“I want to write the history of this war in Ukraine before it’s too late” – Yevheniia Podobna
She could have taken up arms but instead she chose to hold on to her camera, microphone and pen. Like many Ukrainian journalists, Yevheniia Podobna suffered conflicting emotions when the Russians invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The documentaries editor-in-chief at Ukraine’s leading public television channel, Pershyi, she told Reporters Without Borders (RSF) what the past six months of war have been like for her.
Should she go to the front or stay at Pershyi headquarters? That was the question Podobna began asking herself in the first few hours of the Russian invasion. Without a rifle, but armed with her phone, she filmed the first Russian helicopters and planes from her home as they fired rockets and dropped bombs just a few kilometres away. Kremlin supporters meanwhile began relaying fake news on social media. It was the chaos strategy. “As well as missiles, we were bombarded with disinformation,” she said.
Podobna is a former war reporter. She began covering the conflict in the Donbas for Channel 5, the Ukrainian international TV channel, in 2014 before going on to join Pershyi as a documentary producer in 2019. RSF met her at Pershyi headquarters in Kyiv in early August. Part of this interview was conducted in person in the Ukrainian capital and the rest was conducted online.
Where were you on 24 February, at the start of the Russian offensive?
At my home in Irpin, north of Kyiv. I realised that an all-out war against Ukraine had begun. I called my family and friends and I remember saying to them like it was yesterday: “Here we are, it’s true. The city of Kharkiv has already been bombed and the border has been crossed.” It was absolute chaos on Facebook, as if the Russians were already pounding us everywhere. I quickly realised that, as well as missiles, they were also bombarding us with disinformation to create panic. I asked my friends to only tell me about events they had personally witnessed. And I wrote a post on Facebook. But to be honest, I didn't think much about work. I was mostly concerned about what needed to be done to get my family to safety.
Were you ready for this war?
Yes, I had a survival bag with medicines and documents. I had stored food and water. A few days before, I’d asked my neighbours to come and help prepare the cellar of our house with mattresses, blankets and candles just in case… They laughed. Everyone still thought that Russia was bluffing.
When did you begin to cover the war?
On the afternoon of 24 February. From the window of my house. There were so many Russian military helicopters in the sky that I couldn't count them all. They were attacking Hostomel airport, not far from my home. For a second, the journalist that I am was immediately roused. I took out my phone to film. But, then I remembered a basic rule in wartime: don’t stay too close to windows. A little later, for the first time in my life, I saw planes dropping bombs from the sky. Right from the start on 24 February we knew how difficult it was going to be.
“An immense shame at not having been with my colleague killed in May”
How do you feel useful when you’re a journalist in a country at war?
It's very hard at first. The biggest and most obvious contribution you could make was to put down your microphone and take up arms to go and fight, as some of my fellow journalists did. I felt immense shame at not having been with my colleague Oleksandr Makhov, who enlisted and was killed in May. My city was quickly invaded by the Russian army. Given my past as a war correspondent, I had no time to lose. I had to leave [Editor’s note: civilians with links to the Ukrainian military are targets for the Russian army]. I kept telling myself that I was not a refugee and that I’d be back home soon. On the way, we almost ran into a column of Russian tanks. We got out but for a week I couldn't eat or sleep properly. And then I went back to work.
What did you do once you were back at Ukrainian TV?
We have a programme called “Heroes.” They’re 15-minute portraits of ordinary Ukrainian men and women who have done extraordinary things. It’s the only positive thing this war has produced. It reveals the extraordinary courage of ordinary people – a doctor who chose to stay in the occupied town of Bucha to carry out operations, a sports coach who braved bombing and shooting to evacuate people in his car. They risked their lives to save dozens of people. These portraits give courage and hope. I’m also working on a book about what happened in Bucha and Irpin where I live (Editor's note: two towns in the northern outskirts of Kyiv where Russian troops carried out many atrocities, rapes and summary executions). I record several interviews a day with witnesses of the occupation and the atrocities. Each interview is more terrible than the last one, but it’s my duty as a journalist. I want to write this story down before it's too late. With the war, I don't know if I'll be here tomorrow. As soon as I finish this project, I’ll become a war correspondent again.
What are the biggest difficulties you’ve faced as a journalist?
We don’t have access to the territories occupied by the Russians. Going there would be suicide for a Ukrainian journalist. It’s hard to find witnesses, to not put them in danger, and to know what exactly is happening in these areas. The biggest difficulty is Ukrainian prisoners, both military and civilian. We have no information. And yet it’s one of the most important stories for us. There are also more practical problems, such as access to the mobile phone network and the Internet, which can be complicated at the front line, and having to spend several hours at a time in basements during the frequent air raid warnings.
How do you deal with the propaganda and disinformation that are also used as weapons of war?
On the Ukrainian side, this war has also been played out online from day one. People started filming everything, photographing everything and sharing their images. This makes it much harder to lie and cover things up. At the same time, it must be recognised that disinformation circulates at the speed of light, especially on Telegram channels. Russia has invested colossal resources in this psychological information war by bombing TV towers and making enormous use of propaganda in conquered territories. In Mariupol, for example, when the city’s inhabitants had not yet had access to food or drinking water, the Russians had cars driving around with screens showing propaganda films. Journalists living in these territories have to work clandestinely.