Shortly after arriving in eastern Ukraine to cover the conflict, Andrei Stenin, who specialised in documenting the human side of accidents, riots, military interventions and armed conflicts, who had previously worked in such hot spots as Syria, the Gaza Strip and Libya, stopped communicating with his editorial office on 5 August, 2014.
Several days later, Kiev announced the photojournalist's disappearance. Amid suspicions that Stenin could have been detained by Ukrainian security forces, #FreeAndreiStenin rallies were held across the world. Various officials and groups expressed their concern about his fate, including OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontiers, RSF).
Almost a month after Stenin went missing, with no information surfacing regarding his whereabouts, it was announced that Stenin had been killed in the Donetsk Region of eastern Ukraine on 6 August. The car he was driving was fired upon while he was on editorial assignment; its charred remains were later found on the highway.
On the fifth anniversary of the photojournalist's tragic death, his mother, Vera Stenina, has shared memories about her son.
Sputnik: You’ve come a long way. I know that you’ve come directly from the cemetery, do you feel better now?
Vera Stenina: Yes, I’ve just got off the train, I was at the cemetery. I have this tradition when I come [to Moscow] I have to visit Andrei’s grave at the Troyekurovskoye Cemetery. I feel better then; I can do my business after that. So, I was there today; I told him where I was going.
Sputnik: Do you manage to come often?
Vera Stenina: I come [to Moscow] three times a year, in December for my birthday, in April – it was in April when I last saw Andrei when he saw me off at the Yaroslavl station – and on 6 August, the day when he died.
Sputnik: We’ve already spoken to Andrei’s friends and colleagues. Everyone speaks well of him – they say that he was a good and reliable friend, that he was very calm, reasonable and smart. Could you tell us what kind of child he was?
Vera Stenina: What kind of child was he? I remember him as a child. When he finished school, he left to enter a university – I don’t know much about that period. But when he was a child, it’s the child who is closest to the mother, so… What was he like? For him, his mom always came first. Then came his dad, grandmother, grandmother Kira, we lived together. He loved to be alone.
Sputnik: So he wasn’t naughty, was he?
Vera Stenina: Yes. He loved to be alone, that is, when we had some guests around, he was as quiet as a mouse. He was somewhere shaping or reading; he really loved books. He always told me: “Mom, read me some fairy tales.” So, I was reading him bedtime stories until he fell asleep. He loved books; then, of course, he had his own books, philosophical … abstruse as they say. Not fairy tales. He didn’t read detective stories. He loved Solzhenitsyn; he always read Solzhenitsyn when he came [home]. He loved history. His kindergarten teacher once told me: “We’re waiting for Andrei to come and tell us some stories.” He would get up and start telling something, fairy tales or something else. And the children listened to him.
Sputnik: Did he make up his own stories?
Vera Stenina: I don’t think so; I think he just told what I had read to him. The children loved listening to him. We had a good primary school teacher, Nadezhda Aleksandrovna Kozyreva. We still meet sometimes. He liked school; he studied well and his teacher praised him. And then, there were different teachers … and after all, he was more a humanities-minded person.
Sputnik: Yes, you can see that from his texts.
Vera Stenina: Yes, he was more into humanities. Even today, when I take his books, they are dear to me; I see that something is highlighted there, some thoughts, there’re some notes in the margins. He kept diaries; he’s been keeping diaries from an early age. But then they disappeared. They disappeared when he entered a university; maybe there were a lot of interesting things in them. I saw his diaries only after his death; I saw what he had in his notes. He kept notes, diaries… I couldn’t even think that was my son. All the notes were so smart, and he was thinking about life… I don’t know…
Sputnik: And if you read what he wrote in his social networks, his language is so interesting, the images are so delicate. It’s so beautifully written…
Vera Stenina: To be honest, I didn’t know that. We used to tell him to study, all of us – me, his dad, his grandmother. And he, poor child (laughs)… it turns out he did study! But he learned only what was interesting to him.
Sputnik: That’s why he was so smart because you motivated him.
Vera Stenina: He always read books, all the time. We have a home library, and our relative worked in a bookstore, so we had access to the classics and some good books. As I remember, his grandmother used to read newspapers all the time… We all love reading, that’s why he wasn’t a mathematician, but… (sighs).
Sputnik: As a child, was he into any sports?
Vera Stenina: Sports? I tried to get him interested in swimming; he went to the swimming pool and learned to swim. Then he went to an aviation design club; he made some models. He had a good teacher there. But as for sports, I don’t know. It turns out that he and the boys – the Buyanov family lived in our house, they had two boys – their mother said she had found some notes saying that they all went to some meadows, they went rafting to some lakes. We didn’t know that; we didn’t track him, and anything could happen. So, he went rafting somewhere, he was away from home; we didn’t know that. Then they built… boys are boys… they built tree houses.
Sputnik: So, he didn’t tell you much, did he?
