the East. And there have been a lot of civilian casualties. There's been a lot of shooting from sort of Soviet-era weapons systems, very imprecise weapons systems, by the Ukrainians - by the rebels as well. But when the Ukrainians press closer, there are volleys back and forth. And a lot of people end up dying. So these people, many of them we talked to joined because there had been a Ukrainian bombing in their town. They felt enraged, and they said, you know, these people are coming to Kyiv to our land and killing our people. And we don't want to stand for that. We will not stand for that.

GROSS: Sabrina Tavernise will be back in the second half of the show to talk more about her experiences covering eastern Ukraine for The New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Sabrina Tavernise. She was in Ukraine for several weeks between mid-May and late July covering the eastern part of the country, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists. The Ukrainian military is trying to take it back. About 20,000 combat-ready Russian troops are amassed on Ukraine's eastern border. Tavernise was one of the first journalists to arrive at the site of downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine. Tavernise speaks Russian and covered Russia for The New York Times in the early 2000s. She's covered war and conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Chechnya. As we record this interview on Tuesday morning, the morning of August 5th, it looks like Ukrainian forces are about to battle the rebel forces in Donetsk, battle for control of the city. What's at stake here?

TAVERNISE: Donetsk is really their most important stronghold. I mean, it's a city of nearly a million people, or had been, before people started leaving because of the war and the shelling. It's incredibly important for the rebels, in terms of their own strategy, to keep a foothold there. You know, it's a place where they drive around unprotected with no bodyguards. You know, the leaders of the movement sit in a cafe, have coffee. You know, there's no - they're absolutely safe there. It's their sort of - it's their castle, if you will. So if they lose that, then I think, you know, really the Ukrainians have - it would be a significant victory for the Ukrainians. However, having said that, you know, the border region further east is still extremely contested. And I think, you know, for Russia, sort of in a bigger way, what makes me nervous is that Russia now really has almost nothing left to lose in terms of sanctions. I mean, you know, the sanctions have really been ratcheted up. And Russia has really made it clear that even if it seems irrational, they will press their case for some say over the future of Ukraine and over Ukrainian kind of politics and what happens in that country. So I feel worried about, you know, the next couple of weeks. What's going to happen? I mean, say the Ukrainian military does take Donetsk. You know, we are writing about how the Russians now have more than 20,000 troops amassed along the border. Will they come in under the guise of a peacekeeping mission? I don't know what the answer is. But I feel that it's a very dangerous situation. And I don't think, necessarily, that a Ukrainian military victory - you know, quote-unquote because I don't think that the border is going to be subdued any time soon - I think a Ukrainian military victory is not necessarily the end of the violence or the end of the story.

GROSS: Play out that scenario for us. What's a kind of worst-case scenario you've been playing out in your mind?

TAVERNISE: I think the worst-case scenario is that the Russians come in with troops that they say is sort of a peacekeeping force to, you know, protect the Russian-speaking population of eastern Ukraine. And I don't know what the West would do in this case. I mean, it would be a very, very hostile act on the part of the Russians. But I think that they're a little bit in the corner at this point. They're a little bit - they've made it very, very clear that they're willing to pretty much do almost anything to continue to have Ukraine be in their sphere of influence. I think that, you know, the past models of - the president who was deposed, Yanukovych - that was kind of - you know, the Russians had some influence over him. And that was sort of the model, that they would influence kind of the local elite. But that model is out the window. And I think they're looking for some type of arrangement where they could continue to influence Ukraine. And whether we think that's fair or not or whether we think that's right not, I think that's what they're looking for. That's the reality of the situation.

GROSS: Do you think that we're in a new cold war with the Russians?

