THIS INVESTIGATION IS PART OF THE JUSTICE FOR JOURNALISTS FOUNDATION INVESTIGATIVE GRANT PROGRAMME AND WAS INITIALLY PUBLISHED BY AOAV).
Ukrainian freelance reporter Alona Savchuk provides insight into her life and career as a conflict journalist, discussing the challenges of reporting during the ongoing war in Ukraine and the importance of empathy in storytelling.
Iain Overton: Hi Alona. Please, could you introduce yourself?
Alona Savchuk: Sure, my name is Alona Savchuk. I’m 34 years old and I’m a freelance reporter. I’m not affiliated with any media, but I’ve contributed to a number of international outlets and various Ukrainian news platforms.
Iain Overton: Where are you originally from?
Alona Savchuk: I was born in Poltava, but my family is from Volyn region, located near Poland and Belarus.
Iain Overton: Is journalism a family profession?
Alona Savchuk: No, my parents are doctors. None of my family members are involved in journalism.
Iain Overton: How did you get into journalism?
Alona Savchuk: After earning a law degree and practicing in court, I was disheartened by the corruption and negativity I encountered. So, I took a year-long break to reflect on what I wanted to do and found myself drawn to journalism. I obtained a master’s degree in journalism from the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, which gave me a good start in the profession.
Iain Overton: What type of stories were you focusing on before the invasion?
Alona Savchuk: Since graduating in 2016, I’ve been focusing on religious and ethnic conflicts, the legacy of ISIS, and human rights violations. I’ve done extensive reporting in Crimea, and later on Ukrainian families in ISIS-related camps in Syria. I’ve also written about religious and ethnic conflicts in various other countries.
Iain Overton: What led you to cover stories of extremism?
Alona Savchuk: To be honest, I’m not sure why I was drawn to it. My interest was sparked by a feature I read about Chechens, and it grew from there. I found myself interested in these topics as an individual first, before I even considered journalism as a career.
Iain Overton: How prevalent is international reporting as a genre in Ukraine?
Alona Savchuk: Publishing stories from abroad is challenging in Ukraine. It’s often difficult to secure funding. It’s also hard to spark interest in international affairs, as many Ukrainians are primarily focused on domestic issues.
Iain Overton: Do you think Ukraine’s historical experiences have led to this inward focus?
Alona Savchuk: While Ukraine has faced numerous foreign interventions, I believe this inward focus is not unique to us. Most people everywhere prioritize issues that directly affect them. In Ukraine, however, there’s a need to develop more feature reporting and in-depth analysis.
Iain Overton: Is there a strong reading culture in Ukraine?
Alona Savchuk: Reading, particularly complex long-form stories, is less common than scrolling through social media. There’s a challenge in getting people to read in-depth analyses. The Russian invasion has further impacted our publishing sphere.
Iain Overton: What skills from your long-form writing have you applied to your post-invasion reporting?
Alona Savchuk: My style of reporting has remained the same, although the invasion necessitated a focus on shorter news pieces. I’ve also been involved in creating documentary podcasts about the Russian war in Ukraine. Each episode covers a specific topic related to the war and its impact. However, I often feel conflicted about the value of this work in the face of the ongoing invasion.
Iain Overton: You’re saying you feel your work doesn’t help with the situation?
Alona Savchuk: Yes, I sometimes question its impact given the scale and complexity of the war.
Iain Overton: When attempting to understand the larger context, isn’t there a risk of portraying an overwhelmingly bleak image of a country? After all, examining the impacts of war across different areas can seem apocalyptic when combined. How do you manage to keep your storytelling engaging without becoming overwhelmingly horrific?
Alona Savchuk: In every story, there is a hero, a beacon of hope. For instance, I am currently working on a story this village that was once thriving before the invasion. The village, once home to about 1000 people, was devastated during the war. It lies in a valley between two high hills and was caught in crossfire between the Ukrainian and Russian armies. Now, there isn’t a single home left intact. Only about 40 people live there now, but they are determined to rebuild their village from scratch. Despite the daunting amount of unexploded ordnance littering their land, they continue to return and work towards their dream. They even intend to raise their children amidst these circumstances, showing that people can overcome adversity.
Iain Overton: Do you ever find yourself surprised that people are willing to live in areas where most would deem it unsafe, especially for children?
Alona Savchuk: Initially, I was surprised. However, my previous experiences with the Crimean Tatars and their history of genocide provided context. I have friends who still live in Crimea despite the hardships, and it has shown me how difficult it is for people to leave the lands their ancestors called home.
Iain Overton: Since the invasion, has your reporting changed your understanding of what it means to be Ukrainian?
Alona Savchuk: I consider myself privileged, as my family is not directly threatened by the war. My mom lives in the western part of Ukraine, close to the Belarussian border, but it’s relatively safe. My 22-year-old brother hasn’t been mobilised yet. I have my home, and I understand that I’m in a better position compared to colleagues who have lost their homes or have families to support. Additionally, my previous work experiences have prepared me for the emotional adjustments that come with reporting during a war.
Iain Overton: The nature of war often leads to people telling you a particular type of story or interpretation of events, likely shaped by their vested interests or their desire for the war to end. Even the most sympathetic sources may not always be the most credible. They might exaggerate or misremember – trauma can do strange things to memory. How do you factor in this discrepancy when interviewing people?
Alona Savchuk: I see what you mean. Currently, I don’t conduct investigations, which makes it easier for me to avoid those comparisons. When I interview people about their experiences living under occupation, I compare their accounts of horrible events or the number of casualties to open resources, such as the Judiciary’s register, and local contacts. These sources are becoming more open to discussing war crimes, which makes it easier to verify accounts. If I hear something dreadful that I find hard to believe, I don’t disregard it outright; I simply don’t include the extreme details in my reporting.
