Words versus bullets - Ukrainian journalists turn into war correspondents: War has become part of our lives

When Russia invaded Ukraine, on February 24, the lives of millions of Ukrainians changed overnight and so did the lives of Ukrainian journalists who unwillingly became war correspondents. Ukrainian journalist Maria Zhartovskaya of Babel.ua, one of the biggest independent news portals in the country, told Romania-Insider.com how she and her colleagues lived the first weeks of the war and how their work has changed.

Ukrainian journalists at Babel.ua have been running round-the-clock live coverage of the ongoing war its start while living in the basement of a Kyiv bar. Their articles feature daily news bulletins, interviews with refugees and politicians, as well as practical advice like what should be in an “alarm suitcase” and how to cope with emotional stress brought about by the war.

When the war started, many of Babel’s editorial office took shelter in the basement of a bar. They got used to the sound of shelling, and some spent days in morgues, working to identify bodies. They became volunteer cooks. On their website, the donations button says “Russian warship, go f**k yourself.” They are wartime journalists now.

The Babel team pride themselves on the fact that their stories are focused on people, not abstractions, and that they deliver accurate and impartial information regarding topics of interest. When they interviewed a formerly pro-Russian politician, he told them that his “position has changed because Russian hailstorms are flying into his area near the house.” Their reporting is essential journalism in a sea of uncertainty and governmental communiques.

The war brought changes for Babel. Until it began, they used to run a Russian version of the website and articles. That ended with the outbreak of the war and “it won’t be back,” as a banner on their website reads. However, the team quickly put together and developed an English version in order to the information out to as many people as possible.

Many of the roughly 15 journalists and editors, along with numerous freelancers and volunteers, have experienced the dangers of war firsthand – and not necessarily because of their profession. “There is not a single person in our editorial office who has not been affected by the war,” says Maria Zhartovskaya, journalist at Babel. “We have no choice and a sense of humor helps,” she adds.

Wartime journalism is hard to finance. When the war broke out, all advertising in Ukraine stopped. Kept operational through international support, grants, and donations, including through cryptocurrency, Babel managed to support its journalists as they went out in the field despite the danger.

“War has become part of our lives,” says Zhartovskaya. She remembers how immediately before the invasion, assured by Ukrainian politicians, including president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, that there is no danger, Ukrainians would go about their lives normally. They would “eat barbecue, go to universities in the summer, plan vacations, dig gardens, and then plan New Year holidays. I think after the war we will have many questions that the authorities will have to answer,” the journalist adds. “But now is not the time to quarrel domestically, we have a more serious enemy.”

It’s a feeling of determination that many of her colleagues share, despite the clear threat hovering over them. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine claimed the lives of at least 20 journalists. Many more have come under attack. And yet, those who remain find the courage to go out every day and report on the war.

“I always tell journalists and ordinary people from other countries that you must be brave, confident, and not afraid of Putin and Russia,” Zhartovskaya says. “Ukraine is fighting not only for itself, but also for the whole democratic world that shares democratic values. And when the world says that it helps Ukraine, in fact, it helps itself as well to defend these values.”

Read the whole interview with Maria Zhartovskaya below:

Maria Zhartovskaya of Babel.ua
Maria Zhartovskaya, journalist at Babel.ua

Romania Insider: What is Babel and how did it start? What kind of content did you publish initially, in what languages, and what was your target audience?

Maria Zhartovskaya, journalist at Babel.ua: Babel appeared in September 2018. Our editor-in-chief Kateryna Kobernyk hatched the idea of ​​a site "for the smart" that would be the voice of common sense in a world that is experiencing the strongest lack of it. We defined our audience as smart, sane people who are interested in processes and answers to questions like “how” and “why”. Gradually, a strong team of experienced, professional journalists gathered under this idea. We wrote large, detailed profiles of politicians and key officials, good reports - for example, we had and still have the project "One day with ..." where we spend one day with a certain politician - the head of the President's Office Andriy Yermak and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Many others participated in it.

We also have useful texts. For example, on the eve of the war, we wrote about what should be in the "alarm suitcase" or how to sign up for territorial defense or cope with emotions. We have very good historical texts with archival photographs that my colleague Serhii Pyvovarov writes. To sum up, a Babel journalist, in relation to his reader, is like an old good friend with whom you want to have a drink in a bar, because he will tell you something interesting and give you objective information.

