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Battle of Donbas: Dramatic Interview from Ukrainian-Held Severodonetsk as Missiles Rain Down

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Image Credit: Courtesy: William Nessen

In a rare interview from the frontlines of the Russian invasion, we speak with American journalist Billy Nessen in the Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk. It is the easternmost city still held by Ukrainian forces after almost three months of war. He says Russian troops have devastated the city with heavy shelling. The interview with Nessen was interrupted when a shell landed in the building next door. Nessen speaks about the Ukrainian resistance, the Azov Battalion and more, including the U.S. and NATO’s role in the conflict, especially as the U.S. Senate is expected to approve an additional $40 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine. “Obviously the West is determined that Ukraine has to win this war,” says Nessen.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We end today’s show on the frontlines of the war in Ukraine. In the city of Mariupol, the Russian military says nearly a thousand Ukrainian fighters surrendered in total after leaving the Azovstal steel plant, where they had been holed up for many weeks. This comes as The New York Times reports talks to end the war have collapsed, with Russian and Ukrainian negotiators further apart from an agreement than at any other point during the war. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote today to approve an additional $40 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine.

On Tuesday, in a rare interview on the frontlines, I spoke to the independent journalist William “Billy” Nessen, who’s in the Ukrainian town of Severodonetsk, east of Kramatorsk, which is right up against the Russian lines, under constant shelling. After having some trouble connecting with him, we did manage to reach him, although there were explosions throughout the broadcast, until they blew the video image off the air, though Billy could continue to speak. This is what he had to say.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy, you just came back. Can you tell — we didn’t hear a word you said. Can you tell us what you’re doing there? What’s happening in the city?

BILLY NESSEN: OK, well, this is — the explosions now, I would say probably three a minute, mostly shells going back and forth between the Ukrainian forces and the Russian forces. The city of 130,000 is a strategic point, a barometer of which way this thing is going to go. If the Ukrainians can hold the city, I think it’s the end of any Russian advances, at least in this part of the country.

And so far, the Russians have made several attempts, after constant artillery barrages, to get into the city over the last couple of weeks, starting about the 7th or 8th. They first came from the east, then came from the north, and then have tried to encircle the city and cut it off from the city just to its west. So, there’s fighting on the outskirts of the city. It’s mostly an artillery duel that goes on, probably three shells a minute I’m counting. It will go 24/7.

The place where I sleep at night, in a basement, was hit by about 50 shells all around it, even though there’s no strategic — there’s no military or police or anything essential to the Ukrainians. They often — besides barraging the Ukrainian forces, some days they just start shelling the city. And there seems to be no logic or reason for some of the places that they attack. They have drones operating over the city, both the Russians and Ukrainians, so they know what they’re hitting and not hitting. The hospital was hit several times last week. I was in a sports palace that was hit three times. The office where I was working out of, which is a humanitarian center, the back part of it was hit by a rocket, and then, a few days ago, a mortar went through the roof. If I had been sitting in the chair where I usually sit, I would have been killed.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the people who were there. Do you want to put on your helmet? I mean, I can’t bear to be interviewing you as we hear these explosions in the background.

BILLY NESSEN: Yeah, no, I’m OK. I’m OK. If it gets a little bit closer — I mean, what happens here, after you’ve been here for a little bit, you can judge what’s coming in close and what’s not. And the streets are — it’s a city of 130,000. There’s probably 15,000 people left. And you walk — most of the streets that I’ve walked down are completely empty, and occasionally you see people walking out and about. But people are used to the shelling, and they can judge what’s close and what’s not. You know, 100 meters, 200 meters, 300 meters, that’s considered close. Half a K, you know, no one even flinches anymore.

The people who are left are overwhelmingly older people, who are used to being here and don’t want to leave. You know, they’re scared to leave. And accompanying them are their children who are adults, you know, in their forties. So you have this older population, and then you have a next generation. And then, complicating that is the fact that the next generation has children. So the whole family ends up staying here. And there’s evacuations going on, but the people who are here right now, it’s unlikely that they’re going to leave. As I said, the Russians are trying to take the city, and this will be a barometer of the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy Nessen —

BILLY NESSEN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — you’ve had a long, storied career in journalism. You worked for the United Nations covering South Africa in South Africa. In the Global South, there is a lot of criticism of the United States and NATO really provoking this war, not to say there isn’t criticism of the brutality of the invasion, but the ever eastern inching of NATO toward Russia. And now you have Sweden and Finland saying they’re going to join. Why did you decide to come to Ukraine?

BILLY NESSEN: You know, I have not only been a journalist, but I was an activist much of my life and working and oriented toward issues of the South, or what we used to call the Third World. So, I am very much attuned to that. And I had actually put down my — I had stopped working as a journalist, and I had focused on raising a family. And when Russia invaded Ukraine, I thought I had to come here. I can understand the perceptions that the South has that this is somehow a battle of West and East or of some part of the world versus American imperialism. But I thought, even though those issues are there, I thought there was also a Russian imperialism. And if you know the history and the perceptions of people all around Russia, you begin to understand that there is something called Russian imperialism, and at times it can be worse than American imperialism. And I thought this was one of the times.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to you right as the soldiers have given up, the Ukrainians, at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. How much information are you getting about that? What effect does that have on the Ukrainians where you are?

