“They Hit Right Where He’d Been Lying”: Russians Shelled Ukrainian Journalists in Avdiivka
On the evening of August 11, while a camera crew of the Ukrainian Witness project was filming the aftermath of the shelling in Avdiivka, Donetsk Region, the Russians opened artillery fire. Fortunately, both the journalists and the soldier accompanying them remained unharmed. The men say that the invaders deliberately targeted them, knowing that media workers were in the crosshairs.
Journalist Oleksiy Prodayvoda and cameraman Oleksandr Davydenko had arrived in Avdiivka on August 10. The very next day, Ukrainian Witness began filming the everyday life of the people remaining in the city and the consequences of the systematic shelling by Russian forces.
“We got to work as soon as we awoke in the morning. By that time, we had already quite a lot of experience of hiding from Grad shells, there were a lot of howitzers firing at the city, a lot of hits nearby, but not as close as it was in the afternoon,” said Oleksandr Davydenko.
On the evening of August 11, the journalists, together with their guide Viktor, a member of the 1st Company of the Kyiv Regiment, went to the old town, the area of the city that the Russians shelled during the day.
“It’s an individual housing area. During the day, we saw regular air strikes coming in there. We climbed into a nine-story building with the Avdiivka defenders and watched as clouds of smoke rose from the sites of impact. It was daytime. We filmed it. In the afternoon, when it got quieter, we decided to take a look at what happened there, whether there were any casualties,” explained Oleksiy Prodayvoda.
According to Oleksandr Davydenko, almost the entire local population has left the old town. First of all, because of the high density of shelling, since hostile positions are very close by. Some people, however, stayed home.
“We thought maybe someone needed help. Very few people live there. It’s a dangerous area, people are even afraid to go to the wells for water, although water is very scarce in Avdiivka. But people live there. We drove up and saw a man on a bicycle. He was a local. There was a dog on a chain. That is, it is clear that there are still people there,” – said Davydenko.
The journalists found out on site that no victims had been injured or killed in the shelling that day, but they saw several destroyed burnt-out houses.
According to Prodayvoda, around 6 p.m. they heard howitzer rounds being fired. Then, there was a hit a few dozens of meters away from them. The men began to run away from the point of impact, but the explosions continued to chase the group.
“First we fell down. We stood up. Moved to another recess. Fell down. Another hit. Closer now. We got up, ran further, fell down again, and they hit right where we were lying before. We were lucky that there was a cess, it’s a depression along a railroad track, which was abandoned. So we lay down there, and the hits were getting closer and closer. We realized that it was not just random shelling that we were caught in. No, they were targeting us and it was obvious that they were aiming at us because the vibration and rustle of the shrapnel were getting closer. We pressed deeper and deeper into the ground,” Oleksiy recalled.
According to journalists, their escort, Viktor, a special forces officer from the 1st Company of the Kyiv Regiment, heard a UAV.
“I started questioning him. He told me to be quiet because he was listening intently to what was happening in the sky. And he heard, even I heard this hum a little bit. So yes, we could hear the UAV’s hum. It wasn’t visible, I mean it wasn’t some Orlan, it was an ordinary, maybe amateur drone. Some sort of a [DJI] Mavic hovering over us. Realizing that the artillery fire was guided from the sky, the military officer ordered us to move under a tree. As we crawled into the thicket, the UAV lost us. But the shelling didn’t stop,” said Oleksiy.
Oleksandr Davydenko believes the crew got away because their guide heard the drone, making them keep changing their location rather than staying and waiting for the shelling to stop.
“Viktor probably saved us. We would have laid there, trying to wait it out, but it would’ve been a bad idea because if they were seeing us from the UAV, they would have continued to hit us,” said the journalist.
Journalists counted a dozen shells fired at them with 122mm howitzers.
“It’s not the first time I’ve been in a war, and it’s not the first time I’ve been under fire, but it’s the first time I’ve had clothes blow up like a sail after an explosion and pieces of earth fly right over my helmet,” said Oleksandr Davydenko.
When the film crew was in a safe place, Oleksiy Prodayvoda saw a piece of shrapnel sticking out of his armor vest.
“It could have stuck to me when we were on the ground, but no. The military said it was fresh, not rusty. As they joked, it still smelled like gunpowder. So it was spent, it must have bounced off of a tree or a house before hitting me,” said Prodayvoda.
The journalists have no doubts: the shelling was targeted. Oleksiy argued that they had the appropriate markings on their helmets and body armor and that the shelling stopped as soon as they managed to escape.
“We saw movement, we saw a car. Although the car was an ordinary civilian SUV, it was hard to confuse us with anyone else. The cameraman and I had huge “Press” inscriptions on our armor vests and helmets. It’s hard to confuse a man holding a gun with a man holding a camera. So even if they were watching our movements from a drone, they would have seen that we were filming and that we had no weapons. But this is the kind of enemy who violates all the traditions and customs of war and is at war with journalists. They don’t care if it’s journalists, children, or medics, they just want more victims and for us to understand that, so we ran away and hid,” explained Prodayvoda.
Oleksandr Davydenko also pointed out that the drone could not miss the journalists’ markings.
“There is a short distance from enemy positions to where we were, so the UAV can freely reach us. I think they saw that we were journalists because we had “Press” signs on all sides. I know how to fly a drone, I know what it looks like, and I would know for sure that we weren’t military. So I’m sure they knew we were journalists. They could have been having fun. I’m not sure they’re going after journalists on purpose, but I don’t know how to predict what’s in their heads,” he said.
Media lawyer Maksym Dvorovyi stated that there are other cases indicating that Russian troops are actively targeting journalists. According to him, if journalists have the appropriate identification badges, they are equated with civilians, which means that such shelling is considered a violation of international humanitarian law.
“The key thing that is necessary for journalists to receive protection under the provisions of international humanitarian law is to identify them clearly as journalists. If they are properly identified, if they wear “Press” signs, and if they are not wearing military uniforms, they must be treated equally to civilians under the requirements of international humanitarian law. Accordingly, any crimes against journalists are crimes committed against civilians. If this shelling was targeted and if there is a suspicion that this shelling was aimed at journalists, and we have evidence that the Russian Armed Forces do it quite often, then such an attack would be a violation of international humanitarian law,” Dvorovyi explained.
It is necessary to demonstrate the systematic nature of such cases and their intent in order to prove the violation of international humanitarian law before international authorities.
“Under the norms of the Rome Statute, crimes against humanity are any acts committed within a full-scale or systematic attack on civilians if such an attack is committed knowingly. That is, we must prove systematicity and intentionality. This is what needs to be relied on when proving such crimes against humanity, against civilians,” the expert noted.
At the same time, according to the media lawyer, it is important to prove such violations within the limits of national law, because it is often the people in charge of organizing crimes who are held accountable, not the perpetrators themselves.
“If we look at the experience of international criminal tribunals, such as the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, usually international tribunals prosecute those who gave the orders and directed the execution of certain crimes. Perpetrators of smaller scale are brought to justice at national levels, sometimes with the use of universal jurisdiction, sometimes without it,” the lawyer explained.
This article was produced by Bihus.Info as part of the program “Supporting Ukraine’s Regional Media in Times of War” with the financial support of the European Union and the Foreign Ministry of the Kingdom of Norway. The content is the sole responsibility of Bihus.Info and does not reflect the views of the European Union, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
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