‘Journo or no, when shelled panic overwhelms’: AFP contributor injured in Ukraine to RT

A residential building damaged by shelling of Donetsk. (RIA Novosti/Irina Gerashchenko)
AFP contributor Aleksandr Gayuk, who was wounded in the leg in Eastern Ukraine, told RT that however professional you may be, when you get caught in shelling, the panic is overwhelming, but the ordeal hasn’t cooled his enthusiasm for his work.

Gayuk was hit in the leg by a shell fragment as he was running for cover Sunday. He says he was lucky he suffered no permanent damage. “Just a couple more millimeters and there would be nothing left of my knee,” he said as he sat next to RT’s Ilya Petrenko, his bandaged leg carefully stretched.

Ilya asked him what it was like to be under fire. “It is scary, really. You may feel like a professional, but the moment you get caught under fire panic overcomes you as you try to decide what to do next. It takes several seconds to realize that you have to dash left, or right, or duck behind cover,” Gayuk said.

One of his thoughts, Aleksandr says, was about keeping his camera safe: “At the same time I thought about my expensive camera. I tried to run in such a way as to survive myself, but also not to smash the camera.

The fragment hit Aleksandr as he was running from cover to cover. “As I started to run after the first shell hit, the second one exploded closer to me. A fragment from that one caught up with me.” But he kept running. “I was running on auto-pilot, because I realized that if I stand there for another second, another fragment could hit me - and it could be my last one.”

READ MORE: AFP contributor injured in shelling in Donetsk, Ukraine

Aleksandr managed to reach a makeshift shelter and received first aid from the people there. One of them tried to call an ambulance, but the crew said they wouldn’t go to an area that was under fire. The photo reporter had to walk some more until he reached the nearest road and got a lift to the hospital with a random driver.

Aleksandr admits he was “scared to death,” but says he will not back down from his job.

I was in shock at first,” he says. “But now I am fine, I can photograph and film, and I will keep doing it, keep working at the frontline.

Sunday was not the first time Aleksandr had shells exploding right next to him. It had happened once before, but that time he escaped unharmed. He believes this will not be the last time, either.

AFP contributor Aleksandr Gayuk.

When asked which side he thought the shelling came from, he said it was impossible to tell.

You can tell the direction… but here different forces are located rather close to each other. No one can see exactly who fired the shells.”

And it is not just those on the receiving end, Aleksandr says. With weapon ranges of about 15 kilometers, those raining shells down on Donetsk cannot see who they are hitting, either.

They kill people, but they do not know who they are killing,” Aleksandr says. “This is the paradox of this war. A year-and-a-half-old kid is playing in the sandbox – and a shell fragment can kill him. Or a woman is coming back from a shop – a minute later she can end up without her head. They are not fighters; they do not wear St. George ribbons; they are not demanding a referendum. They just live here.

READ MORE: In the line of fire: Journalists killed and abducted in Eastern Ukraine

At a conference in Vienna, the UN dubbed Ukraine one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, putting it on a par with Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. When asked whether he agrees with such an assessment, Aleksandr cites other journalists he has spoken to: “I talked to my colleagues from Europe who had been to Syria and other warzones. They told me they were shocked by how dangerous it is to work here. Here, things are much more complicated.”

He says in Ukraine you cannot always tell where the frontline is:

There [in other warzones] you can see: here is the frontline, here is the rear, and that is where the war is going on. Here, the frontline can be situated in any of Donetsk’s districts. You don’t know where you can get killed. You don’t know when to put on a flak vest. This is in part because mortars and artillery are the most-often used weapons here. You can put on a bullet-proof vest and a helmet and be safe from a person who decides to shoot you with a Kalashnikov. But if 122-millimeter shell fragments are coming your way, just any flak vest cannot save your life.”

Aleksandr points to his wounded knee and says: “There are no flak vests covering your knees, for example. You can easily end up without a leg or your head or wherever it hits you.”

Meanwhile, OSCE observers say dozens of heavy weapons have been taken from the storage lots that they are supposed to remain in under the Minsk peace roadmap. Monday’s daily report by the monitoring mission says the Ukrainian military has removed some 20 artillery pieces, while anti-government fighters have taken away 12. Observers also say the Ukrainian army did not let them near one of its storage places.