As for languages, Babel initially had two language versions – Ukrainian and Russian. With the outbreak of the war, we permanently abandoned the Russian version and launched the English one. We want as many people as possible to get objective information about what is happening in Ukraine.

RI: How has your editorial strategy changed after the war started?

MZ: From the first day of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Babel has been running a round-the-clock live coverage, where we put all the information about what is happening. During the first days of the war, many of our journalists and editors volunteered, and then they returned to writing as well. But they also continued volunteer activities - for example, they cooked food for the Ukrainian military. We have also added a daily digest - these are texts with a brief description of the most important events of the day and reviews of foreign media about Ukraine. We also started podcasts, recording them in the basement of the bar where part of the editorial staff lived. These are interviews with ordinary people about how they survive the war.

To be honest, it is difficult to talk about changing the editorial strategy in the face of complete uncertainty. We try to continue our work and write quality texts.

RI: How many journalists did you have before the war and how many do you have now? Where are your journalists based?

MZ: We kept the editorial during the war. We have about 15 journalists and editors, as well as volunteers who work on the English version, and freelance writers who write texts and reports for Babel. With the outbreak of the war, part of our editorial staff worked from Kyiv, living in the basement of the bar that sheltered us. In the same place, our editor-in-chief Yevhen Spirin and other journalists were engaged in volunteer activities, preparing food for the military. I also stayed in Kyiv and mostly worked from my Kyiv apartment.

Some journalists left for safer regions of Ukraine. For example, our colleague Marina Kolesnichenko, the head of Babel’s Digital Department, lived in Nemishayevo, a village near Bucha. During the first days of the war, the Russians went there and shot at her house twice. She and her mother hid in the basement and miraculously she managed to get out of Nemishyaevo. Marina was in the Czech Republic for some time, but she is already returning home. Some of my other colleagues also returned to Kyiv.

RI: How do you finance the project now?

MZ: Before the war, the main source of income for Babel was advertising, now there is in fact no advertising market in Ukraine, so our advertising department of Babel focused on finding grants and international support. In parallel with this, we launched PayPal and the English version of the site, and people can also help Babel with cryptocurrency.

RI: How has your journalists’ life changed since the start of the war? How is wartime journalism different from the one during peace?

MZ: There is not a single person in our editorial office who has not been affected by the war. We can no longer plan anything and be sure of our future. Our editor-in-chief Yevhen Spirin has already left the war once, from Luhansk to Kyiv in 2014, and now the war has caught up with him in Kyiv. In the past, before working as a journalist and editor, he worked in the morgue, now he was a volunteer in Bucha, helping to identify the bodies of civilians killed by Russians. The focus of our materials has also shifted – for example, we publish stories of Ukrainians who got out of Mariupol or lived in the occupied territories or very difficult interviews that talk about violence. Of course, it's mentally hard to work now, because we can't be detached and we worry when we work on topics.

RI: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine claimed the lives of at least 20 journalists. Many more have come under attack. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression mentioned reports that show journalists being “targeted, tortured, kidnapped, attacked and killed, or refused safe passage.” Have any of your journalists been injured, detained by hostile forces, or harmed in any way since the start of the war?

MZ: From Babel's journalists - no, but from other editorial offices - yes. Our colleague, war correspondent Oleksandr Makhov, died, he fought in 2015 and fought now. As a result of a rocket attack on a multi-story building in Kyiv, a journalist of the Ukrainian service of Radio Liberty, Vera Hyrych, was killed. My colleague, with whom we worked together more than ten years ago, Iryna Dubchenko was taken prisoner by the Russians in the occupied Rozivka, Zaporizhzhia oblast. Fortunately, it was possible to release Iryna.

RI: How do your journalists find the courage to go out and report on the war, knowing there is a chance they might not come back?