TAVERNISE: You know, not really. I think that the Russians had a long kind of 20 years of anger and bitterness and sort of feeling of humiliation after the fall of the Soviet Union that I think the West never fully appreciated. I think that the West thought, you know, oh, it's - you know, you're free. And now you can have democracy. And, you know, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and that's a wonderful thing. But I think that in the country of Russia it's much more complicated. It's not as easy as let's just, you know, sweep out all of that and put it on the trash heap of history. I mean, there were - you know, this was - people had worked their lives to sort of, you know, build things in that country and had labored under an illusion that they were - you know, it was the property of the people. And it was - you know, they were great country. And then come the 1990s, it turned out that everything they had done was wrong. They, in fact, were a laughingstock. And, you know, they had no one. They were so unimportant that the West didn't even really put them on any type of, you know - any type of important person list ever. And I think that - you know, I think that had an effect. I think that's sort of some of what's coming on in Putin and some of what's coming out in these actions today.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise. And she now covers public health, but she's a former foreign correspondent. She's covered many wars and recently returned from Ukraine, where she was covering the downed Malaysian jet. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise. She currently covers public health, but she's a former foreign correspondent who speaks Russian. So she was recently in Ukraine covering the conflict there and she was there when a Malaysian jet was downed, and she covered that. She was one of the first reporters on the scene. You spent weeks covering the conflict in Ukraine, and a very strange story happened to you that I think may illustrate the kind of confusion now, in terms of figuring out who the rebels are and what they want. You are stopped at a checkpoint. And you didn't know what was going to happen for. You were driven someplace. And it's just such a strange story. You ended up basically listening more than talking. The person who took you seemed to want to know very little about you but told him all about himself. What did you learn about this guy and who he represents in the conflict?

TAVERNISE: You know, he was - it was a very strange event. I still in a way feel like I have dreamed it - it was so odd. I was stopped at a checkpoint and the sort of locals handed me off to this fellow who told me to get in the back of his car and that he was going to take me a place were my documents would be checked. And he drove extremely fast and he said...

GROSS: ...Like 100 miles an hour fast.

TAVERNISE: Extremely fast. I mean, I thought - I was having images of the car crashing in my mind it was - I didn't think a kind of a Alota, which is a - sort of this Soviet-era design was capable of going 100 miles an hour, but he made it go that fast. And when he stopped the car, he stopped it sort of outside this kind of residential area, and I thought, this doesn't look like the place where my documents would be checked. He turned to me and he said - he told me his name and he said he was tired, and that there was some suspicion about me but that I would have my documents checked by him personally inside an apartment where his fiancee would make us tea. And I thought OK, what's going - what's happening here? And you know, he took me up this kind of - kind of dank, dark, five-story stairwell to an upper story - an upper floor. And we went into an apartment that was very small and took me into a kitchen. And then proceeded to start talking and you know, kind of glance at my documents but really I think was just bored, and clearly had a lot of power over the people at the checkpoint and anyone else he encountered, and said that he was someone who fought for money. He was a mercenary and not ashamed of it all. He said this his - you know, this is what he did, this was his life. And he said he had actually been born in Turkey and that his father was Turkish and mother was Russian, but he spent his whole life growing up in Moscow. And that he you know, didn't really particularly care about Ukraine or eastern Ukraine. He had no political convictions. He just knew that we had a break when he had a break he would be going home to Moscow and be driving his very fancy, new Mercedes car very fast through Moscow's streets in the middle of the night. That was the thing he loved most doing. I sort of initially was very afraid and then kind of warmed up and I said, so what is going to happen here in Lugansk - because that's where we were. We were in a city that's sort of the second-largest rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine and - very, very dangerous city this point. The Ukrainians have almost, almost taken it. And then he kind of looked around he said you know, these locals, they're hopeless. They don't know how to fight. You know, most of them were kind of cobblers, accountants, coal miners. I mean they're - we're having to train them and they're not very good. And I'd say probably - and a lot of them just desert because people don't want to kind of you know, go - once they realize people are dying, they just go back home. And I said, so what do you think? What's going to happen with Lugansk? And he said you know, it'll fall to the Ukrainians. And I said...

GROSS: Really, he said that?

TAVERNISE: Yes, he said they'll take it. And I was just shocked. I thought, God, well, I've never heard that from anyone of the rebel persuasion, and I couldn't believe it. And he said you know, they're about about 50, 60 of us, you know, these sort of mercenary fighters from Russia, and not enough locals to put up enough of a fight to stop them for a very long time. He thought it was a matter of weeks. It was very frank. I mean, I - I didn't quite know what to make of it.

