In Eastern Ukraine, Lines Between Thugs And Freedom Fighters Blur

While Simon Shuster of Time was in a Ukrainian city controlled by pro-Russian separatists, he was at one point hit in the head with a pistol. He describes the experience and the region's status.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

About a week ago, Time Magazine reporter Simon Shuster was in the Ukrainian village of Konstantinovka, which had come under the control of pro-Russian separatists. He describes how at one checkpoint the only armed man - not in uniform but in a tracksuit - hit him on the head with the butt of his pistol. And Shuster writes this about his assailant: It wasn't clear then, and it's not clear in hindsight, whether he counts as a terrorist, a freedom fighter or just an average thug. Simon Shuster joins us now from Berlin. Welcome to the program.

SIMON SHUSTER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Tell us about what happened after you took that blow to the head at the checkpoint.

SHUSTER: After the blow to the head, the guy at the checkpoint called their commander over. He detained me and took me back to their headquarters to the basement where there was a sort of nursing staff that tried to put some antiseptics on my head. Eventually, they let me go when some Russian journalists, friends of mine, got in touch with them and sort of vouched for me.

SIEGEL: But you had some time to talk with these people.

SHUSTER: I did. And it was a fairly enlightening view into the interactions that they have back in their base, the way that they have set up this kind of strange hierarchy. I break it down into three types broadly. The most dangerous would be the - what are called the Little Green Men. They're heavily armed, have camouflaged uniforms. They're there for a war. The sort of middle group would be mainly local people who are dressed in civilian clothing but they're often armed with whatever guns they can find. And I think that the individual who hit me was one of this group. I think the biggest group are just regular civilians who are sympathizers of the pro-Russian separatist cause and find themselves in the crossfire.

SIEGEL: And who also seem to be very much swayed by anti-Ukrainian government propaganda that the Russians have disseminated.

SHUSTER: Yeah, that's right. Interestingly, one of the first things the Little Green Men, the militants, did is they seized the TV towers around these towns and they turned on the Russian television. And these channels are presenting a very horrific picture of the government in Kiev - a force that's coming to kill and destroy the values of the Russian-speaking population of east Ukraine, including (unintelligible) and, you know, mass killings.

SIEGEL: You quote a woman named Vika Yanchenko, who witnessed her friend dying from Ukrainian army gunfire. And you actually say that the Ukrainian army has tried to be careful not to hit unarmed people, even if they support those who are armed. But Yanchenko, the friend, says I heard they're already building gas chambers for us. That's an extraordinary fear that people have. Do you think she really believes that?

SHUSTER: I think she really does believe that and I think she's definitely not alone. The people in these towns are surrounded by a Ukrainian military force that they don't quite understand. And even when they interact with these soldiers directly, even from the accounts of the pro-Russian civilians, the soldiers behave extremely politely. They really try to say we're here to protect you; we're not here to hurt you. But the civilians, strangely, still come away with these interactions, with these ideas that these men are monsters, that they're here to kill everyone. And that makes the job of the Ukrainian servicemen extremely difficult.

SIEGEL: You're now taking a breather from Ukraine in Berlin. And I wonder, with a little time and some distance from the place, reflecting on what you've been reporting on, do you think there's enough civic courage or caution or common sense around there to avoid a full-scale civil war or a Russian invasion or are moderating virtues just in too-short supply?

SHUSTER: I think I was encouraged by, you know, interactions with the Ukrainian servicemen. There is, I think, an understanding on the Ukrainian government side that a lot of the people in these towns are just civilians. They're scared. Their understanding is being guided by a lot of propaganda, rumor and disinformation. And I think there is that awareness on the main players involved in the conflict. So, you know, that gives me some hope that it could be resolved without massive loss of life.

SIEGEL: Simon Shuster, thanks for talking with us today.

SHUSTER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Simon Shuster of Time magazine, who's been covering the situation in Ukraine, speaking to us from Berlin.

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