Frontline cameraman: Things done in Ukraine even worse than Chechen war

Ivar Heinmaa on
Ivar Heinmaa on "Hommik Anuga". Source: Mathias Markus Kangur/ERR

What is happening in Ukraine is much worse than the 1995 Chechen War, frontline cameraman Ivar Heinmaa tells Anu Välba in an interview. While it is possible to achieve relative safety by being careful in other conflicts, that is not the case in Ukraine.

You recently got back from Ukraine. How does it feel to be home?

It is nice and calm here, while it's the same in Ukraine. For example, you do not feel the war in Kyiv. All the cafes are open, people dress normally, go out to eat and drink and party. At the same time, there is a bloodbath of terrible proportions unfolding in the east.

Do the Ukrainians want to appear on camera, do they trust journalists?

People are relatively forthcoming. It was a little more serious back in spring. We were filming a dairy line in Chernihiv. I took out the camera and started rolling. This was followed by a shrill scream, people started yelling and telling me that my filming would bring down a Russian missile. I tried to say I was from Estonia, showed them my passport – nothing. People eventually called the territorial defense. They came, checked who we were and told us we can keep going. But the people were very suspicious. This has blown over somewhat since. We could film relatively freely when we last visited eastern Ukraine.

But you can go there and film and stay safe if you have "PRESS" written on your back?

You need it. You need the press sign on your back if the Ukrainian army sees you. But it offers no protection. That has been the case since the Yugoslav war. When we were in Sarajevo, Serbian snipers were targeting people with press insignia on their vest of helmet.

To what extent do you feel that the work you do in Ukraine is crucially important for the world to see the horror and beastliness?

Of course, there's that, but I am hardly the only one. The entire world was there in spring. When we visited Bucha, we went on the so-called open doors day, or the second day. There were something like ten busloads of journalists, 150 people in all, I believe, and we were given a day tour. I know that another ten busloads of journalists went the next day. It was the number one news in the world this spring and everyone showed up.

Ivar, what does it mean to be close to such things?

It is terrible, but I have been doing this for a long time, seen it all, and if you listen to the stories people tell, only their names and faces are different – it has all happened before. Of course, what transpired in Bucha was especially revolting. When we were taken to see the charred corpses, the line of buses pulled over by the side of the road, the doors opened, I saw that an area had been cordoned off with tape, and the race was on for who could get a better spot out of the bus. Everyone – 150 people – made a run for it, and we got a great spot.

You don't think about how terrible it is when you're there. You try to work – get a long shot, closeups, while keeping in mind how they could be edited; if the editor wants to appear on camera, how's the sound – you rather concentrate on that.

But once evening comes, you have to sit down with the reporter, maybe get a drink and talk about the day's events. I've seen several guys keep it all in, go home and start talking about it there. Their wife will not want to hear about the horror, nor their colleagues, so they will keep it bottled up inside even longer until they finally explode. A good colleague from Finland stepped in front of a train. I first started going to Chechnya with them.

You've said that the Chechen War, Grozny was the foulest experience you've had, and there were times you doubted whether you would get out alive.

Ukraine has been far worse and the things done there even more terrible. The very same Chechens, some of them Kadyrov's guys, who used to fight Russians are now fighting the Ukrainians. Ears are being cut off, soldiers who died in Ilovaisk in 2014 had their bellies sliced open and stuffed full of sand so it would take longer to drag them off the battlefield and make it easier for snipers to hit their targets. Or soldiers shot in the legs, screaming in pain, and those sent to retrieve them picked off by a sniper one by one.

Have you found yourself in such a dangerous situation in Ukraine?

The last one was in Sloviansk when a kindergarten was hit by a Russian missile. We drove there to film it and were almost done when 62-year-old Slava rolled up on his bicycle. And said, you want to know the truth, guys? I'll tell you. It's Ukraine doing the firing, they are waiting for journalists to go near the site before hitting it with a missile and blaming Russia. They were thick there. Sloviansk was full of them. We went to the local market to film, and I would say that 90 percent of people blamed Ukraine, said Ukraine was to blame. They live in Ukraine and have Ukrainian passports but are waiting for the Russkiy Mir to finally come and rescue them.

Do you think journalists are buying it?

I doubt it, but you never know. Not Western ones at least, while brainwashed people can be found everywhere. I know that some journalists have been allowed to go with the Russians on the other side, but those are all handpicked idealists from the West. Let's say that ordinary journalists cannot go there today. The last time I went on the separatist side, or let's just say the Russian side, was in 2015, and I have not managed to secure accreditation since.

What was your takeaway?

I remember it was surprisingly easy to work there. We were pulled over at a checkpoint, I was with some Finns, and asked who we were. I replied in Russian and said we were from the Finnish television. Next, I was asked where I had learned to speak fluent Russian. I said I was from Estonia and they had no problem with it. Another time, I was asked why people in Estonia hated Russians, I replied that there's nothing like that in Estonia, while they do in Latvia. "Oh, that's in Latvia, right, go ahead then."

