By GH Eliason for The Saker Blog
Recently, I had a chance to meet one of my favorite journalists in Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), Christelle Neant. Of all the English speaking journalists in the conflict, she consistently stands out for her courage and dedication to facts and evidence-based journalism.
Originally, this was meant to be a written article with video follow-up questions, but due to technical difficulties (always blame the tech) on my part, the video will follow at a later date. It will also cover her thoughts on former DNR President Alexander Zakharchenko. Ms. Neant had the opportunity to get to know him over the course of a few years and was at an outdoor café nearby when President Zakharchenko was assassinated by the Ukrainian government.
Neant first arrived in Donetsk in March 2016 where she was given a trial by fire approach to frontline reporting with Doni press center. She speaks three languages (French, Russian, English), has a master’s degree and had a successful career before moving to Donetsk to report on the war.
She started her own publication in 2018 called the Donbass Insider. It’s worth the read to keep up on events directly from Donetsk.
GE– Tell me a little about your background. What did you do before coming to Donetsk?
CN-Before coming to Donetsk I was working as a webmaster in a big multinational firm in Luxembourg. And before that, I worked for an edition company. My educational background is completely different, as I have a master’s degree in Geology.
GE-Tell me a little about your experience as a female journalist in a warzone.
CN-I’ve worked here for almost four years. It’s a hard and dangerous job. It’s very hard psychologically to see civilians being injured or killed, especially when it’s clear that the shellings on the area were a deliberate war crime from the Ukrainian army. That there were no soldiers, no positions, no weapons on this site.
It’s even harder when you connect with people when they become your friends or even more like members of your family. Because when you often come to the same area of the front line, you connect with people who live there, and with soldiers who defend this area. When they die because of the conflict, you much personally feel the horror of the war.
But it’s a very important and rewarding job when people contact you, from France, Belgium, Canada, Switzerland and elsewhere, and they tell you that your reports, your articles, helped them understand what’s really happening there. That it helped them get rid of the propaganda they were told since the beginning of the war.
As a woman, this job is not more dangerous for me than for men, on the contrary. The DPR soldiers here are real gentlemen, and they worry much about my security, and they take more care of me than if I was a man.
GE-How much of your time in Donbass has been reporting from the frontlines?
CN-A lot. Less since last year, but the three first years, I spent a lot of time on the front area, for reports or humanitarian help. It’s hard to calculate in terms of time spent because sometimes I just went for a few hours and other times I slept in the front line zone, spending several days at a time. Just taking in the numerous times I slept there, I’ve already spent almost a full month on the front. I went 160 times to the front-line since 2016, and 36 times on positions.
GE-Before you came, did you think you would be spending your time as one of a small handful of premier frontline reporters?
CN-No, even after I decided to come here and work as a journalist, I did not think I would spend so much time on the front-line. But it’s necessary, to show Western people what is really happening here.
GE-What’s been some of the difficulties you faced early on? In the beginning, the learning curve must have been huge and fast-moving.
CN-I had to learn everything from scratch. I had no educational background in journalism. I did a lot of writing a lot before, in my free time, so I already had the writing skills. I also worked with journalists in Luxembourg, so I learned from them the principles of the Munich charter. The most difficult part was to learn how to film, how to do the video editing by myself, and how to do subtitles. I also had to learn the security rules on the front.
One of the difficulties I faced early on was, in fact, the overprotective mind of soldiers towards me, as a woman. It was very hard to convince them to let me go on very dangerous spots and to sleep on the front line the first time. After, when they saw I strictly adhered to the security rules and the orders they gave me to ensure my security, and that I was very calm during shellings, they were more relaxed and it was easier.
GE-You are involved in a lot of investigative journalism as well as straight reporting with your publication “The Donbass Insider”. Can you talk about some of the bigger stories you’ve worked on? Are there any in the planning stages you can talk about?
CN-Most of the time this investigative journalism is, in fact, debunking of lies from the Ukrainian and Western propaganda, like the video of France 24 published in October 2016, which I had to debunk, as it was really full of lies, including some about myself and the agency for which I worked at this moment.
The others are mainly investigations and debunking of history falsification, or about war crimes of the Ukrainian Army. Like the shelling of one the Donetsk mosques last year, which Ukraine pretended they could not have done because allegedly their positions were too far away. I proved that it was not the case at all.
Currently the big case on which I am working is the MH17. I lack time to really investigate like I want to, but I continue working on it little by little. My aim is to do a full report of counter investigation about the MH17.
GE-Tell me about some of the hardships frontline towns face. How are people coping?
CN-People who are living on the front-line often live without the commodities we are used to, like electricity, gas or water. In some areas like Spartak, Trudovsky, or the Mine 6/7 people even live in the basements, because it’s too dangerous for them to live in their house or flat, or because their house has been destroyed by shelling from the Ukrainian army.
People use batteries with LEDs to have light, some have generators working with gasoline or diesel. For the water some have cisterns, some have wells. It’s system-D and solidarity which help them survive.
GE-How is DNR supporting the towns and villages on the grey line?
CN-There is a special commission of the DPR People’s Council which is dedicated to helping people who suffer from the war with Ukraine. They provide humanitarian help in priority to people who live on the front line. I work with them a lot in the framework of my humanitarian missions.
A lot is done to help and support people to repair or rebuild their houses when it is possible, but also filling complaints towards the ECHR against Ukraine for example.
GE-You’ve been watching DNR reforming toward integration with Russian democratic values. After spending a few years in DNR and watching the nation-building aspect, do you think the government in Donetsk will succeed in building an independent sustainable democracy?
CN-I think yes for several reasons. Firstly the Donbass people itself gave a lesson of democracy to the world when it opposed the Maidan putsch, and made a referendum all by itself to show its will. From the very beginning, the Donbass uprising was a lesson of courage and democracy, as the people took their fate in their hands and decided by themselves how they wanted to live and with whom.
Secondly, in addition to that, they have Russia as a model, which is helping the two People’s Republic improving in terms of politics. For example through the creation of the Youth Parliament and the Civic Chamber, which I consider to be a very useful tool to improve democracy. And it exists in Russia for many years.
With both a strong character, an inner sense of freedom and Russia as a model, I think the DPR (and the LPR) will succeed in building an independent sustainable democracy. We just have to let them time, because building a state during a war is not something simple, and the two Republics are still quite young.
GE-If you had to choose only one point to showcase DNR’s nation-building progress, what would it be?
CN-The attendance of the DPR to several international economic forums last years, and the organization of the Donetsk International Investment Forum, which attracted people from dozens of countries are really for me an important step. Because it showed that despite the fact that the DPR is not a recognized country, and despite the blockade and the sanctions, the Republic succeeded to convince she is a real country with economic opportunities. And not an area controlled by terrorists like Kiev likes to write.