Voices from the frontline: the story of a Ukrainian reporter’s escape through Russian-occupied territory

by Olesya * the author's name has been changed to protect her identity  
Wednesday, 28 June 2023 15:58 GMT

Journalists near damaged buildings hit in a strike by the Russian military , Shevchenkivskyi district of Kyiv, Ukraine, 23 March 2022. Reuters/Serhii Nuzhnenko

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Olesya* is a Ukrainian journalist, reporting for an independent media outlet based in Zaporizhzhia. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Olesya returned to her home in Kherson, where she reported in secret to reveal the truth about what was happening in the Russian-occupied territory. In October, Olesya left Ukraine for safety in Prague – taking a dangerous route through Russian-occupied Crimea and Russia itself – where she continues to report for the Zaporizhzhia outlet.  

In the blog below, Olesya reflects on her experiences working as a journalist under Russian occupation, her journey to Prague and the challenges of adapting to life away from her homeland while the war continues. This is the second piece in our ‘Voices from the Frontline’ series, which is dedicated to amplifying the voices of the Ukrainian journalists and media professionals that the Thomson Reuters Foundation has supported as part of its work to strengthen independent media around the world.  

* The author's name has been changed to protect her identity  

One day when I was 17 years old, I tried my hand at journalism and realised that I couldn't do anything else. I recorded my first interview during my last year of high school with my mentor and teacher, and a regional newspaper published the material: my words and name on printed pages. It inspired me to write more and more! This is how my journey into journalism began. If I knew at the time that I would later risk my life by being in the profession, I still would not have changed a thing. 

At school, I wrote well, won Ukrainian language and literature competitions, recited poems and was part of a theatre group. In short, I was a creative person. But what drove me to journalism was more than that – I had an interest in justice, the desire to be at the centre of events and to be able to provide people with timely and important information. I have been in the profession for four years, reporting for an independent outlet in Zaporizhzhia since 2021. During February 2022, my colleagues and I wrote stories that examined a possible full-scale Russian invasion. The day before the invasion, I resolved myself to working "in the field" and being at the centre of events, which I dreamed of before becoming a journalist. And then the morning of February 24 arrived. A traditional morning call to my grandmother in the Kherson region revealed that the day had come: “We have a war. Chongar is being bombed. I can see the fire and hear the explosions...", she said. 

I quickly grabbed my previously prepared "emergency bag", which contained a folder with documents, chargers, a laptop, a hoodie, small savings and my favourite chocolate bar. Leaving Zaporizhzhia for my native Kherson Oblast, located just north of the Russian-occupied Crimea, on the morning of February 24 was a quest: transport in that direction no longer ran. Only taxi drivers agreed to go there for all the money in the world. But I had to be there, see everything with my eyes and pass on information from the scene. It was a crazy act that I have not regretted for a single day. The taxi took me only as far as Melitopol, over 200 km away, as the driver refused to go any further. I spent five days in the blockaded city, which was soon occupied. I will remember those days for the rest of my life.   

Before my eyes, Ukrainian military equipment was rushing past and I could hear the first automatic rounds and explosions during the encirclement of Melitopol - one of the most important cities in the south in terms of logistics and military - by Russian troops.  Was I scared witnessing the occupation? Very much! But the spirit of adventure, which almost every journalist has, captured me more than fear. My friends helped me to settle in a student dormitory, where I had a bed, basic household items and, most importantly, access to a bomb shelter, where I stayed while enemy aircraft circled over the city. During my time there, I walked around the neighbourhood and tried to film everything I saw: closed supermarkets, kilometre-long queues at ATMs, looted hardware stores, the first enemy tanks. Every day I ran to the central square of the city to check whether the Ukrainian flag was in place.  

People who flee Mariupol and Melitopol as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, wait inside an evacuee bus at a collecting point in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine April 1, 2022. Picture taken April 1, 2022. REUTERS/Stringer

On the last day of February, I managed to find a driver who agreed to go to the south of the Kherson region where my family was. My colleagues tried to persuade me to return to Zaporizhzhia, but I knew I could not sit in safety while my relatives and community were at risk of Russian occupation. Before getting into the car, the driver ordered me to delete all messaging apps and photos that the Russian military might not like. One phrase stuck in my head from a Russian official at the checkpoint: "If I find even one photo of military equipment on your phone, I will smash it into pieces”. Of course, I hid the fact that I worked as a journalist and studied journalism. I was careful to take precautions, such as concealing my journalistic ID card and student card in my underwear and leaving my work laptop with my friends in Melitopol. Women were checked less meticulously but men were asked to get out of the car, and at some checkpoints, they were stripped to the waist and checked for tattoos that would indicate a strong pro-Ukrainian patriotic position or military service. Mostly young people who were returning to their families from the cities where they studied travelled with me. Everyone wanted to be with loved ones, even if it meant they were going to more dangerous areas of the country. So, ten Russian checkpoints later, with thorough phone checks and threats, I broke through. 

For more than seven months, I lived under Russian occupation in the Kherson region. At the beginning of the occupation, the local population could still express its pro-Ukrainian position. Under the constant threat of being sent to “the basement”, I helped to spread information about the rallies in support of Ukraine and worked for a local newspaper which had to be scaled down into a digital-only format. I also worked remotely for the outlet in Zaporizhzhia, wrote about the situation in the occupied territory for a number of other Ukrainian publications and participated in live broadcasts.  

