I met Gregor in 1989, when the Sun assigned me to Ukraine to cover the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

I’d arrived at Donetsk at two in the morning. A gaping hole in the airport roof resulted in six inches of brown slush on the floor as we sorted through the pile of luggage the ground crew had dumped without comment.

I’d gone to the bank of phone booths to call a taxi, but the few ancient bakelite telephones that still functioned only took Soviet rubles, and the coins had been discontinued months before.

I was almost in tears when Gregor arrived in his taxi. He became my lifeline, and one of my best friends.

When I’d come back in 2012 to cover the football championship, Gregor was again my guide. He was bursting with pride at the many improvements to his beloved Ukraine, especially the Donetsk Airport.

Now as I wait for his plane to arrive at LaGuardia, I decide I will not ask him about it.


What Pegman Saw: Ukraine



JAN 27, 2015

DONETSK, Ukraine — Built for almost $1 billion dollars ahead of the Euro 2012 football championship, Donetsk airport — once a shining gem of the regional capital — has been the focus of intense fighting during the conflict in eastern Ukraine since May, as Russian-backed separatist rebels battle Kiev’s government forces for control over its grounds.

After nearly nine months of close-quarters combat that included fierce tank battles, the rebels this week managed to dislodge Ukrainian fighters from their positions inside one of the terminals, and from the underground tunnel network they used to move in and out without taking fire.

The airport is strategic because it could potentially be used to airlift supplies from Russia to the rebels and important because it gives them control over the entire regional capital.

It had also become an important symbol of the broader conflict. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that at Donetsk airport “I am sure that we are defending there the whole of Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian fighters defending it had been called “cyborgs” for their endurance in holding onto the complex for as long as they did. Countless numbers of them, as well as rebel fighters, died fighting for control over the airport. Now there is little left other than the wrecked carcasses of jetliners and twisted bird’s nest of steel and rebar.


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  1. prior..

    J, I liked starting with the year abruptly like that – and 89 was a pivotal year for many as Y2K approached – eh?
    anyhow, you took us across decades smoothly – with the consistency of friendship and inconsistent peace in that country…

  2. Penelope Gadd

    There’s so much in this story. History, politics, friendship, war, loss, and emotion. And you have conveyed it all with such style. Kudos!

  3. Alicia Jamtaas

    Friendships are made in the strangest ways. Sometimes the more trauma, the tighter the bond. You really caught that in your story. Love the bakelite bit. Today I washed the bakelite container still holding my grandmother’s hairpins. Tossed most of those, but oh, the memories of twisting the cap off the container and playing with those hair pins.

  4. 4963andypop

    What an epic of chaos, competition and conflict you write in such a short piece. The airport bears the scarsof a tumultuous thirty years. So fine, that their friendship can survive such troubling times. And his choosing not to bring up what may be a sore spot forhis friend shows his humanity, and respect for that of his foreign friend.

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