Shooting at memory
It was August 2017 when the soldier Alexander Vladimirovich Rakityansky and his commander “Zhora” agreed to meet us in a public park on the outskirts of Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine. Rakityansky and “Zhora” – both militiamen of the pro-Russian army – were the two men who on 25 May 2014 recovered the lifeless bodies of the reporter from Pavia, Andy Rocchelli, and his Russian colleague, the journalist Andrei Mironov, in the countryside on the outskirts of Sloviansk. Contacting them was not easy and it had even taken a few days to organize the brief interview in a clearing on the banks of the Kalmius river. “The Italian was lying in a fetal postion, with many wounds on his body, while the Russian had been beheaded by the explosions.” They told us. “It was hard, but in the end we were able to put the bodies in the car and take them away.” Visibly moved, the two spoke softly, tracing for the first and only time in front of a television camera – those distant and painful memories.
Andy and Andrei had been killed the day before, while – armed with cameras – they were documenting clashes between separatist militants and Ukrainian soldiers at the foot of the hill of Karachun, where units of the Ukrainian army were entrenched. From that same hill, on the afternoon of 24 May, were fired the mortars that killed the two reporters. “The whole area was clearly visible from the top of the hill,” the two men in uniform told us during the interview. “It was target shooting, like at a rifle range.” Rakityansky and “Zhora” still live in the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, not recognized by any country in the world, hence the Italian authorities have never been able to question them. Their testimony, however, deserves to be heard again. They are the only separatist militants to have had the opportunity to report publicly what they saw that day at the foot of Karachun.
In recent weeks, at the lawcourts in Milan, the appeal proceedings over Andy Rocchelli’s death are coming to a close. The proceedings in the trial court inflicted a sentence of 24 years in prison on the Italian-Ukrainian sergeant Vitaly Markiv, of the National Guard of Kiev, whose unit was guarding the summit of the hill. It was apparently Markiv, together with his fellow soldiers, who murdered the two reporters. One of the principal witnesses for the prosecution is the French photojournalist William Roguelon, who was with Andy and Andrei when the shelling began. Wounded in the legs by mortar shrapnel, Roguelon managed to survive by fleeing on foot to the town: “I counted up to ten mortar rounds, but I think we must have received twenty or thirty in all,” he recalled. “We were the real target, their intention was to kill us.”
Partly on the basis of these statements (also confirmed by the local driver who accompanied the three reporters that day), on 15 October the deputy prosecutor Nunzia Ciaravolo asked for confirmation of the first degree sentence. However, it will not be an easy sentence. The climate in the courthouse is more heated than ever. Recently the lawyer for the Rocchelli family, Alessandra Ballerini, has received volleys of insults and threats via Facebook: “They accuse us of being in the pay of Putin,” says Elisa Signori, Andy’s mother. “They did the same during the first trial in Pavia. They said that the city was infiltrated by Russian agents, that our judiciary was subservient to the Kremlin. But here, we are simpòy talking about the death of two journalists, whose only crime was doing their job. We want to start from this fact. The rest is just slander.”
Slander seems to be an essential constant in the case of Andy, Andrei and the many jourmalists active in Donbass in recent years. Since 2014, the Ukrainian authorities have drawn up lists of “unwelcome” reporters – complete with comtact details and personal data – and posted them on the web. Writers have also met with the same treatment. Branded “terrrorists”, we were banned from the Ukrainian territory for five years, from 2015 to 2020. Our fault: having tied to recount the war in Ukraine from both sides of the front, by venturing into both the government and separatist trenches.
Clearly they see it as something which just sopuld not be done. And no matter that the only ones who actually arrested us during our ventures into the front lines, in the summer of 2016, were the pro-Russian Donetsk militia, to whom we owe the only night we’ve ever spent in jail in our lives. In Kiev, even today, we are classified as “cooperating with pro-Russian terrorist organizations”. On the same list, with us, are dozens of other Western journalists, including Andy and Andrei, whose names still appear on the website of the “Myrotvorets Center”, a “control centre” linked to the SBU, the Ukrainian secret services. The page is easily accessed with a few clicks. Just write the name of the person you want to find in the “Purgatory” section of the special search engine.