We had been waiting at a checkpoint on the side of a highway just a few miles from the entrance to this rebel stronghold of wide streets and Soviet-era buildings. My credentials had aroused suspicion, though whose was unclear, and we had been waiting for almost an hour for a higher-up to appear with the answer.
The rebels had been fighting with Ukrainian regulars just a few miles away, and at first their mood was sour. But they were local residents and as often happens, they opened up after some chatting. We talked about what Americans thought of the war here, and why President Obama was supporting a government they said was shelling its own people. If it were up to them, they said, they would let me be on my way, but they had their orders.
Eventually, a brown Lada with tinted windows screeched up to the checkpoint. A man got out. He was wearing a maroon-colored beret and black leather fingerless gloves. His shirt was sleeveless, revealing arms slathered in tattoos. He had long black eyelashes and little patience for the men who had been chatting with me.
Strangely, they appeared not to know one another. "What's your contact at least?" one of my rebel friends said to the man, who looked at them placidly without saying anything. He then opened the back door on the left side and indicated that I should get in.
The rebel then told me to write down his name and phone number just in case. "Don't be afraid," he said. "They're just going to check you out."
What happened next was a strange slide into a Wonderland world, where fact was hard to tell from fiction and reality and absurdity came in equal portions. The man drove for 15 minutes wordlessly and improbably fast for the condition of the car - the speedometer registered more than 100 miles an hour. We came to a stop outside a five-story apartment building rimmed by trees and benches.
He then turned to me and introduced himself. He said his name was Denis and that he was the head of an intelligence group in Luhansk. (These were strange admissions: Rebels rarely divulge their names, or intelligence work.) He said that he should be checking my documents in a more formal place, but that he was tired, and so he would be doing the checking in the apartment of a woman he described as his fiancée.
We climbed the stairs to a dingy one-room apartment, where a woman in sweatpants with her hair in a towel offered us tea. She put cookies and small sausage sandwiches on a small table in front of us. Another woman, who introduced herself as Tamara Vladimirovna, exclaimed at the pleasure of having such a lovely guest and shook my hand warmly.
Denis looked at me and asked what I was doing in Luhansk. I began to talk nervously about civilian casualties, and how a stepped-up war was having disastrous effect on families here. I said it was unclear what Ukraine's strategy was and whether the government was worried about civilian deaths.
"This doesn't matter to me," he said, staring at me, his face impassive. I froze, thinking something bad was coming. Instead, things got curiouser. "I'm a mercenary from Russia," he said, seated on a bench next to me in the tiny kitchen. "I don't give a damn about any of this."
I nodded as if I understood, but inside, I was utterly confused. Why would this man be telling me this? Who is he really and what does he want? How much of this is he making up?
The strangeness of the situation eclipsed any fear. The man had ordered me into his car, but at no point had he threatened me or taken my phones. He was clearly interested in having his girlfriend meet an oddball foreigner, and I was beginning to get the impression that he was simply bored.
It got weirder. He explained that he had gone from war to war for most of his 34 years, most recently to Syria, and that he was one of about 50 Russian citizens here being paid for supporting the fight against Ukraine's government. He did not say who paid him, but said that the group formed the heart of the rebel forces by default. Most of the insurgents here - about 80 percent in his words - were scrappy locals, taxi drivers and coal miners who had never before seen battle. An additional 20 percent were better because they had fought in Afghanistan.
There were other manpower problems, he said. A lot of local people signed up in a burst of emotion and then quit after a few weeks. And so many fighters were now assigned to the border areas and the outside edges of the city that there were very few left to protect Luhansk itself. To their advantage, he said, was the fact that Ukrainian soldiers also seemed to be afraid to fight.
I asked him timidly what the prognosis was for the fight in Luhansk.
"Honestly, they're going to come in," he said, referring to the Ukrainian military. "Fifty people is not enough," he said. I asked him how long it would take. "No one can tell you that."
Tamara Vladimirovna returned to the kitchen, holding a frightened-looking black rabbit. She said she had found it in one of the shelled areas of the city.
"Poor thing," she said, stroking its ears. She then asked Denis if he had a new automatic gun. He said no, but that he did have a new pistol. He pulled it out of a holster and put it next to the cookies on the table. They all noted that it was made in Ukraine.
The teacups were empty, and Denis stood up and put on his beret. He gave me back my credentials (he had already returned my notebook), then we got back in the car and drove away from the apartment at roughly the same rate that we came. I remarked on his speed, and he said he had a BMW at home in Moscow that he loved to drive fast along the city's deserted streets at night.
Back at the checkpoint, a man in unusually clean cut fatigues walked up to us and asked if I had been checked out.
"Yes," Denis replied. "Everything's in order."
Sabrina Tavernise, The New York Times