Iain Overton: Conflict reporting, unlike data journalism, seems more driven by gut feelings, intuition and firsthand witnessing. You sort of know if someone is being truthful because you can corroborate their story with your own observations and other accounts. Does this resonate with your approach?
Alona Savchuk: Yes, it does. Often, I can’t explain why I do certain things. It comes from experience and a high level of empathy. I can usually tell when people lie. This requires being socially skilled. While I’m more of an introvert in my personal life, in the field, I try my best to understand what’s happening through communication.
Iain Overton: Your comment about empathy is significant. It’s often argued that empathy is a crucial, yet intangible, feature of good war reporting. How did you develop your empathy and what does it mean to you?
Alona Savchuk: I don’t think I developed it intentionally, but rather my life experiences have cultivated it. From a young age, I understood various perspectives. For example, my father died from cancer when I was 16, which had a huge impact on me and influenced my understanding of loss and suffering.
Iain Overton: There’s a common understanding that journalists, especially those covering conflicts, have a heightened sense of empathy from having personally experienced forms of suffering. Do you think this personal understanding helps you relate to others’ experiences, even though they’re not exactly the same?
Alona Savchuk: We’ve seen this kind of empathy in numerous stories, like the big piece we did about women who’ve lost their husbands and children to war. There was this woman who lost her husband a few months back. She was in deep despair, and the only solace she found was sitting by the sea, staring at the water. I could understand her pain and connect with her on that level because it’s one of the few things that calm me down as well. It’s about drawing from your own experiences and finding a point of connection.
Iain Overton: I don’t want to make this overly personal, because as journalists, we often feel we’re the least important figures in the stories we’re telling. But, how has the war affected you?
Alona Savchuk: The biggest challenge for me is the lack of a safe place. I’ve worked in unsafe areas before, like Syria, Iraq, and Belarus, and even in Crimea without permission, always with the knowledge that I could return to a place of safety and relaxation. Now, there is no such place. I can’t even sleep naked because I’m constantly considering the possibility of a missile attack on my home and the last thing I would like is for fellow photojournalist is to take a picture of me without clothes. And even when I have some work abroad, I can’t relax because I constantly need to understand what’s happening in my country. All I can do is adapt and carry on, like a turtle carrying its home.
Iain Overton: One of the elements of your past reporting is understanding the mentality of the “other”, the extremists, the radicals. In the current conflict, I assume you haven’t had the chance to speak with Russian soldiers or radicals seeking to harm you, your family, your country. This, arguably, is a major shift from your past reporting, where you attempted to tell both sides of the story.
Alona Savchuk: In previous stories, I sought to understand why people did terrible things. In this conflict, I already know the answer. I’ve had offers to interview prisoners of war from the Russian side, but I declined for human rights concerns and because I don’t see the value in understanding their motives any further.
Iain Overton: Why do you think they do these things?
Alona Savchuk: They harbour a deep hatred for Ukrainians. I’ve read many features about the psyche of the Russian people. The government has oppressed and mentally and physically tortured these people to the point where they’ve become like slaves. They detest anything that seeks to live freely, like us Ukrainians.
Iain Overton: It must be scary to know there are people who wish to harm you because you represent something they despise. As a Ukrainian journalist, the fear is not only of being shot but also of being captured by Russian soldiers. Do you ever ponder the danger you’re in, similar to the Ukrainian soldiers?
Alona Savchuk: I didn’t think about it much until the horrifying events in Bucha. Now, I fear not only as a Ukrainian but also as a woman, given the amount of suffering Russian forces inflict on Ukrainian women. I’d do everything not to be captured, and I don’t believe any story is worth risking my life or health.
Iain Overton: Journalists often challenge abuses of power, and when a country is invaded, the tendency is to critique the invader, especially if you are a citizen of the invaded nation. Yet, the role of a journalist also involves being critical of all forms of power. Do you ever find yourself conflicted, wanting to comment on how the Ukrainian government is handling certain situations but hesitant because it might come across as criticism during a difficult time?
Alona Savchuk: Criticism is necessary, even within the system. The question is who do we speak to, who can we influence? Who indeed, can highlight the criticism properly? I don’t hesitate to criticize, as long as it’s structured and warranted.
Iain Overton: Your methodology, your guiding principle seems to revolve around the preservation of human rights. Apart from the lack of safety, your approach to reporting hasn’t changed, has it?
Alona Savchuk: No, it hasn’t. I had previous experiences that prepared me for this. It’s more challenging for those colleagues who’ve never encountered such a situation before. I saw all this before, just in different parts of the world and under different circumstances. I have no expectations from other countries or governments, so no regrets or disappointments. I just try to do what I can in the current situation.
Iain Overton: It’s of note, perhaps, that war and violence often bear a similar face around the world and evoke similar reactions.
Alona Savchuk: Just yesterday, I had my first free day in a month and a half. I tried to catch up with what’s happening globally. Seeing the news from Palestine, the droughts in Africa, it was all overwhelming. I used to have the resources and the time to comprehend and write about these situations. Now, I can’t cover international news, if it’s not related to the Russian invasion.
Iain Overton: Are you optimistic about the future? Where do you think this conflict is heading?
Alona Savchuk: I can’t say I’m optimistic, but we can’t back down now. It’s going to be a fight till the end. I don’t know how it will end, but regaining Crimea is essential. Even if there are discussions or negotiations, the Ukrainian people will not accept a compromise that leaves Crimea in Russian hands. The conflict cannot end until we have our borders as they were. I understand that this will be a long fight.
Iain Overton: Thank you for sharing your insights and time.