Vera Stenina: Yes. In our family, everyone was rather reserved. Now I can open up a bit, maybe with age. His dad was reserved. He wouldn’t say more than a word. We were all like that. His grandma loved to talk (laughs). She was nice, my mother-in-law. When he came home, after a meeting, he sat down at his laptop or book, and that’s it. If you asked him an interesting question, he would answer; if he was not interested, he wouldn’t answer. He spoke beautifully. Once he opened up when I came here [to Moscow]. I liked the way he was speaking; he was self-made, we couldn’t afford paying for his promotion. He went through everything.
Sputnik: His colleagues said that he was very enthusiastic. When he decided to go into motorcycles, he studied everything on the subject. When he decided to become a photographer, he studied everything and became one.
Vera Stenina: Yes, if he started something, he would drive the nail home. Once I was waiting for him in Belorussky, where he rented an apartment. I was watching. He rode a motorbike; he spent about two hours fiddling with it until he fixed it. I was surprised at how patient he was. He fixed it and went on. That’s it. He also glimpsed at me; he saw his mother was watching him. You know, it was so nice to look at him.
Sputnik: And did you ride a motorbike with him?
Vera Stenina: No, he got a taxi for me; and he accompanied the car showing the driver where to go. The driver even said: "Look at your export!" Of course, I was proud! That’s why maybe I’ve been crying for five years.
Sputnik: Did you dissuade him from working in hot spots?
Vera Stenina: No. I didn’t know about that. We didn’t talk much. He didn’t call first, but I had to at least hear a word. I called him, asked about the weather, about his health. From his voice, I could get that everything was fine; so, he didn’t tell me about that. He was very happy when he started working for RIA Novosti. Then, again, he didn’t call me for a long time. There was no call from him. Then I called him, and he said he was in Syria. "My Lord! My son is in Syria!" I didn’t know that. That was when I found out that he worked in hot spots.
Sputnik: What did you feel then?
Vera Stenina: I didn’t know there were wars there. I didn’t really listen to the news then. Today, I closely follow the news; I care about journalists. When he left for Ukraine, there was some thought that I could lose my child when they started killing journalists – Voloshin, Kornelyuk. And again, I didn’t know he was there. He saw me off and left. He gave me a laptop, and I began to follow him. If I see his photographs, he is alive and everything is fine.
Sputnik: How did you find out what happened?
Vera Stenina: I learned that persecution of journalists had begun in Ukraine; I learned that they were wanted. Then I realized it was dangerous. I remember calling him on 17 July. He was so cheerful; he told me he got settled in a hostel. As I understood, it was in Slavyansk. Then he sent me some photographs where he was with a boy. I was very pleased. And then came July… There was a feeling that I wasn’t alive, that I was empty. And then, on 6 August, my sister called me. For some reason, she called very early, around 5 am. Nadia, my sister, told me the news said that the journalist, Andrei Stenin, had disappeared. I turned on the TV and learned the news. I couldn’t call for a long time. I left only on 18 August. All these days, I was like a beast at bay. I did not sleep, the TV worked around the clock. And that disturbing music, the messages that they were searching for him, his photograph. Then my sister arrived. I didn’t even know where to go; then I called the news agency. My niece and I set off; they met us here and put us up. Here, in Moscow, we had been waiting for news for almost a month. Then Dmitry Kiselyov called me and said that they had found him. At first, the likelihood was about 60 per cent; later he said that was for sure. I got support, of course; I am grateful to MIA Rossiya Segodnya and its employees, they gave me a lot of support. Andrei’s girlfriend, Vera supported me (although they broke up before his trip), her parents supported me as well. We still phone each other.
Sputnik: You went to Donbass, made a memorial there.
Vera Stenina: I was there for the first time in April this year. I was there once, of course, I wanted to go there once again, but we’ll see. It’s a very closed city because of a blockade or siege, I don’t know what to call it. I feel so sorry for these people. I liked the city a lot, it’s very clean. Even if there were bombings, they quickly clean everything up. They showed me the houses, their local history museum, where a whole wall had collapsed; their sports complex had also been hit. The city lives, of course; it’s a very beautiful city, the people are good there. I also visited the Andrei Stenin School in Snezhnoye. They recited poems about him. There is a museum dedicated to Andrei and the two guys who also died; they treat them very kindly. They didn’t know him, but the fact that he died there… I see kindness. Then we went to the place of Andrei’s death, the road to Dmitrovka. There is a wooden monument, but they want to make a proper one. Of course, I want to be notified so that I could help. They’ve planted two rows of birches there. I planted two birches too. The place of his death… Of course, if you imagine what was going on there… Maybe someday they will find out. When you approach the place of his death, you realise that there really is nowhere to go. There’s the steppe around; there’s nowhere to hide. On the way back, we went to the Saur grave. There’re fresh flowers everywhere; they revere the memory. I can imagine children sitting in the basements, the killed – Andrei also had such photographs. It is difficult to imagine if you haven’t seen that.
I can see that many young people die at the same age as Christ. Andrei was also like that – he was 33 and a half. You know, I address him like an icon. He helps me. When I was there, at his grave, I thought: "That’s it, Andrey, I’m letting you go." I wanted to meet him for five years, I met him. I visited Donbass. But no, I can’t let my son go. It’s with me till the very end. I was trying to stay strong; I didn’t want any tears, but I feel them coming up.