You always get a great shot. But is there something video cannot capture?

The smell of corpses. You know it everywhere after you first smell it. No matter where you go, you can smell nearby dead bodies after that. It is pretty vile. I often wear a scarf that I can lift in front of my mouth to keep it at bay even a little.

Talking to the Ukrainian people and looking them in the eye, what are they hoping for? We say that theirs is a patriotic nation, but what's the inside perspective?

That's it. They are not afraid of anything. I used to consider the Chechens the finest soldiers in the world; the Kurds who were fighting ISIS are also mighty, and then come the Ukrainians. I take my hat off to them. They know what they are fighting for. The Russians came and grabbed the land standing for nothing at all. Most are out for money, they are mercenaries and are not fighting for their homeland, culture and language. But the Ukrainians are, they know they have nowhere to fall back to. There is great patriotism.

The last time I was over, I met with the women who appeared in my documentary ("Naised rindejoonel" [Women on the Front]) and the last of them in Lviv urged us not to forget about them. To avoid giving in to war weariness and switch the channel because so much has been said and written. She said it was the most important thing – not to forget about them.

How much pain and tears did you see over there?

We went to a funeral in Lviv and it was quite painful. There were seven funerals in Lviv alone one day. But what made our voices quiver, when we were in the funerary procession, driving from the church to the cemetery, people came out to the street and kneeled. Cafes and barbershops were closed, everyone came to the street and kneeled down. Those who could not kneel, put their hand on their heart. We teared up ourselves. Complete strangers go outside and kneel when a funerary procession goes by.

What is the situation in the cities that have been bombed?

The destruction is not all-encompassing, but the places that have been hit by missiles bear terrible scars. For example, we were staying at the Druzhkivka Hotel near Kramatorsk in spring. The ERR guys (Kristjan Svirgsden and Anton Aleksejev) were there, as was (Jaanus) Piirsalu from Postimees – a bunch of Estonians. We were all staying on the third floor, and there was a loud boom at 5 a.m. I jumped out of bed, trying to figure out whether something had happened or whether I was still asleep. A second bang followed after a while.

Next day, we went to have a look. A village roughly one kilometer from the hotel had been hit. There was a 10-meter crater in the middle of it, surrounded by destroyed houses. That made me think that we would have been too had it fallen just a little bit closer. There was a laminate ceiling at the hotel that came crushing down.

Do you think about your life during such moments, ask yourself whether it's worth it?

It did occur to me there that while you may be a professional, and in the wars that I have covered you've been on either side where you know the sniper is shooting from that side of the street, and that you're safe where you are. But an Iskander barrage at night, the missiles coming from any direction... You can be as professional as you like, you'll be dead either way.

Why do you still do it?

The simple answer is that had I learned another trade in school, I would be doing that, but it's also exciting. You get to see what's happening with your own eyes.

What helps you blow off steam and not carry it all with you?

Good friends and exercising, for example. I try to bring exercise bands when I'm going somewhere without gyms or other facilities. We returned from filming in the Donbas this spring, and there were Estonian guys at the hotel. I put on a set of headphones and started exercising. I tried to get at least an hour of exercise in every day. They said I had lost my marbles. That there's a war outside but this guy's doing exercises.

The stress problem is serious. We know war reporters from the U.S. who have lost the plot.

There are many of them in Ukraine. When I was working on the documentary, I talked to an expert, an ex-soldier, and they said 97 percent of Ukrainian soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress. They come home from the front after facing death, go to work at a local construction company and get told my some young punk that they need to move a pile of bricks. It makes them mad – I'm a hero who has defended the motherland, and now I have to move bricks. That is when problems follow, narcotics, drinking, home life goes down the drain. Since you know guns, you pick one up and try to do something with it.

You do a lot of work for Finland and have previously said the Finns do not show everything, while it is said in Estonia that war should not be sugarcoated.

An example from Bucha this spring. We were there with some Estonians, filming from the same place. The story was to air that night, and the Finn was told we could not show the body. We had images of a foot and burnt torsos. We were told we could go with the long shot but from very far away. The Finn lost his cool, saying that war is hell, that it needs to be shown and shouldn't be done wearing kid gloves. I sent in the test clips and they okayed them. There was a long shot of a hand, a burnt foot. We could show these but not the face and head. The Finn said that while Postimees puts it in the paper, we are talking about a massacre that has taken place but cannot show it.

Do you think these things should be shown?

Yes, war is terrible and there is no sense in beautifying it.

Are you going back to Ukraine?

We'll see toward the winter, where the war is going. Russia declared a mobilization, and I don't know what it will mean, whether they plan to send more cannon fodder there. I have the feeling there will be plenty of chances to go back. I don't go looking for thrills, but it's exciting once you're there. Not that I can affect these events, but I can see it for my own eyes.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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