GROSS: And then he drove you back to where he took you from?

TAVERNISE: He did. He did.

GROSS: At 100 miles an hour hour?

TAVERNISE: Yes, the same speed.

GROSS: So, what's the moral of the story? What do you make of this? What does this tell you about the conflict in the Ukraine?

TAVERNISE: It's a really good question. I think - I think for one it says war is confusing and half the time you just don't - you can't make sense of what you're looking at. You do not know what's going on. You don't know if it's real or it's fake, or if someone's posturing, or they're - they're being honest and in terms of the conflict you know, that there really are a fighting core of Russians who are perhaps the backbone of the actual fight in terms of you know, artillery and military strategy against the Ukrainians. And that you know, if the Russians really wanted to they could easily pull the plug on this. I mean, if they pulled the plug on this it would be over tomorrow. So, I mean, you know, it does - it does - it sort of gives you a sense of how layered this conflict is, you know, that there are locals who, you know, are the coal miners who are bumbling and don't really know how to fire their guns. But that there are also a battle hardened core of people from Russia who do and, you know, together that is kind of what the insurgency is.

GROSS: Let me quote something you wrote in one of your pieces about Ukraine. You wrote (reading) violence changes people. It chips away at the space in the middle and eventually forces even moderates to choose sides. Many refuse and end up leaving. What remains is a society without a middle where war spreads much more easily, like fire on dry wood. It sounds like you're speaking from experience having covered several wars and conflicts.

TAVERNISE: Yes, you know, I've - perhaps this is wrong - but I see it so - so much through the lens of Iraq when the early years we went and it was a wide open place that you could drive anywhere and people wanted to talk to you. And it was just open like a big, big outdoor movie screen, you know? And as the violence started to ramp up, things changed and things changed inside the society. And if you weren't not paying attention you might miss it, but families mixed with Sunnis and Shias were having - starting to have problems. And, you know, the violence, you know, a bomb somewhere would have, you know, ten young men from the neighborhood going to join one side or the other, say. And it wasn't really perceptible at the beginning. And in fact, many of the Iraqis we worked with were very hostile to the idea that this was happening, that it wouldn't happen in our society. We, you know, we are educated. We don't discriminate on the basis of sect, this is ridiculous. And then the more violence happened, the more people who were educated and didn't discriminate on the basis of sect left. And the emptier the place became sort of fed this loop of, you know, people essentially to protect themselves and to protect their families kind of needed to choose sides. It's almost like people are forced into that situation. You know, some people have the sort of passion and the outrage and the anger because they've had someone killed and they want to sign up, they want to fight. But a lot of people are just kind of, you know, the product of circumstance basically. They, you know, the ledge that they're standing on gets smaller and smaller and smaller and eventually they have to sort of fall in one direction or the other. And that's something that I felt a little bit was happening in Ukraine. I was struggling in the beginning with understanding what is this war? Is this the sort of fake, just-add-water and a couple of Russian mercenaries thing that, you know, Russia's kind of pumped up to make itself feel good - ? - to make sure that Ukraine will, you know, always be in its own sphere of influence? Is this fake, or is there emotion coursing through it in a sort of an indigenous, local way that means that it's going to go on for much longer than we would like? That means it's going to take hold and sort of grow roots. Which one is it? And I was trying to sort of figure that out in that piece when I wrote that. And I feel that in fact, it's difficult to say, but I do feel that there's a significant amount of the indigenous aspect to it now. There's been many, many people killed. I mean, nearly 1000 civilians have been killed in this war so far. And I just am not so sure anymore that, you know, it is the fake just-add-water thing that we all kind of saw it as and hoped that it was in the beginning.

GROSS: Sabrina Tavernise, thank you very much for talking with us.

TAVERNISE: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Sabrina Tavernise is a reporter for the New York Times. Coming up, Ed Ward tells us about a new massive anthology, collecting early blues and jazz recordings originally produced for the Paramount label. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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