MZ: We have no choice and a sense of humor helps. In the early days, when the situation in Kyiv was tense, and we heard dozens of air raid alerts a day, my house had no elevator, and I live on the 23rd floor overlooking Kyiv - it was difficult to go down to the shelter every time, so I didn't go there. This, of course, is wrong, I looked at Kyiv and thought that if a Russian rocket flies into my apartment, then I will die quickly and with a beautiful view of the city. I also had a slightly surreal interview - with volunteers we went to Kharkiv, we in Babel decided to record an interview with Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov and his former electoral competitor Mykhailo Dobkin. Dobkin had a pro-Russian position in the past, he was in favor of the Russian language or the Customs Union, now this position has changed because Russian hailstorms are flying into the area near his house - he is located not far from the front line. Dobkin and I walked around the center of Kharkiv, where Russian rockets used to fly in, listening to the sounds of Ukrainian artillery and church bells. This is what our work looks like now.

RI: Perhaps the most relatable impulse during a war is to remain near loved ones and make sure they are safe. When you report on mass graves, killings, deadly shelling, and so on, how do you keep yourself from abandoning the rest of the world and rushing to be near family and friends?

MZ: Good question, but to be honest, we don’t. It's just that war has become part of our lives. We do not rush to relatives or friends, they understand everything. For example, my husband was worried when he was letting me go to Kharkiv now, he himself comes from there, but he understands that this needs to be done. Just like in 2014, when I once went to Donetsk, at that time it was not yet very dangerous there, pro-Russian separatists had just begun to appear, but the oblast state administration had already been captured. Therefore, our loved ones understand everything.

RI: You’ve recently reported on the so-called “filtration camps” that Russia operates. These are camps to which Russian troops deport Ukrainian citizens – an estimated 2,000 people are currently held in these camps. Can you tell us more about them and how you got to report on them?

MZ: This is not my text, to be honest. But both Ukrainian officials and relatives of those who are detained there in Mariupol, and people who went through these filtration camps report about them. This report was based on the words of relatives who have contact with loved ones in such camps.

RI: Since the war started, the world could see a united Ukrainian people bravely standing up to a ruthless aggressor, inspired by a strong and charismatic leader. How does reality look from the inside? Do the Ukrainian people see things the same way? Is there any disapproval about the way the country’s leaders have handled this situation before and after the war started?

MZ: If you remember, before the war, the Ukrainian authorities convinced people that there would be no war - so that we could be calm. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recorded video messages where he asked people not to panic and assured them that everything would be as usual - in May we will eat barbecue, go to universities in the summer, plan vacations, dig gardens, and then plan New Year holidays. I don't know at the moment whether this was a deliberate government strategy or an underestimation of the risks, because many politicians now say that they did not believe in a full-scale invasion. I think after the war we will have many questions that the authorities will have to answer. But now is not the time to quarrel domestically, we have a more serious enemy.

RI: What do the Ukrainian people expect the outcome of this war to be?

MZ: We want to return our territories and restore sovereignty and territorial integrity.

RI: Have you noticed any changes in the opinion of the Ukrainian people when it comes to neighboring countries like Poland, Hungary, and Romania?

MZ: Of course - we are grateful to Romania and Poland for the fact that these countries accept Ukrainian refugees. I went to Poland for a week on business and did not expect such support - people empathize with us and strive to help, and they are very open. It seems to me that they understand all the danger that Russia can carry. As for Hungary, we do not share the position of their authorities - because how can anyone, seeing the atrocities of the Russians in the Kyiv oblast, continue to oppose the oil and gas embargo and block sanctions against Russia. I do not wish any country in the world to go through what Ukraine and our people are going through right now. And I always tell journalists and ordinary people from other countries that you must be brave, confident and not afraid of Putin and Russia. That’s enough of the fear and forgiveness in other countries, and Ukraine as well, for the many of their atrocities.

RI: What is the one message that you would want everyone to get about Ukraine and the war?

MZ: We would like the world to understand that Ukraine is fighting not only for itself, but also for the whole democratic world that shares democratic values. And when the world says that it helps Ukraine, in fact it helps itself as well to defend these values. 

radu@romania-insider.com

(Opening photo source: Nazar Zherebtsov | Dreamstime.com)

 

If you want to help the Babel.ua team to continue their war reporting and keep the world informed about what is happening in their country, you can make a donation here.

