Ukraine’s ultranationalist uprising has brought together two disparate groups: neo-Nazis and ethnic minorities.
The crisis in Ukraine turns three this month. From its outset, I was struck by how clichéd the news reports of the war were, in structure and in tone; European journalists seemed to be reporting on Ukraine as if it were an African country, and, mortifyingly, as if Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa” had never happened. I wondered what would happen if the roles were reversed—if I, an Ethiopian woman, covered this European war. The conflict was said to have unleashed ultranationalist violence: as part of my preparation I hung out on Stormfront, the white-supremacist Internet forum, where I seemed to be welcome because they couldn’t tell that I’m a black intellectual. I decided that the safest way to report on these men would be to try and pass as one of them: to go in disguise as a neo-Nazi fighter. I acquired a kind of camouflage—a big coat to conceal the shape of my body, the fullest balaclava I could buy, and a wide woolly scarf to hide any skin still visible. As disguises go, it wouldn’t pass much scrutiny, but I calculated that the strength of my cover was the situation itself: they wouldn’t be expecting me. Its simplicity was its strength, and its strength was its simplicity.
I set off for Ukraine in the run-up to Minsk II, when the fighting in the east was at its worst. It was late January 2015, a couple of weeks before the doomed ceasefire deal was agreed. There had been reports of neo-Nazi battalions from the front at Donbass holding rallies in city centers. Some of these gatherings were to mark the January birthday of Stepan Bandera, a controversial World War II–era hero who’d led Ukraine’s nationalist independence movement in the 1930s, and who had spent time as a Nazi prisoner of war before being released to fight against Russia under the banner of the SS. “Be careful of any protests,” a regional security analyst had advised me, “especially if they have a right-wing slant.” Be careful. Read More