Derry’s Tony – reporting from the frontline in troubled Crimea

Tony Connelly.
Tony Connelly.
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On Tuesday, Derry born journalist Tony Connelly was sipping a coffee at a cafe in St Peter’s Square in Rome.

It was a welcome few days off for the former St Columb’s College pupil, who is now Europe Editor for RTE.

In February, after over a hundred protesters had been killed in violent clashes in Kiev’s Independence Square, when his RTE colleague Paul Cunningham returned to Ireland, Tony was sent with a cameraman and a translator into the volatile situation where all the world’s media attention was focused.

On Monday, February 24, Tony checked in to the Ukraine Hotel, which had also doubled as a hospital where the dead and injured from bloody and violent clashes had been brought.

“I was staying there, and walking into the place itself was like walking onto the filmset of a warzone,” Tony explained.

“There were buildings burning and smoke rising all around us. In the hotel itself there were makeshift beds, photos of the dead and injured and candles being lit everywhere.”

Despite years reporting hard news – having started with RTE in 1994 – Tony says it’s hard not to be affected by the type of violence and inhumanity which he saw the results of during his first few days in Kiev.

“I don’t think you can ever be robotic, you have to keep your humanity and reflect that in your reporting.

“My colleague Paul Cunnningham had seen people die, and when I got there, there were just pictures of these young guys who had lost their lives.

“Being from Derry, the first thing you think about in a situation like that is Bloody Sunday. Here, around 110 people had been killed.”

Tony made his way to Simferopol – Crimea’s second city – in the days that followed, not imagining then that Putin would take the grip which he now has over Crimea.

“There was no indication that Russia was going to intervene in the way that it did, there was certainly no expectation that things would end up the way they did.

“Initially, I was meant to do a few days in Kiev as a follow- up to the protests in Maidan Square.”

It soon became clear that Tony’s time on this particular story was far from over as those pro-Russians responsible for the violence in Kiev Square were given a heroes’ welcome in Crimea.

Tensions quickly rose to the surface there too.

“We headed to Simferopol on the hoof, we didn’t know what kind of place we were going to,” Tony continued.

“We went straight to the parliament buildings – and there were thousands of people there. There was a huge stand-off and fights breaking out.”

While the instinct is in every reporter to get the most compelling footage, like most journalists, Tony has to balance personal safety with the risks involved in getting to the very heart of live situations.

“It’s tempting to get right into the action, but we’ve all done training for hostile environments and there are certain rules of thumb.

“When I’m there, I have to remember that I’m responsible for the cameraman too. In Simferopol, as the two sides got bigger and bigger in terms of numbers, we got pushed up against the parliament doors.

“At that stage, I began to get concerned that there might be a crush and the police had absolutely no control of the situation.”

As rumours emerged of journalists being threatened and in some cases attacked, Tony posted on Twitter that he wanted other journalists to stop saying they were Irish in attempts to gain access to certain stories.

“Generally, when you mentioned that you were Irish, it would break the ice. They would say ‘You have your war with England’ and that would get us a few favours.

“Then we heard that some people from CNN were saying that they were Irish too. And really, if everybody’s saying they’re Irish, nobody’s Irish.

“So I was a bit annoyed about that, which is why I had posted it on Twitter.”

It was when leaving Crimea to fly back to Kiev, that Tony says he saw the first quiet signs of Russia beginning to assert control.

“We saw soldiers there at the airport and I started to take some photos. It was all being done very quietly, but it was unmistakable what was happening. As I tried to take photos, one of the paramilitary guys got a bit heavy with me and told me to delete what I’d taken. We were happy to get out of there at that stage.”

Tony flew back to his home in Brussels at that point, but was soon sent back as it became clear Russia was strengthening its grip on Crimea.

“The Russians took over Crimea with overwhelming efficiency. They were completely in control and everything was very well choreographed.”

Having to cover the ongoing takeover meant that Tony was taken away from his son, Mateo.

“I’d promised to take him on a fishing trip, but the story was changing so quickly that I just had to up and go so that was very tough having to leave him. But when I was over there, I would send his mum back images of what was going on, and as a six-year-old you can imagine he was quite excited by all that.”

Tony, originally from Kingsfort Park in the city, also had to keep in regular touch with his parents Tim and Nance, who still live in Derry.

“As long as they saw my broadcasts on tv, they knew I was ok, but I always stay in regular contact when I’m away. I guess that’s especially important in places where there’s conflict.”

While he spent this week working at Brussels, the Derry born veteran reporter hasn’t underestimated the scale of the conflict which he’s just worked on in Eastern Europe.

“It’s probably the most compelling story I’ve ever covered. It has so many layers, it’s such a complicated story because of the history of that part of the world, and it’s certainly a challenging one to report. It’s not easy but I always compare it to the process of making whiskey, you’re distilling the story all day and then you go in front of the camera and try and inform people at home what it’s all about.”

There were also lighter points for Tony during his time in Crimea. Because of his stint there, Tony also had to give up a coveted ticket to the France versus Ireland rugby match on March 15.

“I think we found Crimea’s only Irish pub and I watched the match on my iPad. I was roaring out of me and the Russian teenagers who were in there at the time found this very funny!” he says.

Now, given the time to contemplate his time in Crimea, Tony says he feels proud to have been the Irish voice from the frontline of a huge international news story.

“It was just a privilege to cover this. For me, it was a classic example of having a front row seat as history was made.”