BILLY NESSEN: Yeah. I mean, we have an internet — so, I should say that we don’t have cellphones. We don’t have any water. We don’t have electricity except a generator. And we’ve got this Starlink from Elon Musk, is the only way that we’re speaking to you. I mean, everyone is cooking outside. There’s no fuel to cook. There’s just wood. I saw people and filmed people cutting down dead trees today in order to cook the food. People here are staying alive because of the humanitarian aid that’s coming in. And I’m speaking to you from the large center of that. So, we get news from the outside, and we also hear from talking to soldiers and special forces and the police every day.

People see that situation, Mariupol, and those people who fought there as heroes, as their “lions,” they call them. And even though they have now been defeated, they see it as an enormous victory of Ukraine, that, you know, if you — they’re going to fight. They see it as an existential question. If they don’t fight, then Russia is going to take over. So there’s no choice for them. And as I say, they look to the Mariupol defenders as the heroes of this country.

If Putin wanted to get rid of the Nazis, you know, or the fascists, as he called them, Nazis or fascists, he has actually ennobled those people who by the West were considered, you know, conservative or right-wing or fascist. I think that’s — you know, we get a lot more information talking to people. I’ve talked to people in the Azov Battalion or brigade. They exist all throughout eastern Ukraine. And they long ago were put into the National Guard, and they’re professional. And for a lot of people, the fight that they waged shows how professional they are.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you —

BILLY NESSEN: So, I don’t think — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Azov Battalion, the brigade? I mean, for people here who have been following it for years, you’ve got — it’s a white supremacist, right-wing brigade. And the idea that you’re saying, that it had become mainstreamed — I mean, there was a time when the U.S. put restrictions on weapons being sent, that would end up in the hands of this brigade.

BILLY NESSEN: Well, listen, you know, the job first of a journalist, I think, is to communicate what the people in a place feel or think, and then secondarily is the analysis. And I think figuring out exactly who is who and what was what is something that is going to go on for a long time.

If you say to them, the people here, that Azov are fascists, they laugh at you, you know, or you say that fascists have a lot of support in Ukraine, people say, “But the one party that was considered” — out of 39 parties, I think — “that was considered sort of far-right or fascist got less than 2% of the vote,” I think, in a field of 39 other candidates. Zelensky is Jewish. He won 73% of the vote in the second round. You know, I think they’re probably more — one, they’ll also say that here there might be some fascists, but in Russia they’re in power. And they look to the vote in France, or they know about Trump, and they think, well, America and France have far more far-right people than they do in Ukraine. People laugh at it. You know, they don’t have popular support at all in terms of an ideology, but they’ve gotten even more support, Azov, as a fighting unit.

But I don’t think it’s a far-right battalion anymore. It once was, but it’s been integrated into the army. And I think people in America and some in Europe on the left, generally, want to say that that means that the military — and then, therefore, the government — is far-right or fascist, rather than that these far-right people don’t dominate that battalion and don’t dominate the military in any way.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy — 

BILLY NESSEN: I mean, no — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about restrictions being put on you by the Ukrainian military or local officials that you can talk about.

BILLY NESSEN: Yeah, I’ll talk about it at all. I think every journalist and photographer, videographer who’s been here — and I do all three — is very frustrated by it. We’ve been stopped from covering the war itself. No one has gotten, or rarely — it’s sort of accidentally that anyone has gotten to the frontlines covering the war. They might be there in some battle, or something happens. But we’ve been chaperoned everywhere. And I think it’s a huge mistake by the Ukrainian government. And, you know, that’s one of the troubling things that every journalist here has encountered.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do they say they’re imposing it, Billy?

BILLY NESSEN: They say they’re concerned with our safety. And we respond, “But we came here knowing the danger — [explosion] Whoa! That was — OK. That we know the dangers.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you put on your helmet?

BILLY NESSEN: No, I’m still in a safe place. Just a little loud. It echoes in here. That was pretty close.

So, that’s the first thing they say, our safety. And we try to explain, and they ignore that. And then, the other thing is, you know, they’re worried that we’ll give out some sort of military secrets, but which is also silly, because, as I said, you have drones flying all over. And there are people, especially here, who do support Russia. So, you know, within this 10% of the population that stayed in this city, I’ve met a number of them who are pro-Russia. And these people will obviously give information — or, not obviously, but they’re more likely to give information about placement of Ukrainian troops than any of the journalists who come here.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy, as an American, do you think the United States is doing enough to end the war, or is the U.S. helping to prolong it?

BILLY NESSEN: As an American, I think the right thing is to help the Ukrainians.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you can talk more about the civilians —

BILLY NESSEN: [inaudible] invasion.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

BILLY NESSEN: Against an invasion. We should do everything we can to help them.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you the only American there? Have you seen American advisers there? Can you talk about people from around the world that you’ve met where you are?

