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‘I almost got hit’: the Ukrainian journalists turned war correspondents overnight

Initially writing stories and making television reports was secondary for the journalists as many focused on survival

When the war started journalists in Ukraine found themselves at the centre of the biggest story in the world. They became war correspondents overnight.

Ukrainian journalists were spotlighted this week when the Pulitzer prize board awarded them with a special citation, hailing the country’s reporters for the “courage, endurance and commitment to truthful reporting” they have shown since the Russian invasion.

But initially, writing stories and making television reports was secondary for the reporters, editors, and producers who heard explosions around them and scrambled for safety. For more than a month many Ukrainian journalists focused on survival. Some have since returned to work, but often they lack protective equipment and hostile environment training.

“Lots of journalists left Kyiv,” said Kristina Berdynskykh, a journalist at one of Ukraine’s major independent publications, Novoye Vremya. “They weren’t thinking about whether they’d be fired, they were just thinking that they had to get their families out.”

After the first few days almost all of the staff of Ukraine’s prominent newsrooms fled westwards to Lviv where many remain. Lviv quickly became the new temporary capital when Russian forces surrounded Kyiv.

“From the print journalists I know, there was maybe a handful left in Kyiv,” said Berdynskykh. “It is mostly the TV stations who had small teams of war correspondents who had experience in the Donbas. For everyone else, the situation was an absolute shock.”

Those who stayed in Ukraine’s hotspots embarked on new careers. Berdynskykh spent 18 nights sleeping on the floor in Kyiv’s metro to avoid the shelling and conducted phone interviews. Without a car or taxis, and with shells flying into the city, in-person interviews were near to impossible for the first month she said.

“At first it was practically just western journalists – war correspondents – doing on-the-ground reporting,” said Berdynskykh, who was a leading political reporter but is now focusing on the experiences of ordinary Ukrainians around the country. “But I’m grateful to them because we were still adapting.”

Original reporting has since returned to Ukraine’s news sites but most newsrooms cannot afford to simultaneously provide their staff with protective equipment and pay salaries, said Katerina Sergatskova, who founded 24.02 Fund, whose aim is to raise money to help equip reporters and newsrooms with the necessary equipment. The income from online advertising which many Ukrainian news sites relied on dried up when the economy shut down.

The demand for protective equipment from Ukrainian journalists has increased as journalists return to work, said Sergatskova. After a month of searching for suppliers, amid a worldwide shortage of bulletproof vests, the 24.02 Fund has now sourced 150 vests and helmets as well as first aid kits and it is working with other organisations to provide first aid training to journalists.

Sergatskova, who is a managing editor of Zaborona, another independent Ukrainian publication, fled Kyiv on the seventh day of the war to evacuate her two small children.

“When we saw a Russian plane being shot down from our [apartment’s] window, we decided we had to get out,” said Sergatskova. “At first, we took the children to Lviv and then rockets started to hit there, so we took them to live with friends in Europe. Now we can work knowing that they’re safe.”

Others, such as Kirill Gonchar in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kharkiv, found themselves even more in the deep end. Gonchar was a creative director of a production company, who shot commercials and promotional videos for newsrooms and businesses before the war.

Russian bombs devastated Kharkiv in the first few weeks of the war and the city is still shelled several times a day.

When Gonchar realised that Kharkiv’s journalists had either left or could not leave their basements, he ventured out into the city’s streets under shelling to start filming. He said he was almost the only person working on the ground and was soon sending his footage to the BBC, the Associated Press, CNN and others.

“I just felt I had to act and this was something I could do,” said Gonchar. “At first I thought I’d make a documentary but then I realised that I just needed to just do news so I could share what was happening.”

Gonchar said he started looking for a vest and helmet and writing to people after the first week. But it was only after five weeks of working on the ground that some of his former employers managed to source a vest and helmet for him.

Asked how he felt about working without equipment, he said that in some ways he did not know any different. When international journalists started arriving in Kharkiv in late March with full kit, it started to figure more heavily on his mind.

“There were several times when I was almost hit,” he said. “One of the houses that my friends and I moved into because it had a basement was completely destroyed by a rocket a week after I moved out.

“Those who were in the basement survived,” said Gonchar, whose friends were seriously injured in the attack.

“But I can’t say I was scared [to work] because I knew other people had it worse than me.”

Since 24 February, at least seven journalists have been killed while working in the field and dozens have been injured, according to Ukraine’s Institute of Mass Information, a media development organisation.

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