It is not every day that you can sit down with journalists who are a world away from you and share stories. Especially when that world they are living in is a war zone.
SUN staff sat down to talk to our Ukrainian counterparts on April 29 via Zoom. We listened to journalists as they huddled in basements during air raids. They spoke to us of the air strikes being almost nonstop.
We were comfortably sipping our coffee in the warmth of our office while they were fighting for something greater than us all. It was evening in Ukraine.
Translators relayed messages as we spoke with representatives from different regions of Ukraine.
We will use only a single initial when referring to our counterparts in Ukraine in order to not compromise their safety.
The first journalist we heard from was no stranger to Russia’s aggression.
“For him, it’s for the second time to lose something from his city, because he’s from Eastern Ukraine and in, back in 2014, he already saw the Russian aggression. … He had to relocate to a safer place to continue journalist work,” S. said in introduction.
“It is true … the war started for me back then in 2014, eight years ago when the city of Slovyansk, where I have been living for quite a long time already, was occupied for the first time by the Russian forces and I could observe it with my own two eyes,” V. said. “What we are observing now is this same situation but scaled up hundreds and thousands of times.
“What I can say is that the Russian army is using the same tricks they used eight years ago. They are shooting at civilians. There are rapes. There is occupation. They are basically killing us nonstop … And the only way for our country, for our nation, to survive is to win and we are united as no time before. And we are all working towards this victory.”
With Russia destroying the infrastructure and residential buildings in his city, V. shared that he believed he would never see his home again, or his office or his co-workers, as the Russians are killing civilians.
“We believe in our army and our armed forces. We believe in our victory and we know that the time will come that we will start talking as a country, we will be talking about peace and we will be saying that we have won the biggest evil on Earth: Russia.”
“Do not call this a conflict, this is a war,” we were told.
We heard from another city near Mariupol known as Zaporizhzhya. Wearing a shirt that read “You are Stronger,” O. shared that they are in a place where they are not an occupied territory, “Thank God.” They are receiving people who are escaping from the city Mariupol.
“We can observe the horror of the situation through their stories and through their eyes. … Our newsroom has this problem that we are trying to cover the whole region, including the occupied territories … Russians cut off the Internet, cut off all the social networks and they also detained our colleagues … It is very hard to cover what is going on there … ,” she continued.
She spoke of the crimes Russia was committing and the threats journalists were receiving, saying, “We are receiving threats almost every day. They are coming from Russian email addresses, and they write that they know all of our personal information, and it’s all been sent to Russian forces, and that we will be taken to court, according to Russian law, as terrorists. …
“We do feel that it’s very important to try to cover what’s going on here and now, so we are trying to just keep working and ignore the threats.”
Another journalist spoke of the injured who are flooding her city and how psychologically difficult it is to see the wounded children and soldiers.
A journalist from Kharkiv said that many of their journalists had to relocate. One of his co-workers was captured by the Russians and was able to escape and made her way to Finland.
“The main problem here is the shellings of the city of Kharkiv are quite chaotic …,” S. said. “When it is aviation or when it is rockets that are shelled from far away like heavy rockets, there is no way to predict where it is going to fall. It makes it difficult to … cover things.”
It was noted that many could not print their newspapers due to active combat and areas being occupied by Russia. They are relegated to only reporting online. These journalists are trying to evacuate their own families.
“We have lots of information about what’s going on in the region. We keep in touch with the other hyper-local, small-town regional media and exchange information, but we do not publish even 10 percent of the information that we have because we do think about the security of our people. We are very afraid,” she said about attracting the Russians to their location.
An editor from Odessa said their staff was still publishing three of their four print publications and running their online papers, too. Two of their staff members had joined the army as volunteers, three women had evacuated their children and the remaining 35 staff members were still working.
G. was in Lviv, where they were undergoing an air raid as he spoke. He should have been in the underground parking instead of Zooming with journalists.
“It’s like a running joke, wherever I go, the air raids are coming massively,” G. said. “So they say, maybe you should go to Moscow to the Red Square so the air raids will be concentrated there, finally.”
These days they sit on balconies watching the warships at sea while shells fly overhead and they wonder where they will land. Will they be hit next?
“It feels like it’s a terrible dream that’s been lasting forever,” he added.
G. said that they are observing the Russian army focusing on local government and journalists in the areas they occupy. One of his former classmates, who is the mayor in a neighboring city, was kidnapped.
“And we know that they do torture journalists and they do torture the representatives of local governments. …” he said. “So, we do take our security seriously. … We have no doubt that victory will be ours,” he added.
Those who remain struggle to stay safe and change the names of their family and friends in their phones for fear that they may be detained by the Russians. They have to decide whether they should keep generators to help them report or send them on to other places with no power. They spoke of trauma, tragedy and destruction, including shelling and bombing of civilians.
We were struck by the perseverance of those journalists who have armed themselves with their cameras and laptops to document and expose the atrocities against the Ukrainians that are unfolding each day.
One journalist emailed after the meeting: “Thank you for keeping Ukraine in your heart – this means a lot for us all!”
Terri Lynn Oldham House