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Episode 2

Spring break

Spring break


At just 22 years old, Chris travels to Ukraine for his spring break, keen to see war up close. For the first time, he experiences the thrill and horror of the frontline. He’s hooked. Five years later, Basia, along with Chris’s cousin, Jeremy, visit Chris’s parents in America to piece together who he really was. There they learn a troubling new detail about Chris’s time in Ukraine


Jeremy Bliss: You can hear me clearly now? 

Essay Writer: Yes please 

Jeremy: Perfect, thanks

Basia Cummings, narrating: It was cold. It was Christmas, I had just put my tree up, when I got a series of messages from Jeremy, Christopher Allen’s long-lost cousin. 

Essay Writer: Basically, I just wanted to be so brave…

Basia, narrating: He’d tried to call the mysterious essay-writer.

Essay Writer: I have some information which will lead to justice about….

Basia, narrating: The number works. But the line is terrible

Essay Writer:  Hello? 

Jeremy: Hi, yes sorry, I asked what do you mean by… 

Essay Writer: Then I heard that he was killed. 

Basia, narrating: And it’s a really unsettling exchange. 

The essay-writer talks around the information that he says he has. 

He doesn’t want to get into detail on the phone. 

Jeremy: Is there anything else at the moment that you want to tell me that I would share with the family?

Essay Writer: What I would like the family to know is, if it is possible, I wanted to meet them.

Basia, narrating:  He wants to meet Chris’s family, in person. 

Jeremy: Go ahead.

Basia, narrating: Nobody is keen on that. They’ve already been through so much.

And that’s where Jeremy is useful, and has been useful, for years. 

Jeremy: Signing off. 

Basia, narrating: He acts as a kind of delegate for them, out in the world. He can go to places that are just too painful for John and Joyce to venture. 

And this investigation falls into that category. 

Jeremy is keen for it to happen, he pitched the story after all, this was his idea. And he’s keen to go and meet the essay-writer, in John and Joyce’s place. 

But none of it can really go anywhere if Chris’s parents aren’t on board.

And I don’t just mean on board with doing a podcast, in the practical sense, but more importantly, on board with me.

Because to investigate Chris’s killing, it’s clear, it means investigating Chris himself. 

It means going to uncomfortable places.

In short: it might take me to answers about their son that they don’t want. 

I’m Basia Cummings, from Tortoise, this is Pig Iron. Episode 2: Spring break.

The essay had made all the questions I had about Chris feel so much more urgent. 

The unsettling way the writer had communicated, the claim he made, that Chris was captured alive. 

I was keen to start working on verifying if any of it was true.

Before I could begin, I needed to spend time with Chris’s parents. 

So, I ask to visit them, with Jeremy to join too and after a polite, nervous Zoom call, they all agree. 

Me and my producer Gary fly to New York in March. And on a sidewalk outside a car garage, on an early spring morning, we meet Jeremy. 

Basia: Hello! Very nice to see you! How are you doing?

Jeremy: Yeah. I’m nervous. 

Basia: Are you?

Jeremy: Yeah. But I’m good. You? 

Basia: Yeah. Probably the same.

Basia, narrating: Our destination is Bath, in the state of Maine. 

And there, I want to begin to understand who Chris was, and why he wanted to go to war, and what he found there.

And I wanted to know what they think happened to him.

Jeremy: On the right-hand side. 

Basia: Yeah. I’ll just say that periodically, just to remind you.

Basia, narrating: Bath is north of New York, along the East Coast. Home to one of the biggest military shipyards in the United States. And home to Chris’s parents, John and Joyce. 

As a journalist, working closely with a family is always fraught. 

They’ve invited you in because they want help; or they want their story heard. There is almost always a reason, and it’s very rarely a happy one, that someone brings you into their lives. 

Jeremy: There’s the ability to effect potentially real change.

Basia, narrating: But for both sides, there is always a risk, what if the story you end up discovering, the one you end up telling, isn’t the one they want? 

Basia: But what I’m curious about, and I suppose the thing that’s unanswerable at this point is that, does that only work if it was a targeted killing?

