Simferopol—The white VW Transporter came to a halt on Gorky Street, in downtown Simferopol. Heavily armed men, some of them in black balaclavas, others wearing Cossack fur hats, jumped out of the van and rushed into the building next door. One of them stood guard, his handgun drawn, surveying the street nervously.
Soon the men reappeared carrying out all kinds of TV studio equipment: cameras, lights, sound controls, boxes full of hastily cut cables. They had just stashed everything in the back of the van and were about to take off, when one of them noticed me taking photos of the heist from across the street with my phone, and started running toward me. Another one followed. In a few seconds, before I even knew it, I was on the ground, a gun pointing at my head.
“Give me the phone,” the first man shouted at me in Russian, while the other one stood by. “Give me the phone, or I’ll shoot you right here.”
It seemed to me that time had suddenly slowed down, that I was not there, but was looking at myself from a distance, without fear or even concern. I understood what he meant, but did not immediately follow his orders. I had instinctively slipped the phone in the pocket of my pants and for a split second thought of defying my assailant, of telling him that, no, I didn’t have a phone, or that, yes, I did have a phone but had taken no pictures, or that, yes, I had taken pictures but he could look through them and erase the ones he didn’t like. I don’t know what I was thinking. The journalist in me said, no, don’t give him the phone, but the helpless man lying on the ground with a gun pointing at his head didn’t want to play hero: he reached into the pocket and brought out the phone. In another second, it was snatched and gone.
I stood up, dazed. I looked around and saw my photographer, Boryana Katsarova, wandering off into the street, without direction, stunned. Then we caught each other’s eye: we were alive; it was all going to be all right. I didn’t know it yet, but she had managed to photograph the attack against me, until, in the very last moment, one of the Cossacks had seen her and had run after her, wrenching her professional Nikon camera out of her hands.
I had been attacked because I was photographing a brazen midday raid against a TV studio—part of the Associated Press network, as I learned later. Boryana was attacked because she had photographed the attack against me, as I was photographing an attack against AP. But a security camera, dispassionately recording all events in the street, had caught the incident by chance—the video footage was later traced and uploaded on YouTube by Ukrainian journalists. The incident occurred ten days before the referendum.
The message was clear: information about the state of lawlessness in Crimea had to be suppressed, as much as possible. According to the official narrative of Russian state media and the new Crimean government, everything was going well on the peninsula: a fair and well-organized referendum was on its way, there was no military occupation at all, and there was no fear among the population. Life was normal, as it had always been. People were going to restaurants and even the theater. The sun was shining brightly and the trees were blooming; children’s pealing laughter bounced off the pavement. Only certain journalists—most of them foreign—were trying to whip up anxiety.