A WEST DORSET student was confronted by a gunman after getting caught up in the chaos engulfing Ukraine.
Edward Lawrence, 19, who aims to pursue a career in documentary-making said he wanted to gain first-hand experience of a conflict zone.
He travelled to Ukraine last week with fellow-student Anna Pujol-Mazzini, 18. The friends are studying at Bournemouth University.
The plan was to travel to Kiev and then move on to the east of the country where pro-Russian militia have taken control of large areas.
Edward, from Beaminster, said the idea was to ‘go out there and be on the ground and see what was going on’.
The friends had contacts in the UK, Russia and Ukraine to assist them and had contingency plans in place, including certain check-in time deadlines they had to meet or the alarm would be raised by fellow student Charlotte Morrison.
He said that in Kiev there were anti-Putin posters and European flags and there was a huge contrast in the city between it being ‘business as usual’ and the Euromaidan (pro-European) protestors’ presence.
He said: “It’s such a strong contrast, people doing their shopping and there’s a tank there.”
He said that everywhere they went in the capital, the people were very friendly and welcoming and wanted to talk to them about how the situation was being presented in the wider world’s media.
He said: “They are just normal people who want peace.”
They met with those in Independence Square and spent an evening talking to some right-wing groups there.
But it was after they left the capital when things began to go wrong.
They took a train to Kharkiv in the north of Ukraine, about 30 miles from the Russian border and spoke to locals there.
From there they were booked on a train to Donetsk in the south east but woke up late and missed the train. They tried to take another train or a plane but they had all been cancelled.
They decided to take a bus to Kramatorsk, a pro-Russia area close to Slavyansk, from where they could continue on to Donetsk.
The pair said they didn’t want to go near Slavyansk, but had a feeling that although they had been told the bus went to Kramatorsk, that it might go through the area. They decided to take the risk.
Edward said: “Slavyansk is a no-go area for westerners.”
He added they had heard stories of journalists being beaten up and detained and no western journalists had got into Slavyansk for two weeks.
He added: “I said we needed cover stories. We have memory cards – we need to hide them.”
They also had to throw away personal belongings and spare mobile phones.
“We realised there was quite a large risk we would get stopped and detained.”
He added: “It was terrifying but I felt as if it had to be done. Maybe it was slightly stupid.”
After passing through several Ukrainian government-held checkpoints, the pair got to 20km outside Slavyansk and encountered the first rebel checkpoint. A man walked out in front of the bus with an AK-47 and stopped it.
The doors opened and a man with a balaclava, pistol and machete tied to his leg got on.
He was asking for passports and approached Edward.
He said: “I thought I was going to die at that point. Anna thought I was a gonner.”
Mr Lawrence said the man looked at him, he looked back then turned away and pretended to nod off. When he opened his eyes the man was leaving the bus.
He said: “It was easily the scariest experience of my life but the most exciting too.”
The pair finally made it through to Kramatorsk, after going through several more checkpoints and then had to get the bus to Donetsk and from there the first overnight train to Kiev.
Mr Lawrence said he felt lucky to have been unharmed.
He said he would not encourage others to do what they did. But he said that the experience had only strengthened his resolve to document conflict as a profession.
He said: “All it’s done is make me want to do this even more.”
They got a lot of footage and are hoping to use it in the future.
The pair are planning where to go next, although Mr Lawrence said they might go somewhere a ‘bit more calm’.
He added it was ‘nice to be home’.
The trip was not connected to, or endorsed by the university, who tried to discourage the pair going, Mr Lawrence said.
- You can follow Mr Lawrence on Twitter via @edlawrence365
Evolution of a crisis
In November last year the former president Viktor Yanukovych abandoned plans for closer ties to the EU in favour of closer ties to Russia.
This led to protests and eventually to his downfall. The Euromaidan movement saw pro-European protests across various cities including Kiev.
In February the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove the president from power with elections set for May 25. A temporary pro-European government was put in place.
In the aftermath, amid pro-Russian unrest, the Crimea crisis developed, including in areas of the southern and eastern Ukraine which had been pro-Russian and affiliated with the deposed president.
At the end of February pro-Russian supporters took over key buildings in Crimea.
A referendum was called to see if the region wished to join Russia and, although condemned by the EU, US and Ukraine, the vote was to join Russia.
On March 17, the Crimean Parliament declared independence from Ukraine and asked to join the Russian Federation, which took place a day later.
The EU General Assembly declared the referendum vote invalid and illegal and the EU and US have imposed travel and financial sanctions on Russian and Ukrainian officials.
In April, there was a burst of pro-Russian protests in eastern and southern Ukraine.
On April 25, eight international military observers were detained by pro-Russian separatists near Sloviansk, although one was later released on health grounds. Eight days later the rest were released.
The conflict continues between those wanting closer ties to the EU and those wanting closer ties to Russia.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to: Crimea, Slavyansk (Sloviansk), Kostyantinivka, Krematorsk and Horlivka – in the Donetsk region.
The FCO advise against all but essential travel to: the remaining parts of Donetsk region, Lugansk region, Kharkiv region and Odesa city.
Given the armed clashes, kidnappings and the ongoing seizure of buildings that have occurred there, the FCO advise against all travel to Slavyansk, in the north of Donetsk region.
You should take great care and remain vigilant throughout eastern and southern Ukraine. There have been violent clashes, including some fatalities, in the oblasts of Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Lugansk, and in Mariupol city.