 

Tags
Normal

Words versus bullets - Ukrainian journalists turn into war correspondents: War has become part of our lives

When Russia invaded Ukraine, on February 24, the lives of millions of Ukrainians changed overnight and so did the lives of Ukrainian journalists who unwillingly became war correspondents. Ukrainian journalist Maria Zhartovskaya of Babel.ua, one of the biggest independent news portals in the country, told Romania-Insider.com how she and her colleagues lived the first weeks of the war and how their work has changed.

Ukrainian journalists at Babel.ua have been running round-the-clock live coverage of the ongoing war its start while living in the basement of a Kyiv bar. Their articles feature daily news bulletins, interviews with refugees and politicians, as well as practical advice like what should be in an “alarm suitcase” and how to cope with emotional stress brought about by the war.

When the war started, many of Babel’s editorial office took shelter in the basement of a bar. They got used to the sound of shelling, and some spent days in morgues, working to identify bodies. They became volunteer cooks. On their website, the donations button says “Russian warship, go f**k yourself.” They are wartime journalists now.

The Babel team pride themselves on the fact that their stories are focused on people, not abstractions, and that they deliver accurate and impartial information regarding topics of interest. When they interviewed a formerly pro-Russian politician, he told them that his “position has changed because Russian hailstorms are flying into his area near the house.” Their reporting is essential journalism in a sea of uncertainty and governmental communiques.

The war brought changes for Babel. Until it began, they used to run a Russian version of the website and articles. That ended with the outbreak of the war and “it won’t be back,” as a banner on their website reads. However, the team quickly put together and developed an English version in order to the information out to as many people as possible.

Many of the roughly 15 journalists and editors, along with numerous freelancers and volunteers, have experienced the dangers of war firsthand – and not necessarily because of their profession. “There is not a single person in our editorial office who has not been affected by the war,” says Maria Zhartovskaya, journalist at Babel. “We have no choice and a sense of humor helps,” she adds.

Wartime journalism is hard to finance. When the war broke out, all advertising in Ukraine stopped. Kept operational through international support, grants, and donations, including through cryptocurrency, Babel managed to support its journalists as they went out in the field despite the danger.

“War has become part of our lives,” says Zhartovskaya. She remembers how immediately before the invasion, assured by Ukrainian politicians, including president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, that there is no danger, Ukrainians would go about their lives normally. They would “eat barbecue, go to universities in the summer, plan vacations, dig gardens, and then plan New Year holidays. I think after the war we will have many questions that the authorities will have to answer,” the journalist adds. “But now is not the time to quarrel domestically, we have a more serious enemy.”

It’s a feeling of determination that many of her colleagues share, despite the clear threat hovering over them. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine claimed the lives of at least 20 journalists. Many more have come under attack. And yet, those who remain find the courage to go out every day and report on the war.

“I always tell journalists and ordinary people from other countries that you must be brave, confident, and not afraid of Putin and Russia,” Zhartovskaya says. “Ukraine is fighting not only for itself, but also for the whole democratic world that shares democratic values. And when the world says that it helps Ukraine, in fact, it helps itself as well to defend these values.”

Read the whole interview with Maria Zhartovskaya below:

Maria Zhartovskaya of Babel.ua
Maria Zhartovskaya, journalist at Babel.ua

Romania Insider: What is Babel and how did it start? What kind of content did you publish initially, in what languages, and what was your target audience?

Maria Zhartovskaya, journalist at Babel.ua: Babel appeared in September 2018. Our editor-in-chief Kateryna Kobernyk hatched the idea of ​​a site "for the smart" that would be the voice of common sense in a world that is experiencing the strongest lack of it. We defined our audience as smart, sane people who are interested in processes and answers to questions like “how” and “why”. Gradually, a strong team of experienced, professional journalists gathered under this idea. We wrote large, detailed profiles of politicians and key officials, good reports - for example, we had and still have the project "One day with ..." where we spend one day with a certain politician - the head of the President's Office Andriy Yermak and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Many others participated in it.

We also have useful texts. For example, on the eve of the war, we wrote about what should be in the "alarm suitcase" or how to sign up for territorial defense or cope with emotions. We have very good historical texts with archival photographs that my colleague Serhii Pyvovarov writes. To sum up, a Babel journalist, in relation to his reader, is like an old good friend with whom you want to have a drink in a bar, because he will tell you something interesting and give you objective information.