Jeremy:  Oh no, I don’t. I don’t think so. 

Basia: No? 

Jeremy: No. 

Basia: Cause that, that’s, I suppose that’s where…

Jeremy: Well, it’s a question of what is targeted. Like there is no doubt that whoever killed him on that day meant to do it. The question is why….

Basia, narrating:  Jeremy was hundreds of steps ahead of me. I couldn’t start with any assumptions about what had happened to Chris.

Jeremy: Here’s the street, should I go left here? 

Basia, narrating: I could feel that Jeremy was nervous. This was a big moment for him too and I’m sure he was taking a gulp and wondering, is this even the right thing to do?

To bring these two strangers in to dig around in Chris’s life, and his death. 

Joyce Krajian: Here’s our house. Here’s Jeremy Bliss! 

John Allen: We never thought you’d get here Jeremy. 

Jeremy: Years huh? How long have you been in the house? 

Basia, narrating:  Through the front door, as we said our hellos, we walked into a beautiful room, a library of Chris’s books, with a framed photograph looking right out at us, Chris on a bank of grass surrounded by trees, squinting a little into the sun. 

And beside the picture, a Minolta film camera and strap and on another shelf, a small Ukrainian flag and some cigarettes, and model planes and all these trinkets of a happy childhood. 

Joyce: Welcome. We’re so glad you are here.

Basia, narrating: They seem to be excited to have us and they’re grateful that we are going to be investigating their son’s death. And I like them both a lot. Actually, to be honest, I don’t just like them, I immediately want to help them. 

But I had to remind myself that however sympathetic I am to their cause, I’m not here to join the campaign. 

And I know that over the next few days, the questions I’ll need to ask will, at times, feel painful. 

Joyce: Hey Jeremy. Yeah, if you wanna bring down clothing 

Jeremy: What’s that? 

Joyce: If you wanna bring down laundry?

Jeremy: Oh, thank you. I will do that. Um, should we…? 

Basia, narrating: While we’re staying at the house, Jeremy reminds Joyce that they have to make a video. It’s for the United Nations. It’s going to be played at a session of the human rights council.

Jeremy: And I think we should do one recording. Um, and that’s it. 

Joyce: Can we both be in it? 

Jeremy: No, just you. 

Jouce: Why? 

Jeremy: It’s just because there’s only one intervener, only one speechmaker traditionally at the UN. 

Basia, narrating: It is, really, a grim task. Condensing five years of horror into 90 short seconds. 

Joyce is understandably getting anxious. But she really wants to nail the video and Jeremy is trying to do his best to keep her on time. 

Jeremy: Okay. This is gonna have to be the one. So, think high energy and speed. Yeah. Tell me when you’re ready. 

Joyce: Ready?

Jeremy: Okay. Go.

Joyce: Thank you Mr. President, I speak on behalf of Reporters Without Borders and behalf of my husband, John. We return to this council as the persistent lack of investigation into the killing of our son.

Basia, narrating: It is a summary of what they, the family, Jeremy, their lawyers, are calling for. 

Joyce: It’s an attack on truth and justice in South Sudan, an attack on media, freedom, internationally, and an attack on our family….

Basia, narrating: Joyce says her son, a journalist, was shot five times by the South Sudanese army, she says. Why hasn’t the South Sudanese government investigated what happened; why hasn’t the FBI undertaken the investigation they promised to her. Why hasn’t the US department of justice or the United Nations investigated Chris’s killing as a war crime? 

Joyce: We plead with Christopher’s two countries, the US and UK to intervene.

Jeremy: Perfect. 

Joyce: Except I tripped up. 

Jeremy: Nope. Perfect. It’s done. 

John: How long was it, Jeremy? 

Jeremy: Just bang on. 

Basia, narrating: After takes and retakes, we return to the reason we’re here. To learn about their son. We start, naturally, with the good stuff. 

John: His character was pretty evident very early in life, I think. 

Joyce: From 2 hours after birth…

John: He was curious and… 

Joyce: Energetic.

