The Russian woman was just looking for a table to have her breakfast. So, when she approached a woman who had an open seat, she didn’t know she was asking to sit next to a Ukrainian journalist, one of a group of journalists in Warsaw, Poland, who were preparing to travel to the U.S. on a weeklong trip intended to keep the atrocities in Ukraine top of mind.
Alla Skoryk, a lead anchor at a Ukrainian media outlet near the Belarus border, took full advantage of an early opportunity to do just that.
“I decided to show her some video because I wanted to show her the truth,” Skoryk said. “She was eating. And I understood the information I was going to give her was not good for her breakfast. But that’s not my fault. She asked to sit there.
“And her country started the war.”
Skoryk showed her dining companion video and images, including mass graves filled with men, women and children, some with their hands tied behind their backs — others who had been so badly tortured that it was impossible to determine if they were male or female, she said.
She showed the woman other videos from the area around the city of Chernihiv, which is in a province (called Chernihiv Oblast) which borders Belarus in the northern part of Ukraine.
The images did not lead to enlightenment.
“She thought it was fake,” Skoryk said. “She said they were actors.
“She said: ‘I do not know who to believe. Our media doesn’t tell us information like that. They tell us it is all fake.’”
Skoryk was only briefly discouraged. After everything she and the 17 other journalists making the trip to the U.S. have been through, this was nothing.
They have spent months hiding from Russian troops, who have lists of journalists they are looking for when they occupy a region.
They have spent months in war-torn cities — or in new locations, when they had to flee.
They have spent months determined to give useful information to their fellow citizens while trying to show the world what is going on.
They have spent months trying to make sure their families and loved ones are safe — and it hasn’t always been a happy ending.
Skoryk said the group feels these stories must remain in the conscience of the world.
“We are in the media; we know that people’s interest can change,” Skoryk said. “We know many people in the U.S. are getting tired of the war.
“We are meeting with U.S. journalists to find ways to share information, our videos, our stories. We have to keep the story alive.”
It’s how I came to meet them at a backyard gathering in Westfield.
The U.S. and Ukraine have had a cultural exchange since 1968 through an organization called IREX, which is funded by the State Department through our embassy in Ukraine.
The group of Ukrainian journalists presented flags to the New Jersey journalists after their recent meeting. One was signed by Ukrainian fighters in both English and Ukrainian. The soldiers wrote words of thanks — and prophecies: “Victory is coming,” one wrote in English.
According to its website, IREX was created to bridge geopolitical divides by fostering the exchange of scholars, teachers, students and ideas.
In 2002, the Ukraine Media Partnership Program was developed to help the new Ukrainian media sector improve the quality of its journalism, expand its reach and build stronger business management practices.
More than 300 Ukrainian journalists have received training from 31 media organizations across the U.S. And more than 150 American journalists have traveled to Ukraine to provide mentoring and sharing of best practices.
One of those journalists was Phil Alongi, who was introduced to the group while he was executive producer of NJTV News. He is now the chief operating officer at Alongi Media.
When Alongi learned a cohort of journalists were coming to the U.S. through IREX, he worked to bring a media event to NJTV — and then a less-formal gathering at his home in Westfield, when the group was traveling from New York City to Washington, D.C.
He wanted his journalism friends on both sides of the Atlantic to meet.
“In my career, I have never seen a more inspiring show of journalism than what I witnessed in my trips to the Ukraine,” he said. “This was a group of journalists who sacrifice financial stability, and, now, even their safety, for a chance to play a part in a democracy.
“They work with equipment that is subpar to anything you would see at any news organization in the United States, but they produce a product that is as good, if not better.”
The stories they told were heart-stopping.
Skoryk said many Russian troops entered Ukraine in the opening days of the war through the Chernihiv region in the northern part of the country, where she lives and works. The Russians quickly took much of the province, but they were only able to surround — not conquer — the city. The resistance was fierce.
The group of Ukrainian journalists visiting the U.S. in an attempt to ensure the war in their homeland stays top of mind said they are confident their seemingly overmatched nation will win.
One said she realized that soon after the invasion.
“I went outside, and all I could smell was gasoline from people making (Molotov) cocktails,” the person said. “Then, we got videos of farmers fighting back. That’s when we knew.”
Without a basement in her building, Skoryk, her husband and two children (ages 3 and 11), retreated to their bathroom whenever the shelling started. They learned to keep a supply of food and water — and two pillows — there at all times.
“The children would sleep in the bathtub,” she said.
Like everyone else, the Skoryks had to make a decision: Stay or go?
As a journalist, Skoryk said the choice was both difficult and easy. Her husband and kids went, she stayed.
Skoryk, 38, works at Suspilne Ukraine, a public broadcast network. She is the editor-in-chief of the Chernihiv market. She made the decision to keep a small team (just two reporters and two cameramen) in the region.
Their first goal, she said, was just to report the most basic of news: Where could you get food, water and medicine? Where could you go to be safe from the shelling?
Her station, which uses all of the social media outlets you would suspect, found that Telegram, a messenger app that is very popular in Europe, was the best vehicle. Like Twitter (which isn’t so popular in Europe), Telegram is able to give short bits of information — perfect for those struggling to find internet access, Skoryk said.