As for languages, Babel initially had two language versions – Ukrainian and Russian. With the outbreak of the war, we permanently abandoned the Russian version and launched the English one. We want as many people as possible to get objective information about what is happening in Ukraine.

RI: How has your editorial strategy changed after the war started?

MZ: From the first day of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Babel has been running a round-the-clock live coverage, where we put all the information about what is happening. During the first days of the war, many of our journalists and editors volunteered, and then they returned to writing as well. But they also continued volunteer activities - for example, they cooked food for the Ukrainian military. We have also added a daily digest - these are texts with a brief description of the most important events of the day and reviews of foreign media about Ukraine. We also started podcasts, recording them in the basement of the bar where part of the editorial staff lived. These are interviews with ordinary people about how they survive the war.

To be honest, it is difficult to talk about changing the editorial strategy in the face of complete uncertainty. We try to continue our work and write quality texts.

RI: How many journalists did you have before the war and how many do you have now? Where are your journalists based?

MZ: We kept the editorial during the war. We have about 15 journalists and editors, as well as volunteers who work on the English version, and freelance writers who write texts and reports for Babel. With the outbreak of the war, part of our editorial staff worked from Kyiv, living in the basement of the bar that sheltered us. In the same place, our editor-in-chief Yevhen Spirin and other journalists were engaged in volunteer activities, preparing food for the military. I also stayed in Kyiv and mostly worked from my Kyiv apartment.

Some journalists left for safer regions of Ukraine. For example, our colleague Marina Kolesnichenko, the head of Babel’s Digital Department, lived in Nemishayevo, a village near Bucha. During the first days of the war, the Russians went there and shot at her house twice. She and her mother hid in the basement and miraculously she managed to get out of Nemishyaevo. Marina was in the Czech Republic for some time, but she is already returning home. Some of my other colleagues also returned to Kyiv.

RI: How do you finance the project now?

MZ: Before the war, the main source of income for Babel was advertising, now there is in fact no advertising market in Ukraine, so our advertising department of Babel focused on finding grants and international support. In parallel with this, we launched PayPal and the English version of the site, and people can also help Babel with cryptocurrency.

RI: How has your journalists’ life changed since the start of the war? How is wartime journalism different from the one during peace?

MZ: There is not a single person in our editorial office who has not been affected by the war. We can no longer plan anything and be sure of our future. Our editor-in-chief Yevhen Spirin has already left the war once, from Luhansk to Kyiv in 2014, and now the war has caught up with him in Kyiv. In the past, before working as a journalist and editor, he worked in the morgue, now he was a volunteer in Bucha, helping to identify the bodies of civilians killed by Russians. The focus of our materials has also shifted – for example, we publish stories of Ukrainians who got out of Mariupol or lived in the occupied territories or very difficult interviews that talk about violence. Of course, it's mentally hard to work now, because we can't be detached and we worry when we work on topics.

RI: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine claimed the lives of at least 20 journalists. Many more have come under attack. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression mentioned reports that show journalists being “targeted, tortured, kidnapped, attacked and killed, or refused safe passage.” Have any of your journalists been injured, detained by hostile forces, or harmed in any way since the start of the war?

MZ: From Babel's journalists - no, but from other editorial offices - yes. Our colleague, war correspondent Oleksandr Makhov, died, he fought in 2015 and fought now. As a result of a rocket attack on a multi-story building in Kyiv, a journalist of the Ukrainian service of Radio Liberty, Vera Hyrych, was killed. My colleague, with whom we worked together more than ten years ago, Iryna Dubchenko was taken prisoner by the Russians in the occupied Rozivka, Zaporizhzhia oblast. Fortunately, it was possible to release Iryna.

RI: How do your journalists find the courage to go out and report on the war, knowing there is a chance they might not come back?

