War journalism. What it’s like to document the worst days of your life

War journalism.  What it’s like to document the worst days of your life

What is it like to document the torture and murder of people with whom you live in the same city, ride a bicycle on the same streets and buy bread in the same store?

War journalism is when local media are forced to record the most terrible days of their own lives. Does it really undermine professionalism and why is it definitely priceless for publicity? How can the work of journalists today help restore justice in the future?

The joint project of Lviv BookForum and Ukrainian Pravda is devoted to issues of war journalism. On this occasion, a discussion “The most terrible days of my life: war journalism and documentation” was held in Chernihiv. The following took part in it:

  • Oleksandr Shevchuk, head of the Department of Culture and Tourism of the Chernihiv City Council;
  • Kateryna Lytvyn, Deputy Head of the Department of Culture and Tourism Management of the Chernihiv City Council, Candidate of Historical Sciences;
  • Evgeny Spirin, journalist, writer, author of the book “Mortuary Stories of the Luhansk Nurse”;
  • Vera Kuriko, Ukrainian reporter, author of documentary books “Street of the accused. Chernihiv case of Lukyanenko”;
  • Roman Koval, head of Truth Hounds communications department;
  • Sofia Chelyak, journalist, program director of Lviv Bookforum.

The destruction and psychological trauma of the residents of Chernihiv is difficult to convey simply in numbers.”

Chernihiv was surrounded for 35 days in the spring of 2022. The residents did everything to survive, and the Russians did everything to cause the most damage.

27 schools and 37 kindergartens, the trolleybus contact network, water supply and water purification, and medical facilities were damaged. More than 1,000 private estates were completely destroyed and 126 high-rise buildings were damaged. Libraries, a cinema, a museum of antiquities, a stadium were damaged, and on August 19, 2023, the Chernihiv Drama Theater was hit directly.

“We consider the dead to be 700 civilians. These are those killed directly, as well as elderly people who were not able to provide assistance. The destruction and psychological trauma suffered by the townspeople is difficult to convey simply in numbers.”– says Oleksandr Shevchuk.

Oleksandr Shevchuk, head of the tourism department of Chernihiv City Council, assesses the level of destruction in Chernihiv

“We write stories about the lives of people who were not ready for war”

“The more time passes, the less people want to go back to the memories of torture, occupation, sexual violence. I think 80% of the stories will be lost.”– thinks Yevhen Spirin.

Yevhen Spirin, a journalist, talks about his work in Buch, the exhumation of bodies and whether justice is possible

However, Kateryna Lytvyn continues to document the stories of how people survived during the occupation:

“We write human stories. Not military people, but people who were not ready for war. The scariest for me is about how a woman with a 3-year-old son hid in the basement. The boy wanted to eat all the time and did not understand why so many people were sitting together, why do you have to get permission to go out for air. There was also a story about a woman who baked bread for our defenders. She put bread in the oven even when the air raids started.

And we also recorded on audio a beautiful swearing of a woman who “educated” the Russians, who put equipment near her yard and constantly interfered. We were told how to make bread from oatmeal, how the occupiers decorated the entrance to the cellar with icons so that it would not “fly away”. We learned from people that there were Buryats, Altaians, and Russians in Chernihiv Oblast. They called us Belarusians very clearly.”

Kateryna Lytvyn believes that we have not changed in survival strategies since the Second World War: “Earlier, we could not understand grandmothers who buy bags of sugar and salt and stock up on cereals. But now you take one pack of rice because you need it, and the second – just in case.”

Kateryna Lytvyn, deputy head of the tourism department of Chernihiv City Council, historian – presented the project of collecting testimonies of people who survived the occupation in Chernihiv region and the siege of Chernihiv

“If local journalism didn’t exist, we wouldn’t know much about what happened in the occupation”

The war changed the professional life of journalists. Someone became a war criminal, someone documents war crimes, and someone became almost the only voice of their city for a while.

About the beginning of the great war in February 2022, the reporter Vera Kuriko recalls as follows:

“When the full-scale war began, I was euphoric. Here I am a journalist! I am needed now! I will be like Ryshard Kapuscinski! I will be the voice of the underprivileged, I will write the chronology of human existence in this war. But it quickly let go. It is difficult when you want to go and record someone’s history , and relatives call you and ask for help.

I did lose a piece of myself as a journalist that March. I was constantly thinking about how to continue to exist in the profession. I have always considered myself a reporter, I am interested in writing about people. Therefore, when the offer from the Reckoning Project came to document war crimes, I realized that this is where I would feel most comfortable and most honest with myself. I got such a privilege only thanks to the fact that I live here.

I could come to people every day, every week, on holidays. Become closer to them and write. If local journalism did not exist, we would know very little about what actually happened in the occupation.”

Vera Courico, a journalist, testifies about her work at the start of the full-scale invasion, as well as working with the Reconning Project and documenting war crimes

“Restoration of justice is almost the only faith that keeps people”

Roman Koval thinks so, and that is why the first Truth Hounds documentaries went to Chernihiv immediately after the deoccupation. Their goal is to collect and document Russian war crimes on the “hot” trail.

“We conducted 7-10 missions, dealt with completely different types of war crimes: these are attacks on civilian objects, and torture, and torture, and the killing of civilians. The brutality of Russian war crimes is no different from that which the world knows from Buchi, Irpen, and Mariupol. We are actively cooperating with the Chernihiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office, processing their requests to find specific perpetrators of certain crimes.” – says Roman.

Roman Koval, Truth Hounds investigator, presents a verified investigation into the bombing of Chernigov on August 19, 2023

Most cases are not public, but Truth Hounds has made public two investigations: the shooting of a bread queue near the Soyuz store and the attack on the Chernihiv Drama Theater on August 19, 2023.

In the first case, the Truth Hounds identified the type of weapon, the specific unit and the commander who gave the order. In the second, they proved that an Iskander-K missile with a non-contact detonator was used to attack the theater. Why is this important? Roman explained:

“Usually, we do not do this. And here, in the course of the research, a non-contact detonator was discovered. That is, the explosion of the warhead should not have occurred from the contact of the missile with a solid surface, but in the air. This is to increase the area of ​​damage, to destroy the infantry as efficiently as possible.

The use of a non-contact detonator in the attack on the drama theater means that from the outset the aim was to inflict the greatest damage on civilian objects and the civilian population. We found striking elements 700 m from the point of explosion. We found and handed over to Ukrainian investigators information on who exactly is developing laser non-contact detonators in Russia, where the rocket was launched from, the involvement of the 26th Missile Brigade, a list of its employees and the name of the commander.”

“The road to justice is very long”

“There are people who gave orders and pushed buttons, they are all involved, but not all of them can be punished. Studying the experience of Yugoslavia, we see that specific perpetrators of mass murder and genocide were not punished. Some of them even became quite famous. For example , one of the participants in the massacre in Srebrenica, now a famous DJ, is touring Europe. I think in the best case we will get a trial for Surovikin, but not for a conditional Buryat.” – believes Yevhen Spirin.

Sofia Chelyak summarizes: “Perhaps we will not have a sense of complete justice, but we must come to a point where we expect the punishment of all those guilty of war crimes. The road to justice is very long.”

Sofia Chelyak, journalist, program director of Lviv Bookforum

To go through this path, you need to testify, tell stories, record and process experiences.

The material was created within the framework of the joint project of Ukrainian Pravda and Lviv Bookforum, which is implemented with the support of the USAID “Strengthening Public Trust (UCBI)” project of the United States Agency for International Development.

Maryana Osadchuk, especially for UP. Life

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