And he said, I love this line, Chris said ‘No one gets between me and my brother’

Chris was standing on the very top. Well, nobody said don’t go up there, and that’s what Chris would say, well nobody said don’t go up there. Isn’t it wonderful that Chris is literally thinking outside the lines. 

John: Yeah, he would find the exception to the rule.

Joyce: My voice was quivering. And Chris was fine. But that was his curiosity…

Basia, narrating: They could, as you would expect, talk for hours, days, and indeed they did, about how brilliant Chris was. And I believed them. 

How he had grown up a happy, defiant kid in a quiet suburb of Philadelphia; how he loved climbing. 

This was Good Chris. The Chris who is remembered. Who is campaigned for. 

The version of him who was ambitious, who had persevered in a tough, cliquey industry as a freelancer, who had had his pitches ignored; his invoices paid late, if at all. But who, despite it all, had published reports from the frontline. 

But I knew, I needed to get into harder terrain. 

Basia: So, I’m actually sitting in a closet in the spare room, the guest in John and Joyce’s house. This is kind of my first moment alone to collect my thoughts after a really intense first day and the room is actually directly above the room in where we’re doing all the interviews.

And I’m very conscious that today was the easy day really, I mean, Joyce said it herself, it’s easy to talk about because it’s a joy and it’s, John said too, it’s the good stuff and the next couple of days are not going to be easy, and you know we are just all in this house together 

Joyce: My niece saw that my phone was ringing. It was Chris calling from South Sudan. And, I was saying John, it’s Chris, like it’s Chris. Wake up John.

Basia, narrating: The day before we were talking about Chris’s love of climbing, and now they were telling me about the last time they spoke with their son… the night before he was killed.

A phone call in which they tried to convince him to come home.  

Joyce: So, I said, and John, John was pretty much asleep. I said, Chris, go home. You’ve got this incredible story. You’ve been with these men for three weeks. You know them, you know their motivation. They’ve trusted you with their stories. You have their portraits. I said, leave. He said, why don’t you support me.

And I said, you’ve always had our support. And he said, why don’t you understand that I’ve been with these guys for three weeks now and I have to, I have to go the distance with them? And I said, it’s because I love you. I mean, I don’t want you to put yourself at risk. It was intense. And here’s this, this, this boy, this man that we had supported in every way possible. And now he’s saying, he’s questioning that support because I’m telling him to turn around and he….

John: He really felt like he needed to complete.

Joyce: He had to see it through. 

John: Yeah, yeah, he did.

Joyce: And so, I woke up John and we sang the song that we put him to bed with every night when he was a child, and we sang it to him. 

John: Do we sing it? 

John and Joyce:  Shalom Christopher, Shalom Christopher, Shalom. Shalom. We’ll see you again, we’ll see you again. Shalom, Shalom.

Basia, narrating: Jeremy had warned me before we arrived that John and Joyce’s grief was still raw. Now, I understood what that really meant, and I understood what the lack of answers, was doing to them. It was holding them in the nightmare. 

I wanted to talk more about Ukraine, and his decision in 2014, as a 23-year-old student , to travel, for spring break, to a war zone. 

Inspired by the scenes of revolution he’d seen on the streets of Kyiv. Just wanting to be there, in the middle of history in the making.

This trip was, after all, the beginning of everything that was to come next. 

John:  That spring break when he went to Ukraine, while everybody else was going to Greek islands and whatever. He didn’t want to follow that path. So, he had to do something a little different to everybody else 

Basia: Because it’s quite a thing. No? To use your spring break, to go to a war zone?

John: It gave, I suppose it gave him some sort of infamy, like… 

Joyce: I don’t think he was looking for that. I think he was just following his own path. I don’t think he was…

Basia: Were you worried when he told you he was going to go? 

Joyce: I don’t think I understood the situation until the building that he was in. I had seen in the newspaper many, many times, like, whoa, this is where it’s all happening. And how did he get there?

Basia, narrating: Joyce is talking about a photograph Chris sent her from inside an administration building in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine. 

He’d talked his way inside, from there, from that building, he saw the declaration of the Donetsk People’s Republic. 