Demonstrators, some displaying Ukrainian flags, chant "go home" while Russian military vehicles reverse course on the road, at a pro-Ukraine rally amid Russia's invasion, in Kherson, Ukraine March 20, 2022 in this still image from video obtained by Reuters

But this public activity of mine came to an end when Russian forces cut off access to Ukrainian internet and mobile networks in the region. Shortly after, the number of Russian troops increased, the pressure on people with a pro-Ukrainian position intensified and I heard the first "warnings" about my activities from acquaintances in the regional administration. They told me that Russian military personnel had said it was not wise to talk on social media about the situation in the south of the country, which was then already controlled by Russian forces.

A new stage of my life began – underground work. We will learn the whole truth, as we are now used to saying in Ukraine, after the victory. I will only say that my family's life and safety would have been threatened if the Russian special services had found out that I continued to work as a Ukrainian journalist in the occupied territory. What helped to hide my activities was having a second "clean" phone for random checks and playing on the legend about an innocent girl who "just wants peace". During checks, interrogations, or, as the occupiers called it, "questionings", I was asked about what I did, what I thought about the so-called “special military operation”, and how I treated the Russian military. I answered that I was not interested in politics and I just wanted to live peacefully on my land. In reality, I was writing about the crimes of the Russian occupiers, collaborators and the victories of the Defence Forces of Ukraine in liberating the occupied territories. Every day I lived in fear that the Russian special services would soon search for me, and that my punishment was inevitable. 

A Russian flag flies above the Ukrainian coat of arms dismantled from a former regional council's building during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the Russia-controlled city of Kherson, Ukraine July 25, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

In October, my parents insisted that I leave immediately. As it turned out, this was timely as the occupiers began building a third line of defence almost in my parents' garden. They intensified population checks and started forcing people to take Russian passports. The only safe way out for me was the road through Russian-occupied Crimea, and then through Russia itself to the Baltic countries. I left with a heavy heart; it took me three days to get out. I lost weight and I was really nervous. The most difficult part of the journey was crossing the Russian-Latvian border, where checks are carried out by border guards and representatives of Russia’s state security agency - the successor to the KGB. I had a phone and a laptop, which I had previously formatted and entered photos that were not associated with the war in any way: selfies, cats, flowers, family and travel. I had a Telegram account on my phone, where I had been simulating correspondence with friends for a month and subscribed to posts with memes, recipes and ideas for manicures. I deleted my work account and asked the editor to take away my access to the site and change my last name in the bylines.

I prepared well but, in the end, there were no gadget checks, just the standard questions about the purpose of departure, a passport check and an X-ray examination of my personal belongings. About 30 people were travelling with me on the bus, all of them leaving the occupation for Europe. They were mostly middle-aged people and married couples - one of them had a seven-month-old baby. We were all made to wait at night at the Russian border for about four hours in the cold outside. But everyone had such a strong desire to get to freedom. I spent a few days travelling with this group of people, but I only saw them smile when we crossed the Russian border to Latvia. We travelled to Poland together on the bus and then everyone went their separate ways. My aunt and brother were waiting for me in Prague. As soon as I found myself in Europe, thousands of kilometres away from my native home, parents and friends, I cried every day for the first three weeks. I had and still have survivor’s guilt. Because how can it be that I am safe, and people remain in trouble, and I can't even help them with anything? 

There hasn't been a day since I arrived where I have been able to fully relax, walk around Prague or go shopping. All this time I've been living in a must-do-more mode. That is why I continue to work remotely for the outlet in Zaporizhzhia, whilst finishing my Ukrainian education and working night shifts at a shopping centre to try and survive living abroad. Is it difficult for me? Yes. But it is much more difficult for our defenders on the frontlines, for people forced to remain under temporary occupation and for all Ukrainians who continue to work for the country despite daily Russian aggression.  

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, I have radically changed the subject of my journalistic focus in response to requests from our audience. There is war, so people are concerned about the situation on the frontlines, the consequences of enemy shelling, the victories of the Ukrainian army and new challenges for the community. I used to write exclusively about ecology, social life, and education but in recent weeks I had to cover the   collapse of the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, how the destruction of the dam poses a threat to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and the Ukrainian counteroffensive. At the same time, we understand that our audience is tired of constantly receiving disturbing news, so we also try to write about topics that relate to the lives of those living in Zaporizhzhia. 

In Prague, physical work tires me more than my journalism. But thanks to my job at the shopping centre, I can independently support my life here and help my parents and the Ukrainian army financially. At the same time, journalism allows me to support Ukraine in the information field. Of course, remote work has its challenges - it can be difficult to fully understand the context, there is a lack of verified information and not much time to contact sources. But these difficulties seem to be only minor in comparison to the problems the whole country is facing right now. It continues to be difficult, both morally and physically, for myself and my colleagues in Zaporizhzhia. But it is our role to be journalists during such a difficult time. Belief in Ukraine's victory motivates us to work every day for a better future, for us and our children. 

To find out more about the first-hand experiences of journalists in Ukraine, read the first piece in our ‘Voices from the Frontline’ series, a powerful interview with Ukrainian photojournalist Oleksandr Kornyakov.

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