The outlet’s account, which had only 2,000 followers on the day of the invasion, swelled to 140,000 in about a week, she said. Some followers, however, were not welcome. When Skoryk and her team realized they were helping the Russians occupiers, they made the editorial decision that they would not report the whole truth.
(This is link to their Telegram account is here.)
“We wouldn’t give specific places,” she said. “We would talk about landmarks that only people who lived there would know.”
Skoryk said she also discovered that she and her colleagues were in great danger.
The Russians came with lists of journalists, she said. Anyone suspected of being a journalist — anyone found with an equipment that would indicate the profession — was arrested and sent to prison, Skoryk said.
“They were after journalists, not politicians,” she said.
Skoryk said she eventually left the city. Later, when the area wasn’t as dangerous, she and her family were able to return.
Work, however, remains difficult. One of the biggest challenges is finding enough electricity and internet service to post their work, she said.
There is a business side to journalism.
So, when occupying Russian forces took over the Kherson City Printing House — the largest publishing house in a port city on the Black Sea — they did more than just shut down the journalism. They took away the family business of Victoria Novytska.
Her husband, Mykhailo Novytsky, owns the building and controls the multiple newspapers it produces for the region.
The Russians said they had the right to take the building — and shut down the papers and websites — when the Novytskys fled to a location in the west she did not want to disclose. (Read the story here.)
A meeting between journalists from Ukraine and New Jersey came a day after Russia responded to the bombing of the Crimean Bridge — one the Ukrainians took pride in — with indiscriminate bombing.
While the indiscriminate bombing, which continues, has caused a lot of damage, the journalists — speaking as citizens — said they did not regret their country’s attack, despite the response.
“They would have done it anyway,” one said.
They all think Russian President Vladimir Putin eventually will use nuclear weapons, too.
“He’s like a child with a toy; eventually, he will use it,” one said.
Novytska, of course, sees it a different way.
“After the invasion, they gave us an invitation,” she said. “They said, ‘Come back and we will work together.’ We chose freedom. We said, ‘No.’
“So, they said, ‘OK, it’s ours.’”
The good news: The Russians have not destroyed the building or the presses. So far.
“They didn’t destroy, they just stole,” Novytska said. “Now, they are using it to print lies.”
Novytska said the staff is doing the best it can to keep producing news from the region. About a dozen staffers remained in Kherson, which has seen heavy fighting recently, she said.
The news, she said, is sent to editors elsewhere who work on a new website. She said staffers are paid mostly from donations from Europe and the U.S.
Novytska, 36, said she is hopeful to return to the region and reclaim the building and the presses. She knows there’s a possibility that may never be the case, but she vows to keep going.
“This is my life,” she said.
A life that changed in an instant when Russia invaded Feb. 24.
It started a new calendar for Novytska — one she counts off.
“This is Day 230,” she said.
The evening was unlike any other I’ve spent in my decades as a journalist.
The respect and admiration I have for those in this profession who have kept going in the face of unspeakable atrocities cannot be fully described.
On this night, miles away from their homeland, and with their emotions possibly soothed by beer and wine, the mood was surprisingly upbeat.
“We were numb for the first few months; now, it is a way of life,” Novytska said.
The patriotism they feel was evident, too.
“I have never been more proud of my country,” Novytska said.
The war, they say, is about more than Ukraine. It is about world peace and setting an example. That’s why they are determined to fight on, show that spirit to everyone.
Skoryk put it this way.
“I understand that people in America and Europe are getting tired of the war,” she said. “And I know that people all over the world are losing money because of this war. But I want them to understand, if Ukrainians stop fighting this war, it will continue. We will have a lot of conflicts all over the world.
“This war can ruin the system of safety and peace in the world, because other countries will understand that it’s OK to invade some country and that no one will punish you or stop you.
“That’s why we want to tell our stories.”
‘We wanted to remind the world’
Svitlana Zholobaylo, the IREX representative that led the group, has seen the impact the partnership has brought to journalism in Ukraine. Best practices matter.
“It is helping us survive during the war,” she said. “It is helping us get the news out.”
Zholobaylo said the group’s meetings with media organizations such as CBS and the Wall Street Journal are just as important.
“We wanted to share stories from our media outlets — how journalists continue to broadcast while the war started, and also some personal stories,” she said. “We wanted to remind the world, American media, the war is still going on.”
And that it’s being covered by journalists who have never been in a war zone — let alone a conflict in their own country.
“Ukrainian journalists were not prepared to be war reporters,” she said. “Now, they have to put on bulletproof vests, put on a helmet and go and cover what is happening in the cities where they used to live.”
Zholobaylo said the Ukrainian journalists also are teaching the U.S. journalists.
“We have several representatives from the print media, which haven’t been able to print since February,” she said. “We showed them how they were still able to get news out. And in areas where they cannot get the internet, they even found a way to put out a printed edition so they could tell those people what was going on in the country.”
Zholobaylo said the trip was not intended as a fundraiser. But she did say that donations — many from other places in Europe — have helped IREX fund some news services.
“In April, we started a fund to help our media,” she said. “Over the course of three months, we supported 20 media members.”