I tried to remember what I was doing at this time. I think I had just been freelancing, badly. It was the summer before I got my first job in journalism, and I must have just finished some kind of internship, but my life couldn’t have looked more different to Chris’s. 

And then I imagined Chris, arriving in Donetsk, alone. Catching buses and riding taxis through shelling and fighting. There are times in this investigation I’ve felt close to Chris, but this was not one of those moments. 

Joyce: Chris did not look from a distance and try to tell a story. He was in the story.

John: I guess when you’re close to death in a trench with grad missiles falling down, like it highlights you’re truly alive and aware that most of us can never imagine. So, I guess that was something too. 

Joyce: I don’t know that he felt truly alive… 

Basia: But he saw that in others? 

Joyce: I think he saw that and he, he, he liked the interdependence of covering for someone, like your lives are in each other’s hands. And it was the quality of living he certainly didn’t know in Suburbia.

And I think he wanted to understand, I don’t think he wanted to be in it. I didn’t think he wanted to pick up a gun. I think, he wanted to tell about their motivations.

Basia, narrating: It was striking how quickly the conversation about Chris going to Ukraine, became a conversation about the foreign fighters that he met there. 

The terminology is a little fraught, I’m calling them foreign fighters, but some people have called them mercenaries, indeed Chris called them this too, the men who had decided, for various reasons, that they wanted to leave their homes in America or the UK, and volunteer to take up arms against the Russian-backed separatists. They joined groups called things like Right Sector, the Azov Battalion, the Donbass Battalion, some of them were linked to extreme right-wing ideologies. 

Joyce: At the Memorial service. This very interesting character showed up, which two we had heard about his name is Chris Lang. And…

John: Chris Lang.

Joyce: After the Memorial service, 20, 30 people came back to the house and we talked until two in the morning and Chris said, everybody wanted to tell my story, journalists all over the place wanted to tell my story. Chris was, kicked out of, he had a dishonourable discharge from the army. 

Basia: Chris Lang did? 

Joyce: Chris Lang. And he, he came as a mercenary to the East to fight. And Chris was a character, he said sitting around the fireplace, he said something like, I wouldn’t let anybody tell my story, except Chris Allen, like all these journalists wanted to come and tell my story, but I wasn’t going to say a word about who I was or what I was doing to anybody except for Chris, because I knew Chris would accurately tell my story.

And I think Chris really wanted to understand Chris Lang. Chris Lang was discharged for attempting to kill his wife. I said, Chris, what are you doing? Hanging out with this guy who is running around the house trying to kill his wife. He said, mom, he didn’t. 

John: He didn’t, he didn’t kill his wife. He didn’t kill his wife.

Basia: Only tried to, 

Joyce: Well, you don’t, you don’t know that that’s the story. That’s why he was discharged. But is that the whole story? And there’s no excuse for trying to kill your wife if that’s what he was trying to do, but I don’t know that that’s true. And besides I’m with him now, and I want to understand him now.

So, there was this thing about getting into the unpacking, Chris Lang. 

Basia, narrating: On one of the mornings, I began leafing through the books in Chris’s library.

So many of the titans of reporting were there, Michael Herr, Joan Didion, Jon Krakauer, Ernest Hemingway. 

And some of the books were annotated. 

Basia: And so, for example, I took Anthony Lloyd’s book and had a look and there’s all these sections, which are underlined and the sections that are underlined all the bits that are about like what war reporting is and how it takes a grip over you. And you can tell that he was figuring a lot of stuff out when he was reading them. 

Basia, narrating: Anthony Lloyd had his own compelling mythology. He had travelled to Bosnia in the 1990s, in his early 20s, with a vague plan to become a journalist. Bit by bit, it sort of worked, after winging it for a bit he was offered a chance to cover for a guy from the Telegraph newspaper, who’d been injured by a mine. He was a young man, drawn to the frontline, intermittently addicted to heroin. 25 years later he’s one of Britain’s leading war reporters. 

In the sections of his book Chris had underlined, it felt like in Anthony he’d found a guide. A mentor. 

In a paragraph about photojournalism, Chris had marked: “I saw it only as a passport to war.”

It felt to me that this was a small find, an artefact of Chris’s inner life. 

