Samuel Eder | Drones in Donetsk

Newly on assignment in Marinka, Donetsk, Samuel Eder asked how to get to the loo without getting blown up. Halfway there, he heard a familiar whirring.

What I was doing in Ukraine: Representing The Foundation For Independent Journalism and working a number of photo series.

I was born in Austria, thereafter moving to Australia at Age two. I grew up in Sydney and Leipzig, Germany and Pune, India – I am currently based in Vienna. 

In 2018 I graduated from Mahindra United World College in India and moved to Vienna for a job as a writer for a company Lomography. I became their senior copywriter and after about 10 months I realized I really didn’t enjoy what I was doing, and yearned for something with more human roots and meaning. I contacted a Ukranian friend from the same school system and we began to plan a number of photo stories linked to the war. After a few months of preparation we headed to the east.

We spent a month traveling the frontlines working on said stories. 

The situation 

My partner and I had just arrived at a small outpost on the edge of Marinka, a government-controlled town in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine. Jokingly, I asked where I could go to the loo without being blown up. About halfway to the outhouse the unmistakable sound of a drone filled the air. Intrigued, I turned and yelled at the equally confused press officer. At the time I wasn’t awfully concerned, knowing the army used such drones for surveillance, having interviewed a military drone operator the previous week. 

Bullets whip through the forest as we come under fire on our way to outpost Olymp. A soldier grabs for his rife are we sprint for cover, keeping low and swearing under out breath.

My heart began to race at the frantic screams of the commander confirming that we were in fact not doing any recon and that this was not a friendly drone. I sprinted back towards the observation outpost, grabbing my camera along the way. Everyone crammed inside to take cover while the battalion commander, myself and a brave soldier stayed outside. At this point in time, the drone had moved directly above us, the high-pitched whir now drowned out by a relentless stream of upwards AK fire and radio chatter. After the third magazine, the gun jammed, sending us diving for cover. 

A Ukranian soldier attempts to shoot down the enemy drone, which is about 200 meters above us and nearly invisible. A moment later its bomb way dropped, landing a few meters left of our position while the soldier was reloading. The sound of the impact was hidden beneath a string of heavy machine-gun fire from a nearby outpost.

And then… nothing…The drone flew away, leaving us to discuss what it was doing, and why it didn’t drop any munitions. Then we got back to work, and life continued as normal.

The front lines go silent as the sun sets, both sides taking a moment to prepare for the night of fighting to follow.

The surprise

It wasn’t until a few hours later that a soldier who gone to enjoy the sunset noticed something sticking out of the roof. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be the tail of an IED. The bomb had lodged itself in the asbestos roof, and for some reason, had not detonated. The drone had successfully dropped its payload; the sound of its impact hidden by the machine gun fire.

The charge was either an array of Russian fragmentation grenades, a small mortar shell or an RPG head – all with a blast of 15+ meters and a potential kill radius of around 5. At the time of impact, I was standing about 4 meters away and continued taking portraits over the next hours within a space of 10 meters. 

Inside the observation / command outpost. Unknown to us, the unexploded IED is sticking out of the roof, a few meters about our heads.

Having spent the last month living closely with the soldiers, we instinctively reacted to this brush with death as they did – with laughter. This wasn’t our first tango with separatist firepower, although it was by far our closest. The hardy Ukrainians soldiers, especially those who had fought for the airport in 2015  all seemed to share the same macabre humor. To paraphrase: ‘When confronted with the hand of death you have two choices – to laugh, or cry. If you take these things too seriously the bullet that barely missed you will kill you faster than the one with your name on it.’ 

 

The only thing that lies between the two sides is a road, each unable to advance held in a constant stalemate. From the window, you can see the enemy, and they can see you.

It took a few more days for the chilling reality of the situation to soak in, and I still can’t decide if I was lucky or unlucky. All I know for certain is that is was both one of the funniest and most haunting moments of the trip.

Preparation

Thankfully I was wearing my full body armor that day, consisting of NIJ III plates and a more encompassing kevlar liner for fragmentation protection. In addition, I also had my kevlar helmet, ballistic glasses and some funny kevlar underpants for mine protection. 

In the months leading up to the project, I closely followed local news and conflict reports from the region. We were well aware that drones were being used, but due to their general rarity and track record of being shot down or missing targets entirely they were the least of our concerns. The fact we came across a drone at close range combined with its accuracy made it a real fluke, to say the least. 

A new shift of soldiers arrives to continue building and reinforcing the outposts.

I had never been in a war zone before Ukraine and spent the months leading up to my departure learning as much I could about conflict photojournalism. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to receive a great deal of support from a few experienced journos pointing me in the right direction, I don’t think I could have done it without them. Their advice included accommodation, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), locations, credentials, internal military contacts and general mentorship. But of course, no plan survives the first contact and a lot of our meticulously detailed itinerary was virtually thrown out of the window within the first week.

Sometimes a pack of cigarettes and a devilish grin can open more doors than any press pass. 

Gear

I was able to use my standard photographic equipment, only adding a few extra layers of gaffer tape to keep out mud and making sure to pack enough replacement parts to survive the apocalypse. I also carried a pretty decent IFAK (Individual First Aid Kit) along with a few tourniquets virtually everywhere I went – thankfully they never came into use. 

A fellow documentary photographer recommended battleface to me, due to the exceptional medical and gear coverage, even on the frontlines. Not to mention the vast international network, and familiarity with a similar situation.  

The reaction:

After that, we counted our blessings and continued the project spending the night and sharing a bloody good dinner with the soldiers on the front line. We did, however, discuss how we would have reacted had the device gone off. 

The results of heavy tank shelling of apartments in the city of Avdiivka. Today the building remains well within the range of Sepratiat fire, the surrounding area often targeted by mortar strikes.
The remnants of people’s lives lay scattered in the rubble – tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes at a moments notice. Leaving everything, often including their pets to the ravages of war.
Ukranian commander КИСЛИНСЬКИЙ looks out at enemy positions 150m away. Two hours later an intense firefight broke out, claiming the lives of three Sepratists soldiers.

The most likely scenario plays out as such:

After receiving TCCC (Total Combat Casualty Care) from soldiers in the adjacent building the casualties would have been medevaced by the closest available medics. My partner, a Ukrainian national who was at the time undercover, would likely have only been mildly injured, thus being able to translate my medical records and documents. Over the course of the trip we had made a few friends in high places, and so may have been directly transported to a military hospital, potentially avoiding some pitfalls. However, had this not been the case it was good to know that battleface would have provided the necessary support upon having been notified, even in the direst of situations. 

The takeaway: Would I have done anything differently?

Surprisingly No. The nature of the situation ruled out the potential for any pre-active prevention or isolation via risk assessment. In addition to the protective and medical kit we carried, combined with the support from the military, this meant that there wasn’t anything more we could have done – bar driving around in a tank. It was a fluke, in every conceivable way. The fact a drone showed up, that it happened to (by chance) follow me as I ran for safety and finally the failure of the device to explode. Each variable is more unlikely than the next. It’s a numbers game, and I happened to win this one.

www.samueleder.com