It was clear as day that Russia would attack Ukraine, but I was one of those who did not want to believe it. This thought of mine was changed by the sound of two rockets at 04.30 at night. I locked my family in the bathroom, which I thought was the safest place in the house with no windows, and continued to report on the latest developments.
I am writing this post at a military base allocated in Switzerland as a camp for Ukrainian refugees. I started my journalism career in 1998 in “Zaman Turkmenistan.” The second stop of my journalism profession was Ukraine, where I was appointed as the correspondent of “Cihan” News Agency on October 1, 2005.
I worked as the first Turkish reporter with a permanent press card in Kiev. My regular professional life suddenly changed on July 16, 2018. Journalist Yusuf Inan, who had a residence permit, was kidnapped to Turkey in a joint operation by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and Ukrainian intelligence. The next day, Ukrainian media published a list of 5 other people whom the MIT wanted to kidnap.
Since I was a Cihan News Agency employee, my name was also included in this list, which was widely covered in the media. After the coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, I was the target of the regime’s witch hunt like thousands of other people. Ukrainian authorities have never denied the published list. Since I was on the target list of MIT, I did not go out for months. In addition to social media accounts, I was called from Georgia and Russia phone lines and threatened with death. The Ukrainian Press Police examined the threats and the evidence. They stated that there was no ‘journalist protection program’ in their law, so they cannot provide physical protection.
Fear of being kidnapped and war because of MIT’s kidnapping threat, I worked from home as much as possible. But that tension took a different turn in February when Russia threatened to invade Ukraine. US and UK sources had announced long ago that Russia would attack Ukraine. They even announced the dates of the attack. One of these dates was February 16.
Before the news of the attack, many western countries such as the USA, Canada, and the UK moved their embassies to the city of Lviv, near Ukraine’s border with Poland. During these critical hours, the Russian embassy burned all official documents and evacuated its building. All sources and incoming intelligence revealed that Russia would attack Ukraine. However, this was not accepted by the public. They believed that such a war could not happen in the middle of Europe in 21st century. So, life went on for a while as normal. It was clear that Russia would attack Ukraine, but I was one of those who did not want to believe it. That’s why I never had any plans to leave the country. “Know- ing the truth and believing the truth”, I realize much better now that these are two different things.
AND THE WAR BEGAN
On February 23, when Russian tanks advanced towards the Ukrainian border, daily life continued on the streets of the capital. When I reported on the video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressing the Russian people on the night of February 24, I believed that this upcoming war could still be stopped. My thought changed with the sound of two rockets at night. The first explosion sound was heard at around 4.30 am in the capital of Ukraine, Kiev. At 4.47, I sent my friends a “war has begun” message. I closed my wife and children in the bathroom, the safest part of the house without windows, and continued to report on the latest developments
The effects of the war continued with the sounds of rockets and planes flying over the capital, Kiev, until the morning. At the crack of dawn, my acquaintances decided to leave Kiev. While my colleagues had not left their country, and journalists from all over the world were coming to Ukraine to follow the developments, I did not want to leave Ukraine as a reporter despite all the insistence.
I previously served in Bangladesh to follow the news of Rohingya Muslim refugees. I was one of the first Turkish journalists to go to the region after the Haiti earthquake. I was a journalist in conflict areas, but I did not have my family with me in any of them. Russian President Vladimir Putin had started a war. I experienced the difficulty of being a journalist while ensuring the safety of my family during the Ukraine-Russia war. I continued to follow the news for five more days by placing my family in a safe place as much as possible.
I conveyed instant developments to the page of Ukrainehaber.com (@ukraynahaber), of which I am the founder, as well as to the Telegram channel. However, it became impossible to enter news on the site due to the sounds of bombs outside and the increase of cyberattacks. On the fifth day of the war, bombs fell near our house. Thereupon, on March 1, I left the capital city of Kiev under artillery fire, taking my family and 6 other people, including 3 children, who were stranded in the war with us. I escaped from hell, leaving behind my colleagues who made news at the cost of their lives, my 16 years of experience, and my archive, which is my greatest value.
6 JOURNALISTS KILLED
When I met with the President of the Ukrainian Journalists’ Union, Serhiy Şturhetkıy, on March 17, he told me that the situation for journalists in the country got much worse, 6 journalists got killed since the beginning of the war, and there were also kidnapped ones. Although all journalism professionals and human rights organizations around the world are on alert for journalists working in Ukraine, the situation is not bright at all. Russian state media has been banned from calling the invasion of Ukraine “war”. Instead, reporters were instructed to talk about a “special military operation” to “demilitarize” Ukraine. Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova unfurled a “No war” banner on state television against Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Although this incident had a worldwide impact, it did not change the bitter truth of my journalist friend Şturhetkıy’s message, which included the situation of journalists in the 21-day war:
“Ukrainian Dilerbek Shakirov (on 26 February), Yevhen Sakun (on March 1, when the television tower was hit), Ukrainian war correspondent Viktor Dudar (on March 6), US Rent Renaut (on March 13), Irish Pierre Zakrzewski, and Ukrainian Oleksandra Kuvshinova (on March 14) were killed. On March 12, a Ukrainian journalist was kidnapped in Kherson. There are also many injured journalists. Stefan Weichert, photographer Emil Filtenborg Mikkelsen, Stuart Ramsay, cameraman Richie Mockler, Swiss journalist Guillaume Briquet, Mairan Kusnir, photojournalist Juan Arrendondo, Benjamin Hall were injured.”
JOURNALISTS WAITING TO EVACUATE
Dozens of journalists were stranded in the city of Mariupol in the southeast of Ukraine, where the conflicts were the most severe. President of the Ukrainian Journalists’ Association (NSJU) Serhiy Tomilenko stated that they tried to supply journalists with safety equipment such as helmets and ballistic vests, and our friends were stuck in the line of fire. NSJU is working 24/7 to evacuate journalists from battlefields. Although 50 journalists have been evacuated from this region so far, others’ lives are still in danger. Ukrainian civilians and media professionals in the region need morale and support more than ever. Now I had to immigrate to a different country, but I miss my friends and the society I lived with for 17 years.
My fight for media and freedom of expression in Ukraine will continue in Switzerland from now on. I hope that peace will come as soon as possible to the land of Ukraine that do not deserve this war.