And it pre-empted one of the thornier questions I wanted to ask John and Joyce.

One that I’d been thinking about a lot as I heard more of the criticism of Chris. Directly, in some cases from other journalists, some of whom he’d encountered on the frontline.

The ones who had said he just wanted to be there, on the zero line.

Basia: And to be clear, I’m asking these questions to suggest that somehow you should have known, but it’s important I think, to get a sense of risk and how he was dealing with risk and what his appetite for risk was.

And that’s why I wanted to ask whether you had a sense that he was at risk or that beyond the obvious risk of war reporting, that he was somehow, perhaps not quite clear where the lines were of what he should be doing, or you know, how to get to a frontline, how to stay safe. All of those sorts of things that probably reporters who were around him, who had been doing it for longer, or had a newsroom behind them who could help them figure that stuff out. You know, he didn’t have that. 

Joyce: I don’t think he chased danger. I don’t think he put himself, I think it was all calculated risk. He was too smart to throw himself at the mercy of anybody. I mean, he wouldn’t throw himself at the mercy of an editor for the sake of publication, and maybe I was naive. I mean, we were always concerned for sure, we were concerned, but we didn’t quite understand. Did we understand? 

John: I’m not sure if we really did. We knew there were a lot of risks. And I think given he was in his early twenties, and young men tend to take risks, there was some element of that there.

Joyce: You know he had a body awareness that exceeded kids his age, even as a child, like when he learned to walk when he was nine, he had nine months, he had a sense of what his body could and couldn’t do. Uh, he knew how far he could go. That was my sense of him as a kid. What happened when he left our home? You know, this, I guess that’s the story you’re telling. 

I want to say that we had long talks about this, he and I about the motivations of guys and why they’re there. And I think he saw something in these volunteers that he did not see in life, what compelled them, he really wanted to understand what compelled them.

Basia: Do you think he saw a bit of himself in them, they live their lives that they were going to sort of be on the front line of history?

John: I think he did, myself. 

Basia: So, Joyce and John brought out some boxes from the garage, we’re not quite sure what’s in them. 

Basia, narrating: In the evening, Jeremy and I go through boxes of Chris’s stuff. 

And there we find plane tickets, passports, and boxes of journals, all small A5 pocketbooks that Chris clearly preferred. We find a Ukrainian medical manual, various types of wound dressings.

Jeremy: It’s a metal cup for drinking. He’s got water purification tablets. 

Basia: I mean, look, this is all, he’s pretty well prepared. Isn’t he? Yeah, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t… 

Basia, narrating: In a notebook, one he had taken to India and Pakistan on a backpacking trip, I find a note from Joyce folded into the back, a blessing for the traveller by the Irish poet, John O’Donoghue The first few lines read: “Every time you leave home, Another road takes you, Into a world you were never in.”

Jeremy was sifting through all this for the first time. But for much of the last few days, he had been sitting in the interviews, listening, and taking notes. And a lot of it he already knew. 

For much of what happened after Chris was killed, Jeremy was there, in the emails, organising help. 

And so, some things had become normal for him. 

And it’s how I learned, almost accidentally, about one document in particular. 

Jeremy: But it seemed like Chris distributed that emergency sheet fairly widely, for people to be able to get in contact with you quite swiftly

Joyce: I think that the only person who had it was Eddy.

John: I believe that’s right.

Basia: What emergency sheet? 

Jeremy: So, the contact information sheet is something that Chris filled out, and it’s for freelancers to distribute to their contacts when they’re in the field and to their friends, in the event of an emergency….

Basia, narrating: It’s basically a list of instructions of what to do in the event of his disappearance, or his death, in South Sudan. Who to contact, and who to invite to his funeral. It’s a document recommended by freelance reporting organisations, so there’s some kind of support network in place in case you go missing. 

Jeremy: So, the personal context included, Joyce, then John.

Basia, narrating: He must have written it before he left. 1 and 2 on the list are his parents, then his childhood best friend, Eddy. Then his closest friend in Brussels, where he had lived for a while.

