‘Make Sure It’s Documented’: How Ukrainian Journalists Are Defying the Invasion

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An hour and a half after the start of this year’s Donbass Media Forum in Kyiv on November 10, the alarm was raised about a missile attack from Russia.

On hearing the alarm, some 600 participants at the forum headed to a shelter that had once been an underground parking lot. Earlier, an Iskander missile was reported to have been shot down by air defences as it passed over the outskirts of the city.

I witnessed five workshops unfolding in different corners of the shelter, and despite the constant threat of Russian missiles overhead, the Ukrainians at the forum maintained a remarkable focus, having become used to the enforced normality of working in shelters.

The Donbas Media Forum was established in 2015, one year after Russia’s first attack on Ukraine, when it took control of portions of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – around a tenth of Ukraine’s territory.

Eastern Ukrainian journalists had decided to unite and organise themselves to exchange experiences and provide mutual support in an information war that demanded a collective effort against disinformation and Russian propaganda.

In 2017, when I was first invited to the Forum, my role was to share my insights as a journalist who covered the 1998-99 Kosovo war. There were experiences worth sharing from Kosovo: some of our endeavours were successful, such as opening doors for international media to cover the massacres that Serbian forces were committing – coverage that eventually influenced NATO policy-makers to lead a bombing campaign against Serbia.

However, I also spoke about what we had failed to do: document the war crimes that were committed with enough precision to be able to prosecute these crimes not just internationally but domestically.

Lessons from Kosovo for Ukraine

I explained that when I began covering the Kosovo war as a translator for the BBC News, I and many of my colleagues were just 19 or 20 years old, so we faced a profound mental shock. Without any prior experience of war reporting, we found ourselves confronted with the bodies of murdered children, people burned in their homes, rape and the plight of refugees, as well as the paramilitaries and Serbian police we had to talk our way past on the way to the war zone.

In 2017, the journalists from eastern Ukraine at the Forum seemed to be waiting for the war to escalate and they were taking notes because they were certain a second Russian invasion would happen.

“If the worst is bound to happen, make sure it is filmed, documented and archived” was the lesson I conveyed, because that was precisely what I learned from the foreign journalists who came to Kosovo in 1998 after having covered the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s.

Now, as I returned to the Forum in November 2023, it was clear that the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the most comprehensively-filmed war with the most well-documented war crimes ever. And with almost 9,000 accredited journalists, it has been the most intensively-covered war too.

Nearly 15,000 people are estimated to have been killed in Ukraine since the start of the war, 37 of them journalists. The faces and stories of these journalists who died were displayed on panels in the main hall of the Forum. Some of them had been guests at previous forums.

Reading the stories of the journalists who were killed, I remembered that 25 to 30 years have passed since the start of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and no country in the region has a place where you can read the stories of the journalists killed in our wars. I was pleased that the Ukrainians are doing things differently.

There’s another aspect in which the Ukrainians been successful: they have been much more diligent in documenting war crimes. Their prosecutors were not complaining, like in my country, about their low salaries or the fact that they have no assistants, bodyguards, cars or electricity, but rather, they immediately went out into difficult terrain to collect evidence after Russian massacres of their citizens in Bucha and elsewhere.

They are doing what was not done in Kosovo. After 25 years, many witnesses to many massacres are slowly dying before the Kosovo Prosecution has bothered to formally collect their testimonies.

The Ukrainians are also successful in highlighting their victories as they happen. An exhibition organised by the National Museum of Military History of Ukraine has been opened in front of the Foreign Ministry in Kyiv, where they have exhibited the tanks, missiles and other military equipment that Russian troops left behind in the areas where they were defeated by the Ukrainian Army, a force which no one expected to be able to resist Russia, which has one of the largest armies in the world.

In Kosovo, in the National Museum, there is not much more to see than the jacket of wartime OSCE official William Walker, which, 23 years after the war, does not even have a sign explaining its significance – how Walker became a vital American witness to a massacre of civilians in the village of Recak. There is no narrative, nothing about the number of people killed nor how they were killed, and no background information about the person who wore that jacket and why he became so important for the history of Kosovo.

Documenting war crimes as they happen

I was invited to the Forum to speak about how we were able to document war crimes, and I talked about the efforts BIRN journalists made to convince a Serbian paramilitary, Zoran Raskovic, to speak publicly about the crimes committed by his murderous group, the Jackals, in villages in western Kosovo where they killed hundreds of ethnic Albanians.

Raskovic talked to BIRN 15 years after the war. While I was speaking, Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian journalist from The Reckoning Project, looked me straight in the eye and couldn’t wait for the end of the discussion to whisper to me: “We will only need two years for the Russians to admit what they have done, not 15!”

