Roman Burko, journalist
My name is Roman Burko, I am a journalist, blogger, founder of the international volunteer community InformNapalm and editor-in-chief of InformNapalm.org website.
I was born in Donbas, then moved to Crimea. I studied, lived and worked in Sevastopol. By some quirk of fate both of these Ukrainian regions, which I call my home, are now occupied by the Russian Federation. This had a deep impact on my life, the life of my family and people who are dear to me. We became internally displaced persons (IDPs) – basically, refugees in our own country. Russian aggression pulled us out of the familiar environment, destroyed our normal life, shattered our plans for the future. In early 2014, all these factors predetermined my choice: to take the path of struggle against the occupiers.
But first things first.
Despite the fact that I had spent all my earlier life in the region penetrated with strong ideological influence coming from Russia, I personally took the beginning of Euromaidan protests positively, even with great enthusiasm. In striking contrast, most of my colleagues and acquaintances criticized the Revolution of Dignity, so I built a narrow circle of friends – 3 persons who shared my interests. We would meet and watch broadcasts from Euromaidan together, live through all the events with the protesters, and send parcels with warm clothes to Kyiv for people living in tents 24/7.
Later on these 3 persons became the backbone of the team – of the info-underground, which grew into the international volunteer community InformNapalm.
Yet in January – beginning of February 2014 we did not know the war was coming. This awareness came in the end of February, when after a mass shooting of protesters on the Maidan, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. We learned from our friends that Yanukovych escaped through Sevastopol on a Russian Black Sea Fleet warship with the aid of the Russian military. Very soon we realized that Russia had its own plans for Ukraine, and the runaway president was only a small piece of a large-scale special operation.
Suspicious movements of the Black Sea Fleet military personnel, rallies calling for civil disobedience, armed seizure of the buildings of the Supreme Council and the Council of Ministers of Crimea confirmed our suspicion, made everything crystal clear.
I had a keen desire to undermine Russian plans, to prevent the occupation and stop this madness. My first thoughts were, of course, to organize a guerrilla party and engage in real combat. But I had no weapon and no special training. I came to the conclusion it was a dead-end track: even if there is a chance to carry out at least one successful armed operation against Russian soldiers, this will only aggravate the situation. After all, intense Russian propaganda held Crimea in the information ‘cage’ and, at the same time, Russia was very efficient at broadcasting preselected messages to a global audience. Any sporadic armed resistance would be crushed in the bud and presented as a justification for the occupation, quite in line with the Russian tales about the “terrorists from Maidan”. Therefore I had to figure out another way that would inflict real damage and achieve some long-lasting effect.
The solution came unexpectedly but rather quickly. My friends started calling me and telling me about the movements of the Russian soldiers, about the incidents of blocking and seizing of Ukrainian military units. These were both Ukrainian Navy sailors and civilians who happened to witness the events. And it hit me.
I understood that it was vital to inform the world community about the events taking place in Crimea. I thought that this could improve the situation and, most likely, prevent the occupation and war.
I started filming videos with the so-called “little green men” – Russian soldiers hiding their faces under balaclavas and wearing no insignia on their military uniforms. I was posting my videos on YouTube. Other eyewitnesses I stayed in touch with were also sending me their videos.
Livestreams that became so popular during Euromaidan protests in Kyiv were still unusual for Crimea, and technical limitations did not allow me to livestream. So I was filming and then uploading my videos. One of the videos that I uploaded on March 2, 2014 hit almost 2 million views on YouTube in the first 24 hours, now its counter shows 3 million views.
This and other rare videos became the primary sources of information about the events in Crimea for other regions of Ukraine and the whole world. Later I saw them many times in news stories of different TV channels.
This record high number of views made me realize that the outer world desperately needs our videos and that we can break the isolation.
I started posting on Facebook and Twitter, I was asking my readers to translate my notes into different languages and spread this information as much as possible. People were translating my posts and materials and they were getting hundreds and thousands of shares on Internet. My friends from Sevastopol, whom I trusted, joined me at my efforts. A week later, one of my contacts in the Ukrainian military told me that Russian security services were already looking for me and my friends. He said that this information came from a closed channel on Zello push-to-talk walkie-talkie app, which was widely used by the Russians to coordinate the actions of the Cossacks and titushky helping Russian regular troops to seize Crimea.
We decided not to wait until they find us. We stuffed our laptops in our backpacks, added a couple of T-shirts, turned off our cellphones, took out our SIM-cards and disappeared. It was a long trip – we were taking different types of transportation to leave Crimea. However, the next morning we were in Kyiv. Then we immediately went to Lviv, where I knew only one guy who I “met” on social networks. He sheltered us for quite a long time.
In Lviv we continued collecting information remotely – both online and from the phone calls. We kept publishing information, conducted journalist investigations on social networks and encouraged other people to help us. With the help of a programmer from Sevastopol we created a website and decided to call it InformNapalm – a flame of information that burns the lies of the aggressor.
Less than a month on, Russia launched a new round of hybrid war. Ukrainian Donbas was the next to go through the seizure of public buildings and violent unrest. In the beginning everything was very similar to the events that we saw in Crimea. We started to monitor this area, too, and collect the information about Russian military servicemen.
Initially, the main source of information for us was insiders – people who were in the thick of things. They were consciously risking their freedom and their life, and told us what they saw and heard. Later this source faded into insignificance. It got replaced by the OSINT (open source intelligence). At that point the Russians were eagerly sharing tons of valuable proofs – on social networks, in news reports, on Internet forums and in the interviews for Russian journalists. At times we could also gather important evidence from the official documents, registries and obituaries in the public domain.
In the transitional period from the revolution to the war many activists preferred to stay anonymous. Maybe because the sense that the war was not somewhere far away, but everywhere, did not have enough time to blur completely.
People often ask me why I’m still wearing my mask. My Sevastopol and Donbas background is an important reason, but it is not the only one. I think that anonymity is a necessary measure of self-defense when you confront a terrorist state, reveal its secrets and show evidence of its involvement in crimes.
InformNapalm was built by people from different countries of the world: Ukraine, Georgia, Germany, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, the U.S., Spain, France, Sweden, Belarus, Portugal, and many others.
Everyone did what he / she could on a voluntary basis. Someone was writing his own journalist investigations based on the information from open sources, someone was translating articles into different languages, someone was designing infographics, and someone was assembling videos. This “beehive” effort bore fruit. Within 4 years we have published more than 1,700 investigations demasking the Russian aggression. Many of them are collected in our consolidated database.
Our fight is not over and will continue until Russia leaves the occupied territories – not only in Ukraine, but also in other countries. It is a struggle for truth, justice, and ability to live in a world that has no place for aggression, military occupation and hybrid war.
More info about InformNapalm can be found here: http://informnapalm.rocks