Jeremy: Then someone called Igor, Helena 

Basia, narrating: Then his girlfriend Helena. And Sava, his roommate in Ukraine. 

And beneath Sava, an unexpected name. 

Jeremy: Then Craig Lang.

Basia, narrating: Craig Lang. I knew vaguely who he was. 

When Chris had been in Ukraine, Craig Lang had been a foreign volunteer fighter in Right Sector, a Ukrainian Nationalist Battalion, a group that had been linked to right-wing ideologies. 

Before coming to Maine, I’d read a long article by a journalist called Charlotte Alfred about Chris’s journalism, and she had connected Craig and Chris from their time in Ukraine. 

A quick Google search will tell you that in 2018, after Chris’s death, Craig Lang had been accused of a terrible crime: a double murder in Florida. 

I knew enough to recognise.

That name on this contact sheet was significant.  

In fact, I’d heard Joyce talk about him, she had called him Chris Lang, the man who had come to Chris’s memorial in Philadelphia, the one who had said how much the fighters had trusted Chris. But I thought that was because he had been reporting their story. 

Now, Craig Lang’s name was among Chris’s closest friends and family. Number 7 on the list. 

So, what was their relationship, really? 

John and Joyce: Bye! Bye!

Basia: Bye

Basia, narrating: It was time to leave Maine. We were all exhausted, John and Joyce most of all. It had been a gruelling few days for them. And as we were leaving, Joyce said quietly, tenderly to Jeremy, that she hoped he would protect Chris. It was a natural, maternal thing for a grieving mother to say. But it made me wonder: protect him from what? From us? From what we might uncover? 

We now had two crucial documents, two new leads. 

An essay claiming Chris had been captured and killed, written by a mysterious man who wanted to meet in person, and we had this contact sheet. I wanted to find and speak to everyone on it. 

Train announcement: Ladies and Gentlemen, Philadelphia….

Basia, narrating: Number 3 on the list, Eddy, Chris’s best friend from childhood in Philadelphia, back where Chris had grown up. 

Jeremy: It might be interesting to ask Eddy about that. And also, Eddy was the person who was….

Basia, narrating: I was hoping Eddy might help me rough up my sense of who Chris really was. I wanted to know how he talked to his friends about Ukraine, and why he was drawn there. The stuff you wouldn’t tell your mum and dad. 

It didn’t quite turn out that way. We chatted in a cold kitchen, in the place Chris’s memorial had been held a few months after his death. And Eddy proudly propped up a framed photograph of Chris behind him, so he was looking down on us as we spoke. 

Eddy: You know, his legacy is an important thing to protect, Yeah, he’s unable I feel like, to defend himself. Not that he needs defending all the time. Its this question, how do we deal with the legacy of someone who was so young but also produced so much.

Basia, narrating: If I had been killed in a horrible way, I’d want someone like Eddy on my side. He was loyal, protective. But it didn’t get me closer to Chris. 

Basia: I found that a very frustrating experience or a strange experience made me think lot. The stories that you tell about people who are no longer around and particularly, I think somebody who’s young and who died in such a terrible way, it felt like we’re starting to hear the same stories being repeated.

Basia, narrating: Back in New York, in a rather dingy hotel room, Jeremy and I tried to make sense of what we had learned. 

We needed to talk through the possibility that this investigation might put him in a difficult position. If he was the family’s envoy, if they wanted him to protect Chris, could he really dig into this uncomfortable world with me? 

I was gonna have to consider the possibility that Chris had gotten too close to the foreign fighters. Was that why he had been called a white rebel? And what might that do in a campaign that championed Chris as a journalist killed for doing his job?

I wanted to be certain of the line between Jeremy and I.  

Basia: So how do, how do you weigh the possibility that he may have become too close to these mercenaries or that he may have done things or said things that now feel very uncomfortable with that sort of family connection to John and Joyce, where they see you as that Envoy and a protector of Chris’s legacy?

Jeremy: I think I’m now very comfortable with the idea, and I basically was, but now I’m very comfortable with the idea that, protecting Chris is telling the true story. And Chris didn’t ever do anything that he wouldn’t own up to. So, he wouldn’t have been embarrassed or ashamed of any of his decisions. And therefore, there’s no reason for me to be on his behalf. 