BILLY NESSEN: Yeah, there’s — I’m in contact with some soldiers and police here I’ve met. But, overwhelmingly, the people that I’ve met here in this town have been humanitarian aid workers. And they’re — 99%, they’re Ukrainians. But there are a number of, you know, Japanese, Belgian, Swiss, American. I met a guy from Mexico today. People are still being evacuated from here, and they have to go along a road which is shelled by the Russians, so these humanitarian aid workers are very brave to drive in a big van. You’re driving 20 elderly people. [explosion] You know, that was loud. That was close.

AMY GOODMAN: That was very loud. We heard it, the explosion right there, and you froze for a minute.

BILLY NESSEN: Yeah. So, I’m not seeing — you know, the American advisers are probably here, I mean, and I’m sure they’re giving them real-time access to every bit of information that the American satellites and European, British spy satellites and other means are able to gather. Obviously the West is determined that Ukraine has to win this war. You know, I don’t — you know, our listeners or viewers might have different feelings about that, but I think it’s clear that the determination is there. And we’re not seeing, obviously, a lot of what’s going on. There have been foreign fighters here, but I think a lot of them are, from what I hear from Ukrainians, not very effective ones. There are probably some. You know, it’s mostly not ex-special forces. [explosion] [sirens] [no video]

AMY GOODMAN: Billy?

BILLY NESSEN: [bleep] Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy, are you OK?

BILLY NESSEN: Yeah, I’m OK. Just right next door to us.

AMY GOODMAN: My god!

BILLY NESSEN: [bleep] That landed right here. [explosion] [bleep]

AMY GOODMAN: Billy, put on your helmet.

BILLY NESSEN: Yeah, I’m inside now. Whoa! That was right —

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what’s happening. Just describe it to us, even though we don’t have an image.

BILLY NESSEN: It’s been an explosion right next door.

AMY GOODMAN: I can hear you.

BILLY NESSEN: Explosion right next door. We don’t have a video?

AMY GOODMAN: No, we don’t have video right now.

BILLY NESSEN: No, explosion. The smoke all up and down. It hit — the shell hit right next door this building.

AMY GOODMAN: It looks like your camera turned off.

BILLY NESSEN: Yeah, I don’t know all sorts of things. I don’t know what happened. But, whoa! That’s very close, within 100 meters, less than 50 meters away. [bleep]

AMY GOODMAN: We can —

BILLY NESSEN: That’s where — that’s where there’s a lot of — [bleep] that’s where there’s a lot of people sort of camped out in a bunker over there, people who have been made homeless, right where it hit. There is no military targets over there. This is ridiculous.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, describe where you are. Talk about the hospital.

BILLY NESSEN: I’m in a humanitarian aid center. And just 50 meters or 100 meters away is where a lot of people are living underground, and that’s where that shell hit. It’s an empty lot with people cooking outside. And there’s just smoke filling the air.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see people fleeing, scattering?

BILLY NESSEN: No, I can’t see, because it’s blocked by the truck. But it’s all smoke. You can’t see anything. [bleep] They’re not just going to hit one shell here. [explosion] We’ve got to — we’ve got to go inside. [bleep] Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy, should we let you go so that you can deal with everything?

BILLY NESSEN: No, it’s OK. It’s OK. That hit right — I mean, I was the closest person to it, from this — so, what else do you — I’m sorry. What else do you want to ask?

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have the sense that the Russians like NATO and Ukraine working together? Do you have the sense that they know what they’re hitting?

BILLY NESSEN: They know what they’re hitting. They’ve got drones all over the city. They know exactly what they’re hitting. These are not mistakes. This is their — 99% of the shells are hitting Ukrainian troops, but 1% is enough to kill lots of people here. This is where there’s basically homeless people. It’s like, you know, a plaza, Moscone Center, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Are there many children left there?

BILLY NESSEN: Yeah, there are children there. Anyway, it was — that’s homeless people over there, old people.

AMY GOODMAN: And the hospital that has been hit a number of times, is it still functioning? Is it the only hospital in Severodonetsk?

BILLY NESSEN: There’s two. There’s a military hospital. They keep hitting the civilian hospital. You know, they know. It’s a big building. I mean, there’s no mistakes here. You know, there’s drones flying. Yesterday, I saw a unit of Ukrainians shooting down a drone. I heard a buzzing in the air. You know, that’s a drone. And Ukrainians shot it out of the air. I was there. So, they know exactly what they’re doing. I mean, they could level this town. They’re not doing that, but 1% — every building in the city has its windows have been broken. Almost every block, there’s been an explosion, a rocket or artillery or mortar round has landed. You know, it’s not leveled, but this is like, you know, slow-motion mass destruction of this city.

AMY GOODMAN: Did we lose Billy? Billy, if you’re speaking, we don’t hear you.

AMY GOODMAN: After that, we lost contact with independent journalist Billy Nessen, who is in the Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk, right up against the Russian lines, under constant shelling. It’s the easternmost city still held by Ukrainian forces after almost three months of war. We later did hear from him yesterday that he was OK, at least for now. We’ve tried to reach him today, and we haven’t been able to reach him yet.

That does it for today’s show. Special thanks to Renée Feltz and Hany Massoud. A very happy birthday, belated, to Erin Dooley! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thank you.

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