Not only can the Ukrainians visualise their victory over Russia, but they are also not wasting a moment, using all possible methods at their disposal, including AI, to document war crimes in real time. They even reckon that many Russians will testify in court because they have been forcibly mobilised and sent from their homes to fight in Ukraine.

Following our discussion, Nataliya Gumenyuk screened her documentary ‘The Hospital That Was Taken Hostage’, which tells the story of how the hospital in the city of Snihurivka operated for nine months in 2022 under occupation, overseen by the Russian army. All remaining staff members at the hospital were women who’d had to negotiate with the Russians to be able to stay and treat patients including wounded civilians and Ukrainian soldiers as well as the occupying troops.

One of the doctors interviewed in the film, Hanna Tkachuk, was one of the only dentists left in the occupied area.

“When I saw that they wanted to drive us out, I offered the Russian soldiers to fix their teeth, on the condition that they let us take care of the patients and wounded people we had in the hospital. They told me, ‘Until now, the Ukrainian doctors have only treated us if we were injured,’” said Tkachuk.

At first, the Russian soldiers threatened the hospital staff, saying that they would kill them. But after Tkachuk had treated one Russian soldier, he told her: “How could I kill you now that you saved my life?”

‘New thinking is going to be needed’

Alex Anderson, a BIRN consultant on Ukraine, also spoke at the Forum in a discussion focused on approaches to areas liberated by Ukraine and the role of journalists there. He discussed his comparative experience of Kosovo in late 1999 and of the Ukrainian army’s de-occupation of a conurbation in the Donbas in summer 2014. In both places, a policing and justice deficit contributed to a cocktail of vigilante journalism, predation and killings.

He suggested that journalists take an activist role in de-occupied areas, approaching questions of people’s collaboration with the Russian occupiers in a spirit of genuine enquiry and understanding of the role of circumstances rather than focusing on retribution.

“As – we hope – Ukraine begins to de-occupy not only more of the areas overwhelmed last year by invading Russian troops, but also areas whose violent separation in 2014 was abetted by many local sympathisers of Russia, and a decade since the ‘LPR’ [Russian-sponsored Luhansk People’s Republic] and ‘DPR’ [Donetsk People’s Republic] made collaborators of most of the remaining population, new thinking, new policies, new messaging, arguably new laws are going to be needed [to keep people from fleeing the area],” suggested Anderson.

“To rebuild, Ukraine needs to preserve its people, everywhere,” he added. He cited West Germany’s post-World War II transformation from Nazism and the “economic and moral miracle” that followed in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Covering corruption during wartime

In the southern port city of Odesa, Natalia Dovbysh works with the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, which runs INTENT, a media platform covering the Odesa, Mykolaiv and Kherson areas.

She took me to see a supermarket in the city that was bombed by the Russians during the summer, an incident she covered as a camera operator.

“I live near here and I heard the rockets heading here,” said Dovbysh, who comes from the eastern city of Mykolaiv, which suffered large-scale damage from Russian attacks in 2022 but has more recently begun to rebuild despite continued shelling.

“I recently went to my family in Mykolaiv. The city has risen like a phoenix,” said Dovbysh. “Two months ago when I visited, there was no electricity and many had left the country. It has now been revived.”

Dovbysh said that many stories published by INTENT continue to address corruption, a problem that has persisted despite the war.

She explained how Gennadi Trukhanov, the mayor of Odesa, who was once seen as pro-Russian but rebranded himself as a Ukrainian patriot after the start of the full-scale invasion, was arrested earlier this year for allegedly stealing public funds and later released pending trial. In 2018, it came to light that Trukhanov had registered luxury flats in London in his daughter’s name. He denies any wrongdoing.

Valeri Bolgan, editor-in-chief at INTENT, said that as well as corruption, the media outlet is also increasingly reporting on war crimes and the problem of Russian propaganda.

“Many people believed the Russian propaganda until recently, but now I think that people are waking up from a Russian sleep, from Russian dreams, and have started to speak Ukrainian increasingly more,” he said.

“If around 20 to 30 per cent of the people spoke Ukrainian before, now half of the people in Odesa are speaking Ukrainian. They no longer listen to Russian music, they don’t watch Russian TV.”

Bolgan explained how he was also involved with civil society organisations that had initiated the removal of Russian symbols and statues from Odesawhen the city came under attack, including a statue of Russian empress Catherine the Great that was removed from the city centre and placed in the city museum’s warehouse.

With the war continuing, I asked Dovbysh if she knew that Kosovo has a programme to host Ukrainian journalists who need a place to shelter for a while. But she explained that she would never consider this as an option.

“I don’t want to leave my country,” she declared. “In fact, as a camera operator, I know how to use drones, and my country and our military needs drone operators – if it comes down to it, if they need me, I would rather join the army than flee Ukraine.”

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