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I was at the fall of Kabul in August. In December, I was wanted for arrest by the newest country in the world, South Sudan, for talking about the corruption I witnessed. I was the first westerner to enter Kazakhstan during the riots in January by climbing a mountain in a neighbouring country.
My travel often raises eyebrows with the UK’s anti-terrorism police who have interrogated, and cleared me, many times.
Nonetheless, I’m here to document the wars without the bias, propaganda or filter that big media all too commonly present. I want to provide an on-the-ground perspective from a normal person.
I’m also here to help others. One thing I don’t appreciate about war journalists is that they report and then leave soon after. Through donations, I’ve managed to help a few families leave Ukraine or get them the resources they need.
In South Sudan, I handed out laptops at refugee camps. I’m currently financially supporting an Afghanistan family as they’re wanted for execution by the Taliban for helping out NATO.
And now I am in Ukraine. I could be here for a few weeks – or possibly a lifetime if things go wrong.
I had to go back
I woke up on the day of the invasion to several missed calls and messages. I had been in Ukraine for three weeks but had come home just two days before the war broke out.
After shouting at stationed Russian troops on the Donetsk frontlines wearing a Putin mask and exploring abandoned military bases on the border, I thought it was just going to be a small regional conflict. But I was wrong and I had to go back.
Within an hour I was out of bed and catching a train to the airport to fly to Poland. I booked one way to save money – just in case I didn’t come back. Ukrainian airspace was closed but land borders were still open.
The ‘plan’ was simple really: fly into Warsaw, cross the border on foot, by train or by car and head to the conflict zones. I was lucky enough to catch the very last train out of Poland towards Kyiv which took 24 hours. During my train ride, I met a Norwegian man who was travelling to Ukraine to help his scared girlfriend escape the country.
The surprising thing is that my passport was only glanced at while every other document was skipped entirely, my luggage was not searched and everything went very smoothly.
When I arrived in Kyiv, I was informed of a 4pm curfew. Everyone would have to stay inside for the entire weekend, only being allowed out at 8am on Monday. I booked a hotel opposite the Bulgarian embassy which was one of the few, if not only, hotels open – most hotels were not accepting guests by orders of the government.
The streets are ghost towns
The very first thing I noticed in Ukraine is that every shop is shut. The streets are ghost towns, only filled with the sounds of echoing gunshots. The places that are open have a queue of 50 plus people and their hours are very limited. ATMs have been bled dry too.
I spent my two days under curfew in the hotel, live streaming and documenting the bombings outside my window. Occasionally thick black smoke billowed from rooftops or a mighty rumble shook the room. Every 30 minutes or so, gunshots and bombings were followed by a siren to seek shelter.
You would think it would play on your mind but truthfully, you adapt and get used to it. In the bunkers, the people smile, talk, make jokes and share everything with strangers. I made a lot of friends in those two days.
One was a sweet old lady who’s had a tumour in her back and couldn’t afford an operation. I wanted to help but she refused any funds so on my day of departure to the front lines of Kharkiv, I slipped what she needed under her door. I pray for her.
When the curfew ceased, I was live streaming near the frontlines in Kyiv with my ‘press badge’ (which I designed and printed) when some troops surrounded my location and searched me. After a tense situation of having a gun pointed in my direction and communicating using Google Translate, I was given clearance to continue with a friendly handshake and a pat on the back.
Roads are partly blocked by metal bins and tyres used to create defensive positions and blockades against tanks. Forces arm themselves in the street while an elderly man casually strolls past walking his dog. This has become the new normal for Ukrainians.
The best way to travel in Ukraine is by train. Most taxi services are not operating and the only available Uber equivalent, Uklon, is stupidly expensive. But trains remain readily available to major cities at the same affordable price.
Tickets can be easily bought online only a day or two in advance. I’d go as far as to say they’re more comfortable than British trains. You get a bed, complimentary drinks, sometimes food and a drinking buddy if that’s your thing. Despite the language barrier and Google Translate not always working, offering someone your food or drink in Ukraine will go a long way.
Dinner with the special forces
Kharkiv was next level. I came across almost no reporters and for good reason: it’s the most dangerous area of Ukraine right now. I went to meet a British friend living as an expat and on my Uklon ride there I saw smouldering tanks on fire, buildings reduced to rubble and hundreds of armed forces mobilising in the street. My friend told me that everyone hid in the underground railway, using them as makeshift bunkers. I was given the information you need to gain entry.
Upon attempting to get a taxi back to my hotel, it broke down after 10 minutes and I was now two hours away from home past curfew.
After walking halfway, I was detained by Ukrainian special forces and taken to their military base. It was not long before I was cleared of being a spy but the bombardments were still going on. So I was invited to join them overnight and for dinner, which I gratefully accepted.
Only minutes into dinner, however, the far too familiar sound of screeching artillery and jets hit our ears and everyone made an immediate sprint to the shelter. The building shook and dust rained from cracks in the ceiling.
Luckily only an empty building a few doors down was hit, but we still decided to sleep on the AstroTurf of the underground shooting range that night. No bedding, no bed, just your backpack as a pillow.
In the morning I was offered to join a military convoy as they were heading in a similar direction to my hotel. Glass and rubble filled the potholes and smoke clouded the air. We had to drive on the pavement to avoid the buildings whose remains spilt onto the roads.
Eventually, there was no available path and I walked on the underground railway tracks for hours, making friends with a family of six children trying to get out of the country. As a Catholic, I believe God put me in this situation to help them so I donated enough where they could get out and stay in Poland until this was all over.
When I leave Ukraine, I’m putting together a private civilian operation that is going to be bigger than my first Afghanistan trip. I’m going to save lives.