How did you experience the first day of the Russian invasion?
I was visiting Sumy, my hometown. I got up at 5 a.m. to take the train back to kyiv. On the way, I checked the messages coming from our editor. He explained to us that the military operation – the war – had just begun.
On the train, I learned that kyiv and Kharkiv were under bombs. I was afraid of not being able to go to the capital. The journey was longer, but the train surrendered.
What was your level of concern at that time?
On the train, I felt useless. Without a stable Internet connection, it is impossible to check anything or contact colleagues and family. I was afraid too. In a message, my mother told me that Ukrainian customs officers had been killed by Russian soldiers. My family quickly decided to move away from Sumy.
What was your journalist thinking at the time?
You don’t think about your job when war comes to your country. You don’t think about the stories to document. You think of your family first. To their safety. After that, you go do your job.
You could have taken up arms as other journalists have done. Why continue journalism during the conflict?
We had discussed it among colleagues a week before the invasion. I had then raised my hand to go on a report near the front lines. At that moment, it was already clear in my head: I wanted to continue to be a journalist in this crisis.
Ukrainian journalists must keep a cool head and help the whole country to stay calm. Not to be affected by propaganda. I am not thinking only of Russian propaganda, but also of that coming from the authorities of our country.
What aspects of the war did you cover?
At the beginning of March, I was mainly around kyiv, especially for the evacuation of civilians in Irpin. I spent time around this bridge which was destroyed. I was where people wanted to run away. I was in hospitals, in shelters.
When the Russian troops abandoned kyiv, I returned to these now liberated towns to see what was going on. Boutcha, Borodyanka, Motyzhyn.
How did you react, as a journalist and as a Ukrainian, when you saw what had happened in places like Boutcha?
It wasn’t that hard to see all those destroyed buildings and bodies in the streets. What was really difficult was what I saw in the small town of Motyzhyn. There was a common grave. The mayor, her husband, their son and another tortured person were thrown there, their bodies covered in sand.
Most of their bodies were buried, but bits were sticking out. Their loved ones were crying, sitting right next to them. My first instinct was to remove the sand and take them by the hand to get them out. I wanted to believe they were alive. But they were dead.
I quickly forget this kind of images. As if they were fading from my mind. I recently watched a video shot in my apartment in kyiv during an artillery attack. It was so loud. So scary. I don’t really know how I wasn’t affected more. I think my brain is erasing all that, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to take it anymore.
You are a Ukrainian and a journalist, how do you separate your emotions from the facts to report?
I hope I am professional enough to do this sorting. It is the very essence of the profession. But after the interviews, I often hug people. As a human being, I have this responsibility to share their pain, their grief.
Currently, what is happening in Sievierodonetsk frightens me. This is one of the subjects that I deal with. I went there, I know the city, the people. I met policemen, soldiers, I went to one of these shelters. I understand what can happen and I worry about them.
Before the war, I believed that the Ukrainians of Donbass were different from others. Many Ukrainians think like me. Now I know there are many towns and villages in the east that are similar to my part of the country. The people are the same. I feel their pain as mine.
I met people who lived for three weeks in a cellar in Sievierodonetsk. They were afraid to go out because of the bombs. I did not understand why they did not want to be evacuated. Then I remembered that my parents did the same. And I reminded myself that my job was not to convince them to leave, but to listen to them.
Some of the areas you visit are dangerous. Why risk your life?
The first time I heard artillery fire, in Sievierodonetsk, I wondered why people weren’t going to the shelters. Then I said to myself: if they are not hiding, why should I be afraid?
I take risks to inform people. Maybe I should be more careful, but curiosity dominates. I don’t do this selfishly. I don’t post pictures of my trips to the front on my social media.
I want my reports to show how Ukrainians experience this conflict. Some believe that by speaking Russian and supporting Russophile parties, the people of Donbass incited (President Vladimir) Putin to intervene. I don’t think that’s true.
But can you objectively treat the information that Ukraine gives on this conflict?
At the moment, there is little verified and verifiable information. We can only relay what we receive. We try to multiply the sources of information: senior officers, foreign intelligence, etc. We also relay Russian assertions on the number of victims, for example.
Recently, President (Volodymyr) Zelensky said that Ukraine was losing 100 soldiers a day. I spoke with a commander near Sievierodonetsk who told me it was probably higher. We don’t have an overview. Personally, and as a journalist, I would like to know more.
My first stay in the Donbass made me realize that the situation was not as “victorious” as the official declarations suggest. It made me understand that we had to look at this conflict as a whole.
I can see that the government is not saying everything. I can understand it since I live in a country at war. But without an overview, people may think that victory is within reach. But the current situation rather shows that this war will be long. It’s important to say that.
You and your colleagues received a special Pulitzer Prize for your
courage in coverage of the invasion of Ukraine. How do you receive this honor?
Of course I was happy. My friends are proud of me. But I was even prouder when our editor-in-chief was named one of the magazine’s 100 most influential people. Time.
The Pulitzer, it especially did me good. It was the first time since February 24 that I was told that my work was appreciated.
Your job is to talk about the war. But this story doesn’t end at the end of your working day. How do you take breaks?
I haven’t taken a day off since February 24th. And I don’t think I’ll take any before the end of the summer. As a journalist, I cannot take a break from this war.
To distract myself, I run, I listen to music, I cook, I go out with friends. But it is above all my encounters with people that energize me. I talk to them and I understand that my work is worth it.
Yes, I need to sleep more. But I especially want to report that the Ukrainian army liberates Izium or drives the Russians out of Sievierodonetsk. It is soon my birthday. I would like to celebrate it not in kyiv, but in a place where the Ukrainian army is winning. That would be the best gift!
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Ukrainian, but a journalist first | War in Ukraine