Basia: But that might damage your relationship with them.

Jeremy: I don’t think it will because I don’t feel in my heart, it’s a heart feeling, not a logical one, that it will ultimately be negative, I’ve known, everyone’s known who’s close to the case that he got close to some of the mercenaries. But I know that ideologically, Chris was not aligned with, I don’t know that film some written document or for some proof, but I know from knowing him that he wasn’t aligned with those more radical ideologies. And I think, you can’t have the benefit of a podcast or a deep investigation into someone without having war, it’s a decision they made.

Basia, narrating: We decided: I would do the interviews, the investigating of Chris and his career and his relationships, and Jeremy would continue to investigate what happened in South Sudan, as he had been for years now, with me working alongside. 

And on that note, we flew back to London.

In the days and weeks after returning from Maine, Jeremy began sharing folders and folders of stuff that he had collected over the last five years. Things like legal documents, emails, Chris’ pitches, his journals, his notes. 

And so, I started to work my way through them. And I focused on his earliest two trips, the first one in April of 2014, which was just after war broke out in the Donbas, the one that he went to for his Spring break. And the summer of 2014, when he went back for longer and embedded with Ukrainian Battalions.

And in a series of bullet-point notes, made in the summer of 2014, I found an extraordinary detail. 

Basia: Okay. So, I just started recording because I’ve been going through, I printed off all of Chris’s notes that I was given from his time in Ukraine. They’re really interesting. I mean, he definitely had that kind of reporter instinct, you know, they’re really evocative. He describes the sounds that he hears, the sound of men cleaning their guns, the clicking and sliding of metal.

There’s one bit here where he writes ‘this doesn’t feel real. Neither does what I’m doing’. So, he, you can you get from these notes that he’s living something very intensely and he doesn’t yet know how to make sense of it. But the reason I’m recording now is because something really stood out to me.

And I guess I should preface this by saying that I knew already from talking to Jeremy and to another journalist, Charlotte Alfred, who’s done a lot on Chris’s case that, Chris, they said that Chris had fired a gun at some point in one of these early trips. And in my head, I kind of imagined it, like you’ve not been in this world before and somebody says here, have a go and you shoot a tree or something. You know, that doesn’t seem mad to me. But that based on these notes does not seem to be what happened. In fact, something much, much more serious seems to have happened. So, this section. It’s a bullet point that just says, I fire a mortar, and a mortar is a pretty serious piece of weaponry.

It’s a, it’s basically like a tube that’s propped up, on a base and you put a mortar shell into it. And when it drops down to the bottom, it ignites and explodes out and it can go tens of metres or hundreds of metres. And it’s essentially, I mean, it’s a bomb. And so, Chris writes, I fire a mortar, he says that it’s directed towards a bridge in a separatist controlled town.

He writes that, I told them I only shoot this and point at his camera, but I ended up firing. It seems the done thing he writes, but this, this bit, it just, I mean, what, let me read it. It, it, he writes, ‘What does it mean? Nothing everything. Like each man here, I played a part in what happened here for that I am responsible. Maybe I killed a soldier, though the fire was directed to the edge of the town. Maybe I killed a civilian. Maybe I hit nothing. The mortar was aimed though. The shell could have been dropped in the tube. Anyway. How complicit am I?’

Next time in Episode 3

Anthony Loyd: War is ruled by the dynamic of chaos. You are gonna make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes in war.

Chris Garrett: I think he thought that the laws of war didn’t apply to him

Basia, narrating: He says, these European soldiers of fortune are trying to make plans, so we’d all go together. And you reply to say, where in Africa. And he says, South Sudan, it’s chaos out there. 

This series is reported and written by me, Basia Cummings. Additional investigation is by Jeremy Bliss. The producer is Gary Marshall. Additional reporting is by Xavier Greenwood. Sound design is by Karla Patella. Original theme by Tom Kinsella. With thanks to Charlotte Alfred and Kacper Rekawek. The Executive Producer is Ceri Thomas. Pig Iron is a Tortoise production