Al Jazeera America reporters in Crimea are telling ‘a story of contrasts’

Jennifer Glasse in Kiev. (Submitted photo)

One morning this past January, Al Jazeera America reporter Jennifer Glasse walked to work through the underground mall connected with her hotel in Kiev. She saw Ukrainians on their way to work “crossing paths with exhausted men coming back from the burning barricades they’d manned all night in a standoff with police.”

Reporting in Ukraine, she told Poynter in an e-mail, has been “a story of contrasts.”

Independence Square often felt like a street party, or music festival, with people eating, and socializing. Couples got engaged on the barricades, people became friends. They’d shout “Slava Ukraina!” “Glory to Ukraine” and get the response “Slave Geroi,” “Glory to the Heroes.” For a while at the top of every hour they’d sing the national anthem – often so loudly in the middle of the night, that my liveshots sounded like I had an opera singer in the room with me. Then came the terrible violence that killed dozens, left the Trade Union building, where I’d been to get a daily press pass or meet an interviewee, a charred ruins. And Independence Square became a pilgrimage site. Glory to the heroes, they’ll never be forgotten was spelled out in candles yards from where people were killed. When I left Kiev last week, Independence Square was a somber place.

Protesters in Kiev on Jan. 20. (Photo by Jennifer Glasse)

Glasse arrived in Crimea on Tuesday, Feb. 25. She’s reported in Ukraine since December of last year.

“When I started reporting this story in December,” she wrote, “I never dreamed I’d be in Crimea in March watching Russia’s Black Sea Fleet blockade Ukraine’s.”

‘The crowd was calm. Until they saw us.’

Al Jazeera America reporter Nick Schifrin has also reported from Kiev and Crimea. His tweets on Tuesday told a story of their own.

Keeping up and getting it right

“This is one of those stories,” Glasse wrote, “where you wake up in the morning and wonder what will happen next.”

You plan to report on one thing – and something totally unexpected happens and changes everything. Yanukovich going on sick leave – in Soviet speak that often meant a coup – or offering potential cover for the police/security forces to do something nasty; protestors taking over government buildings. There were long nights when protestors thought the police would take over the square, or Yanukovich would declare martial law. Sudden violence, political negotiations, the president fleeing, a new government being installed.

The biggest challenge, she said, is keeping up with the story and getting it right. Ukrainians know the world is watching, Glasse said, and while doing a standup on the street after Yanukovich fled, a man approached her with a rose.

“‘Thank you for reporting on our country,’ he said. Another Ukrainian sent me messages about what was happening inside parliament – she watched it all live and translated it so that my reporting would be up to date.”

Pro-Russian soldiers block naval base in Novoozerne, Ukraine, on March 3. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

But Crimea is different, she said.

“No euphoria here – most are fearful of what’s happened in Kiev. They call it a coup and regularly call the new leaders bandits and the demonstrators fascists (there are far right elements among the demonstrators). There’s a lot of suspicion of foreign reporters. I’ve been called a liar and a provocateur pretty regularly since I arrived. Oh yes, and I’ve been told ‘Yankee, go home.’”

She’s not. But Glasse wishes she was able to write stories about life outside of Independence Square.

“I knew there was one – I’d been to the Ocean Mall just four subway stops away, that could be any mall in America. I knew there was a tiny ski slope at the edge of town and were ice fisherman on the river, and more to Kiev than what was going on in its center.”

But there are always untold stories, she said. Right now, she’s trying to keep up with the one moving quickly around her.

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