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I'm a Ukrainian journalist. I never expected to be a war reporter in my own country

In March 2023, journalist Polina Lytvynova stands in a doorway of a destroyed building in Saltivka, a neighborhood of Kharkiv, Ukraine, that was severely damaged in the early stages of the war in 2022.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
In March 2023, journalist Polina Lytvynova stands in a doorway of a destroyed building in Saltivka, a neighborhood of Kharkiv, Ukraine, that was severely damaged in the early stages of the war in 2022.

KYIV, Ukraine — I've never dreamed of covering any war. And I never could imagine that the first war I would cover would be in my own country. And this war has now become not only my job but also my life.

I've been a journalist in Ukraine for eight years. Until 2022, I covered a wide range of topics — everything from the 2017 Eurovision Song Сontest in Kyiv to corruption scandals among Ukraine's top officials. I met soccer fans from all over the world coming to the UEFA Champions League final in 2018, when Ukraine for the first time hosted it. I checked whether businesses complied with quarantine restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and I exposed stores that illegally sold alcohol to minors.

My last prewar story was about the flower business. I worked on a piece about the tricks that flower sellers use before the holidays to increase sales. I was glad because I found an exclusive — the store where Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, used to order flowers for his wife. We planned to run this story on the eve of March 8, International Women's Day, when many Ukrainian men present women with flowers. I gave it to my editor on the evening of Feb. 23. The next day, Russia began its full-scale invasion. This story never came out.

I have always felt that a journalist should be with the country, experience happy moments and tragedies with it, and talk about people and events that affect its future and move it forward. Until 2022, I believed there were enough great war correspondents already in Ukraine. I was more interested in covering not the hostilities but the processes inside the country, the development of democracy and the path toward European integration.

A high-rise building in Kharkiv's Saltivka district, once home to at least 400,000 people, is damaged from shelling during Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A high-rise building in Kharkiv's Saltivka district, once home to at least 400,000 people, is damaged from shelling during Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

As a journalist, I traveled all over Ukraine, except to the front lines in areas Russian forces had taken over in Crimea and parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Being away from home was my usual lifestyle. But "home" had a different meaning for me then.

I live in a cozy neighborhood in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, not far from the city center. It has always been a busy area. But a few weeks before Feb. 24, 2022, it was empty. Foreigners were leaving, and I could see the pity in their eyes. It felt like they were saying goodbye forever.

The Kremlin boasted that its "special military operation" would be quick. But Ukrainians resisted, and in mid-March 2022, Russian troops failed to capture the capital and much of the rest of the country.

Now the entire country remains a target of Russian attacks. Back in 2014, when Russia took over Crimea and parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the violence was localized.

After the full-scale invasion, foreign aid workers, volunteers and journalists arrived. I tried to explain the complicated Russian-Ukrainian relationship which ended in this war. There was a basic lack of understanding about Ukraine. I remember a conversation with a young American volunteer who had never been to Eastern Europe. During his first air raid alarm, he went to shelter at the underground metro station and told me he was shocked by "how many people in Ukraine have laptops and use them in everyday life." Others were surprised that Ukrainians watched Netflix and knew Western celebrities.

Ukraine's domestic problems also became issues in wartime. For years all people knew about Ukraine was that it was a corrupt post-Soviet country with a developing democracy. And while Ukraine still has serious problems with corruption, Ukrainians demand transparency more than ever now. They are intolerant of graft in any form.

Demonstrators hold a Ukrainian flag during a protest a day after the resignation of Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi at Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 9.
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP
/
AP
Demonstrators hold a Ukrainian flag during a protest a day after the resignation of Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi at Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 9.

For example, under public pressure, the president and parliament restored open access to a register in which it is possible to see how much officials earned in the past year and compare their monetary savings and property holdings with their official salaries. This register was closed when the full-scale invasion began. Now Ukrainians can even check the president.

We have become the strictest watchdogs of our own democracy, even during martial law, which war requires and which, by design, significantly restricts civil rights. Just recently, it became known that Ukraine's special service illegally wiretapped and monitored journalists investigating corruption. Society reacted instantly, blaming authorities for putting pressure on the freedom of the press. When President Zelenskyy fired the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, beloved by many, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, hundreds of people took to the streets to protest.

Even though martial law doesn't allow rallies, relatives of Ukrainian military service members regularly stage pickets, demanding that the authorities define clear terms of service for soldiers who were conscripted or report on progress of negotiations regarding the return to Ukraine of fighters who are in Russian captivity.

Ukrainians do this even though war has changed our perception of time. Everything has happened so quickly, and yet I feel like my life froze on Feb. 23, 2022, the day before Russia's invasion.

I plan ahead only a few weeks at a time. I don't know what will happen to me, or where I will be next year, or even next month. That is why my partner and I do not have children. The fact that we cannot guarantee them a safe childhood together with mom and dad has postponed having a family until after victory.

However, even living in constant danger, people get used to it. They don't think all the time that something bad might happen. But I often remember how fragile human life is. When we're reporting, sometimes I look up contacts and realize I can't call them because they are dead — killed on the front line or in a missile attack. I can't bear to go through my contact list and count how many people will never pick up the phone again.

My cozy neighborhood has changed as well. A luxury apartment complex was built less than a mile from my residential building a few years ago. There are spacious apartments with large windows overlooking a beautiful yard, a huge parking lot, a coffee shop, a grocery store and everything necessary for a comfortable life. I always dreamed of living there. But I could not afford to buy an apartment there.

This complex was directly hit by a Russian missile twice. Also it was damaged by debris twice. Several residents were killed and wounded in these attacks. Now, when I pass this building every day on my way to work, I think about the fact that my dream of living there has never come true, and maybe it saved my life.

Lytvynova stands in Krasnopillya, a town in Ukraine's Sumy region near the Russian border, while reporting in February.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Lytvynova stands in Krasnopillya, a town in Ukraine's Sumy region near the Russian border, while reporting in February.

I still can't believe that some of the usual things will no longer be normal. My boyfriend works for one of the Ukrainian TV channels. Before the full-scale invasion, we often met at various news events covering them. Last year we met in Uman, at the site of a rocket attack that killed 23 people. When NPR's reporting team got there, my boyfriend and his crew were already filming. Trying to help me, he told me where the rescuers put the bodies of the dead and where they were continuing their search, hoping to find survivors. It was so normal to meet him at work. And it was so NOT normal to witness great grief, death and tears with him.

I was born after 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart and Ukraine became independent. That's why independence seemed to me something that you get ultimately just because you were born in a sovereign country. Unfortunately, we had to learn that freedom is not a gift. And its price is the highest and the most painful.

As before this war, I still travel a lot all over Ukraine. But if in the past when I left Kyiv, I had a feeling I was leaving my home, now I feel my home is everywhere in Ukraine. Ukrainians realize that they are in one boat, and only together they will be able to overcome the storm, called the war.


Polina Lytvynova, who became a Ukraine field producer for NPR in 2022, has been reporting in her country since 2015.

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Polina Lytvynova