For us journalists, too, war in Ukraine is a battle for survival
The air raid siren is still on while I'm writing these words. It's a sign that Russian missiles can hit near my apartment at any moment. A few minutes ago, a new rocket attack was about 30 kilometers away from me.
I live in Lviv. It is not far from the border with Poland. Air raid sirens and news about missile attacks on Ukrainian cities have become my routine. It's been three months already since the full-scale invasion of Russia to Ukraine. But the reality is that Ukraine has been in an ongoing war with Russia for the last eight years.
But from Feb. 24, our lives have changed. For some, it started at 2 a.m. when Russian Grads (multiple-rocket launchers) attacked Mariupol. For others, at 3 to 5 a.m. with the first explosions all over the country. Not everyone from our team lives in Lviv; some members live closer to Kyiv. So the early morning of Feb. 24 was full of messages: "Are you OK, guys?" "We see the smoke," "I've heard explosions," and "We are safe."
I work for Lviv Media Forum. Our NGO started as a major international media conference in 2013. During all these years, Anne Applebaum, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Adam Michnik, Peter Pomerantsev and dozens of world-famous journalists became speakers at our events. In the past few years, we also worked as a media expert organization: We provided such research as disinformation or solution journalism's impact on local communities.
We consulted the media to make their content convenient and interesting and help them deal with digital formats and social media. We were looking to have a huge annual conference for about 1,000 participants at the end of May 2022. The key topic was supposed to concentrate on uncertainty -- because of COVID-19 pandemic and war threats. And now that uncertainty becomes certain. Our fears become our reality.
We knew that Lviv could become a shelter city for our colleagues from more dangerous regions and started to prepare for the worst. We developed a plan in January in case of a full-scale Russian invasion. At 6:30 in the morning on Feb. 24, we had a brief online meeting. At 9 a.m., we all gathered in the office and started to work on the war plan. We organized shelter supplies for journalists and their families, defined each one's roles on 24/7 duty and reorganized our work with partners.
No one came to our shelter on the first night. Journalists mostly wanted to cover news in their cities or to join territorial or armed forces. Some of them were confused and could not decide if it was necessary to move out.
Our first guests were journalists from ATR -- the Crimean Tatar channel based in Kyiv -- and their families. Because of traffic and the hostilities danger, they were on the road for a few days, even though it was only 500 kilometers (about 300 miles) long. They could shower and have something hot to eat and to drink at our office. It was winter outside, with cold nights, especially if you spent them in a car. A few days later, they treated us with their traditional meal pilaf -- it was their way to thank us and take care of us.
Over the next few weeks, we received hundreds of calls from journalists asking to help them or their families get out from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy and their regions, to help them with long-term shelter or apartments. Our colleagues, who were blocked in their houses near Kyiv, appeared with messages once every few days. We didn't know what could happen: Russians would get into their homes, or they could be shot on their way to Lviv.
One day, a woman came to our office for shelter. She was a TV producer of a famous media group and carried only a tiny backpack and a laptop. That was all she had. She was very close to the Kyiv TV tower the moment a Russian missile hit it.
Five people died. That woman could have become one of them. So she took just what she had on hand and ran to the railway station without any thought of what could happen next. While sitting at our office, she looked stressed but focused while working on her laptop. And she was proposing her help to get bulletproof vests for journalists because she was familiar with one of the famous volunteers. Body armor was the hardest to get during the first month.
We also had a family of journalists from Irpin. They came to our office late at night exhausted and stressed. But they were so exact in telling of horrible things about Russian helicopters flying around their house, all-day shootings and Russian invaders landing in a local forest. It was like a story from an action movie, but it was really happening in the heart of Ukraine.
I was only ashamed that at that time that I just wanted to go to my sleeping bag -- it was about 3 a.m. and it had become colder. But it was such a minor problem compared with what other people have gone through.
Sleeping in the office became a routine. It seemed safer to be close to colleagues and the bomb shelter in the yard, even while any shelling still felt like a very distant threat.
That changed on March 26, when Russian rockets hit close to the Lviv city center -- about 3 kilometers from our office. Lviv, which had been considered a relatively safe place, ceased to be so. No corner of Ukraine is safe any longer. There are just levels of danger.
The next time when Russian missiles hit close to the Lviv railway station, seven people died and a 3-year-old boy was injured. He had come to Lviv with his family from Kharkiv to hide from bombs and shelling.
So did the residents of our shelter. They escaped to the city they thought would be safe, but instead, they witnessed shaking walls and windows because of new explosions.
It is hard to speak about what we felt at that time: a weird combination of hatred and relief. The worst is happening now, and we don't have to wait for it anymore.
I would cry only a few times during these three months -- mostly because of news about the death of our famous journalists.
Max Levin worked as a war correspondent near Kyiv. He was found with a bullet in his head.
Olexandr Makhow was a war correspondent, but he became a soldier in February. He was killed in the Kharkiv region.
Vira Gyrych was killed by a Russian rocket that hit her house in Kyiv.
Around 30 journalists were killed by Russia over three months, seven while doing their job. Many journalists lost their homes. Some of them are living under occupation and hiding because they are on a "shooting list" only because they publish in Ukrainian.
Some of them were kidnapped, as was our friend Oleh Baturyn from the Kherson region. Thank God, he is safe and living in Lviv now.
If you met this polite, calm man with sparkly eyes and a warm smile in our office, you would never think about the horrible things he has gone through.
The war continues at the military front lines but also in the media field. I don't feel like I have time and space for tears and fears. The NGO "Lviv Media Forum" team and I do our best to help Ukrainian journalists in many ways so they can continue to work despite any problems.
For example, we search for financial support, buy equipment and provide bulletproof vests, helmets and first aid kits. We also work on cyber security issues and do everything possible to improve their safety. To provide all the necessary help, we work with many Ukrainian and international organizations.
We've also launched a page on Patreon so that everyone interested in Ukrainian independent journalism development and the Ukrainian agenda can support our initiative.
Every bullet and missile makes us more furious and helps us focus on our goal -- to save Ukrainian media, our fellow citizens and our country. We don't have a choice or a chance to step back. At least while we still exist -- as a state, as people, as humans.