Crimea: The place that’s rather difficult to get into
Three years after Russia annexed Crimea, a move bitterly contested by Ukraine’s government, the region remains in a state of flux. It’s difficult to get into, and for many people, it’s difficult to know where it’s going.
At Kiev International Airport, I hand my passport to a border guard.
“Purpose of visit?” he asks.
“Journalism. I’m with the BBC.”
He pauses. He studies my passport. He seems to be checking a list. He goes to pick up a telephone and asks a question. He does not realise I can hear.
“You remember that pro-Russian journalist from the BBC? Was his surname Rosenberg?”
“It wasn’t? OK, thanks.” He hangs up. He stamps my passport and returns it.
“Welcome to Ukraine!” he smiles.
Those pauses at passport control are an indication of the current tension between Moscow and Kiev – a relationship clouded by enmity and suspicion.
Our BBC team is only passing through Kiev. Our final destination is Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia three years ago.
For journalists based in Russia, there are faster ways of reaching the Crimean peninsula. Board a plane in Moscow and two hours later you can be in the Crimean capital Simferopol. Ukraine, however, warns foreign nationals that anyone entering “temporarily occupied Crimea” without Kiev’s permission and without crossing an official Ukrainian border may be banned from future entry to Ukraine.
We’re taking the longer route.
Direct flights from Russia to Ukraine stopped in October 2015. We flew from Moscow to the Belarusian capital Minsk, then on to Kiev. Ahead of us is an eight-hour road trip to Crimea.
First, we visit the Ukrainian Migration Service in Kiev to obtain the “dozvil” – a document issued by the Ukrainian authorities permitting travel to Crimea. Three hours later, permission slips in hand, our long car journey south begins.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a watershed moment. It pushed Moscow and the West to the brink of a new cold war. Three years on we are travelling to Crimea to gauge the mood.
It is dark by the time we reach the final Ukrainian checkpoint before the peninsula. Ukraine does not call the Kalanchak crossing a border – officially, it is a “control point for entry and exit”. We show our passports and dozvils. Minutes later we are waved through.
The no-man’s land between the Ukrainian and Russian checkpoints is tiny – no more than 50m long. We stop here to change cars – our Kiev driver will turn back. A driver from Simferopol has come to meet us.
On the Russian side this is called the Armyansk crossing. As far as the Russians are concerned, it is an official state border. We show passports and visas and fill out immigration cards. Our documents are in order, but we are asked to wait. The appearance here of British journalists has raised official eyebrows.
A young man in civilian clothes approaches me. “Come with me, please,” he says, “I’d like to have a chat.”
We enter a small room and sit down at a table. He checks my phone to make sure I am not recording our conversation.
Then come the questions. Lots of them.
“What mission have your editors set you? What will you be filming? How will you be saving your material, on computers or hard drives? What SIM card will you be using in Crimea? As the correspondent, will you be making notes each night about what you have filmed? Can you show me some of the photos on your phone? Where will you be staying? Why didn’t you fly direct from Moscow?”
My interrogator notes down my answers on a piece of paper. His questions are not limited to Crimea.
“What street do you live on in Moscow? What is the nearest Metro station to your home? What does your wife do for a living? You’ve been in Russia a long time. Have you ever considered applying for a Russian passport?”
“My British one suits me just fine,” I reply.
“What do you think of English cuisine?” he asks, adding, “I like Jamie Oliver. Although I consider he uses too much oil.”
The questioning lasts an hour. Then the official escorts me back to the van. I ask for his name.
“I have no name,” he replies, “only a rank.”
The inquisitive young man with “no name, only a rank” invites my colleagues for similar conversations.
Three hours pass. Interrogations over, we are still not free to go. We spend the night in the van waiting for Russian customs officers to process our papers and allow our TV equipment through. Ten hours after arriving at the Armyansk crossing, we finally clear the checkpoint.
“For journalists based in Russia, there are faster ways of reaching the Crimean peninsula. Board a plane in Moscow and two hours later you can be in the Crimean capital Simferopol. Ukraine, however, warns foreign nationals that anyone entering “temporarily occupied Crimea” without Kiev’s permission and without crossing an official Ukrainian border may be banned from future entry to Ukraine.”
seems easy if you go through the correct channels..
its russian territory..respect their borders..