MZ: We have no choice and a sense of humor helps. In the early days, when the situation in Kyiv was tense, and we heard dozens of air raid alerts a day, my house had no elevator, and I live on the 23rd floor overlooking Kyiv - it was difficult to go down to the shelter every time, so I didn't go there. This, of course, is wrong, I looked at Kyiv and thought that if a Russian rocket flies into my apartment, then I will die quickly and with a beautiful view of the city. I also had a slightly surreal interview - with volunteers we went to Kharkiv, we in Babel decided to record an interview with Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov and his former electoral competitor Mykhailo Dobkin. Dobkin had a pro-Russian position in the past, he was in favor of the Russian language or the Customs Union, now this position has changed because Russian hailstorms are flying into the area near his house - he is located not far from the front line. Dobkin and I walked around the center of Kharkiv, where Russian rockets used to fly in, listening to the sounds of Ukrainian artillery and church bells. This is what our work looks like now.

RI: Perhaps the most relatable impulse during a war is to remain near loved ones and make sure they are safe. When you report on mass graves, killings, deadly shelling, and so on, how do you keep yourself from abandoning the rest of the world and rushing to be near family and friends?

MZ: Good question, but to be honest, we don’t. It's just that war has become part of our lives. We do not rush to relatives or friends, they understand everything. For example, my husband was worried when he was letting me go to Kharkiv now, he himself comes from there, but he understands that this needs to be done. Just like in 2014, when I once went to Donetsk, at that time it was not yet very dangerous there, pro-Russian separatists had just begun to appear, but the oblast state administration had already been captured. Therefore, our loved ones understand everything.

RI: You’ve recently reported on the so-called “filtration camps” that Russia operates. These are camps to which Russian troops deport Ukrainian citizens – an estimated 2,000 people are currently held in these camps. Can you tell us more about them and how you got to report on them?

MZ: This is not my text, to be honest. But both Ukrainian officials and relatives of those who are detained there in Mariupol, and people who went through these filtration camps report about them. This report was based on the words of relatives who have contact with loved ones in such camps.

RI: Since the war started, the world could see a united Ukrainian people bravely standing up to a ruthless aggressor, inspired by a strong and charismatic leader. How does reality look from the inside? Do the Ukrainian people see things the same way? Is there any disapproval about the way the country’s leaders have handled this situation before and after the war started?

MZ: If you remember, before the war, the Ukrainian authorities convinced people that there would be no war - so that we could be calm. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recorded video messages where he asked people not to panic and assured them that everything would be as usual - in May we will eat barbecue, go to universities in the summer, plan vacations, dig gardens, and then plan New Year holidays. I don't know at the moment whether this was a deliberate government strategy or an underestimation of the risks, because many politicians now say that they did not believe in a full-scale invasion. I think after the war we will have many questions that the authorities will have to answer. But now is not the time to quarrel domestically, we have a more serious enemy.

RI: What do the Ukrainian people expect the outcome of this war to be?

MZ: We want to return our territories and restore sovereignty and territorial integrity.

RI: Have you noticed any changes in the opinion of the Ukrainian people when it comes to neighboring countries like Poland, Hungary, and Romania?

MZ: Of course - we are grateful to Romania and Poland for the fact that these countries accept Ukrainian refugees. I went to Poland for a week on business and did not expect such support - people empathize with us and strive to help, and they are very open. It seems to me that they understand all the danger that Russia can carry. As for Hungary, we do not share the position of their authorities - because how can anyone, seeing the atrocities of the Russians in the Kyiv oblast, continue to oppose the oil and gas embargo and block sanctions against Russia. I do not wish any country in the world to go through what Ukraine and our people are going through right now. And I always tell journalists and ordinary people from other countries that you must be brave, confident and not afraid of Putin and Russia. That’s enough of the fear and forgiveness in other countries, and Ukraine as well, for the many of their atrocities.

RI: What is the one message that you would want everyone to get about Ukraine and the war?

MZ: We would like the world to understand that Ukraine is fighting not only for itself, but also for the whole democratic world that shares democratic values. And when the world says that it helps Ukraine, in fact it helps itself as well to defend these values. 

radu@romania-insider.com

(Opening photo source: Nazar Zherebtsov | Dreamstime.com)

 

If you want to help the Babel.ua team to continue their war reporting and keep the world informed about what is happening in their country, you can make a donation here.

 

Tags
Normal
 

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