The Ukrainian casualty of war who wasn't
BBC debunks the death of a 10-year-old girl in Donetsk
With the announcement this week that Canada will be sending troops to train soldiers in Western Ukraine, a BBC reporter's remarkable story sheds light on the nature of the conflict Canada has entered. It comes from the Petrovsky region of Donetsk in the east. The area is held by pro-Russian rebels and news comes mostly from Russian TV. BBC reporter Natalia Antelava dug into reports that a 10-year-old girl had been killed by Ukrainian shelling, and found a story where nothing was what it seemed.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Gillian Deacon: Let's talk about your report. It starts out with you questioning a commander of the Russian-backed rebels about this story about the death of this ten-year-old girl. What did he tell you at first?
Natalia Antelava: That's right. He was the source of the reports that were picked up very widely all across the Russian networks, reports that a 10-year-old girl was killed by the Ukrainian shelling of Donetsk. He said to me, "Yes, it happened." He gave us the area of town that this shelling took place and I then asked for the address of the girl. He said, "Absolutely not, I can't give you that address because I don't like to play with the tragedy of other people." Those were his exact words. So based on that information, we then tried to chase the story. We went to the area where the shelling allegedly took place and everyone we spoke to there, about two dozen people, said they'd heard about the death of this girl but they did not know where it happened. Some women told us, "Look, we would have known if this had happened." It turned out that none of the people heard the shelling that day, and there was no shelling.
So then you went on to speak with some Russian television news producers. Tell me what you got from them.
We just happened to be at a press event with lots of Russian media there and I went up to a few of them and finally found someone who did work on this story and I said, 'Look, can you help us out? Can you point us in the right direction? How do we find this family?" And he simply said, "There is no girl. She doesn't exist." I said, "What do you mean she doesn't exist? You reported it." To which he said, "That statement was made by the pro-Russian rebels and we had to report it."
When you started reporting on this story and digging deeper, did you expect that it was going to fall apart?
I was suspicious because you grow to be suspicious about everything that's reported on Russian television. I was suspicious because we were in Donetsk at the time and I wasn't sure that shelling had happened in that area. But plenty of children have died in that war and there is something incredibly cynical about having to invent victims when there are so many real ones.
As you say, there are too many real deaths happening on both sides of this conflict, some of them children. What is the significance of this fake death? What do the Russians have to gain from planting a story like this?
I don't think you can underestimate the role that Russian television has played in this conflict. There has definitely been propaganda on both sides, but the Ukrainian media is a lot freer and more chaotic. It's patriotic and nationalistic. There are lies that are broadcast. There's plenty of sloppy reporting, but you can't really compare them. For Russia in this conflict, television has been a tool and a very important tool. A local journalist was telling me how she watched her parents and her neighbours spend the week watching Russian television after all the Ukrainian channels were switched off, and after that how much they turned away from Ukraine and towards Russia. I spoke to a Ukrainian general who said to me, "I watch Russian TV and I start hating myself." I see how that happens. You watch Russian TV and you start believing things that are not exactly true.
So how did the Russian media respond to your story?
They did not respond. We tried to contact all the television stations that broadcast the story. The only one that got back to us said that the story was based on sources within the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. The rest of them didn't respond. There was, however, a lot of reaction in the Russian online media. My Twitter feed is still filled with
pictures of children who have died in Ukraine, a lot of people who seem to be basically trolling. But also there's been a lot of articles written in the Russian online media about this not being true, saying that in fact the girl did exist. But no one has actually showed any evidence that the girl exists. No one interviewed parents or said the name or gave an address and so on.
Canada has just committed to sending troops to help train soldiers in Western Ukraine. What do you think Canadians should know about this conflict?
Good question. I think an important thing that is very much missing from the Western understanding of the conflict is how much this conflict is driven by pure hatred of the West and the liberal values of the West. I think again Russian television is largely responsible for it. I have spoken to so many people in Donetsk and in those areas who genuinely believe that - absurd as it may sound, this is what they believe - they think gay Nazi Jews are coming from Europe to take their land. People are genuinely concerned about that. People are concerned about - absurd as that sounds - gay Nazi Jews. This is how they put it. It didn't start yesterday, it started a long time ago but what I don't think people in the West realize is that the people and the forces supported by Russia are actually ideologically deeply, deeply opposed to the liberal values of the West. They see the West as the enemy and there is no question about that.