Dark Days in Ukraine: A Cameraman’s War Journal — Part One
A boots-on-the-ground report from a journalist in Kyiv, deep in the warzone. This is part one of a two-part series.
Nothing can prepare you for an active war, especially the constant threat of missile airstrikes. Even the most seasoned war reporters will tell you this much. This was my third time going into an active conflict. The first was in Sri Lanka back in 2001, then 20 years later in Armenia during the border clashes in 2021 and then this year in Ukraine.
“Now you can tell people you’ve been in an air war,” one of my Ukrainian fixers said to me whilst we took cover in a frigid hotel basement in Kyiv on the second night of the war. We began to count the missiles exploding one after another, interspersed with the occasional echoes of small arms fire ringing out in the distance.
One of the more shocking stories my senior Ukrainian fixer told me that night was that in the weeks leading up to the invasion, Russian agents operating out of Ukraine had tricked and paid Ukrainian teenagers into marking an “X” with infrared paint on designated buildings that the Russian military would then later strike.
It was now about 3 a.m., and I decided if I was to make any attempt at sleeping, I’d need to grab a blanket from one of the empty hotel rooms. I asked for permission from one of the hotel staff, who told me to be quick and not turn on any of the lights. After psyching myself up for the mission, I bolted up the stairs to the third floor. The floor was eerily dark and empty with room doors wide open, bedsheets strewn across the floor and in one room, a TV was still on, flickering with the volume turned down. To me, it looked like a scene out of The Shining, but this wasn’t a movie. This was the real world, and whoever had been in these rooms had clearly fled in a hurry during one of the many air raids.
I walked into the room with the TV still on, and it was playing BBC World News. I sat on the bed for just a moment until…BANG! Another loud explosion that didn’t seem that far from the window. I could see a red flash, the tail of the missile in the corner of my eye appearing less than two kilometers away, if I were to guess. Tempted to get closer to the window to watch, my survival instincts told me to run instead. As I left the room, heart-pumping, I skidded along the dark hallway, blanket in tow, looking for the tiny light at the end of the hallway with the exit sign to the stairs. A robotic voice in English came over the loudspeaker: “This is an emergency. There is a military attack. Go down to the basement.”
As I headed back down the stairs, other journalists, fixers and some hotel guests were still awake. Some journalists were doing live on-air reports back to their media channels’ studios.
One international worker from WHO was frantically texting his staff whom he was trying to locate, and I could see his hands were shaking. One British journalist arrived through a back entrance to the hotel basement in full body armor, shook his head and opened his backpack. He then pulled out his laptop and a paper bag with a bottle of whiskey. “Would you like a swig?”
“Why not?” I said, knowing it was probably the best one could do to calm the nerves.
After placing his laptop on a small table, we all gathered around to watch Zelenskyy give his first live address since the war had begun.
“He’s not just an actor; he’s a smart guy, and he’s got balls,” said the British journalist.
This was the beginning of my dark days in Ukraine. But let’s go back a bit.
I Traveled to Ukraine Three Weeks Before the Invasion Began
Like many other journalists and observers, I had been monitoring the Russian aggression building up in Ukraine since the end of 2021 and was mentally preparing myself to go. Certain intel reports were suggesting the war would happen straight after the Winter Olympics in China, which, for once, turned out to be true.
I sent out my usual set of pitches to clients and managed to get a few bites from a publication in the U.K. and another in Canada. Within days of arriving in Kyiv, I received an email from ABC TV in Australia asking me to work for them on an exclusive contract that consisted of mainly shooting raw video pieces of events, interviews with Ukrainians and shots of Ukrainians going about their daily lives. I agreed and dropped my other clients or offloaded them to a couple of younger journalists I was traveling with.
The first assignment we covered was an anti-Russian propaganda protest out the front of a pro-Russian TV channel in the center of Kyiv on a snowy night in early February. There were probably a hundred or more protesters chanting slogans out the front of the TV channel’s headquarters. As the main protest organizer finished speaking to the crowd, he put down his mic, and the song “Sure Shot” by Beastie Boys segued out of the sound system and signaled that the protest was winding down and had transformed into a pop-up block party. When the protest calmed down, I approached a handful of locals for interviews to gauge people’s opinions about the current situation.
“We are protesting about this channel that is Russian…we don’t want this channel to broadcast propaganda inside Ukraine,” said Masha, a young Ukrainian protester.
Masha went on to tell me that she hoped that the war would end and that her husband and friends would come home and that Ukraine would have a peaceful future with a good economy and be a part of the European Union. Toward the end of our conversation, her voice began to crack and tears started to roll down her pale cheeks. For the rest of that week, I carried out multiple interviews with other Ukrainians who all voiced similar hopes, especially when it came to talking with the younger generation.
“Her voice began to crack and tears started to roll down her pale cheeks.”
I Was Given a Backstage Pass to Ukrainian Fashion Week
The next weekend, my colleagues and I were invited to cover Ukrainian Fashion Week (UFW). UFW included all the normal fanfare of an international Fashion Week. It featured supermodels strutting the catwalks, fashion designers cheering them on, big-name artists, an endless flow of Prosecco being served and so on. This would be the last assignment in Kyiv we would cover before Russian troops invaded. The event going ahead was in and of itself an act of defiance against Russian aggression and sent a clear message to the world that Ukraine’s capital would carry on with its normal entertainment program undeterred by the warring ways of its neighbor.
“We need to get ready for the invasion. We need to work hard. We need our economy to be strong. What Putin has wanted for the last eight years is for Ukraine’s economy to collapse, for its society to collapse, and he is trying with all his power to make this country disappear from the world map,” said Vivy, who is the founder of a Ukrainian fashion start-up, among other things.
It is widely believed that Putin has always wanted to bring Ukraine back into the sphere of his influence, and he has proved that he isn’t afraid to obtain it militarily.
Now, in retrospect, and to some extent at the time, it felt somewhat surreal walking around the backstage area of UFW with models swanning about giggling and having fun posing for photos and taking selfies, given what was in store for the country soon after.
“They then ran down the stairs to the bunker bar and grabbed my backpack and ran away into the night. The whole thing happened in less than 30 seconds.”
On the final night of Ukrainian Fashion Week, I was invited to a bunker bar to film in the center of Kyiv. These bunker bars are quite common in this part of the world and were real World War II bunkers that have since been converted into bars or strip clubs.
I wandered downstairs and sat next to a British pilot, who flies private jets for VIPs, and struck up a conversation. I left my bag downstairs next to him with my camera gear inside to take a break up on the street level. He then left shortly after, and as he waved goodbye, a group of three or four men appeared, walking toward me. One opened his arms, gesturing to hug me, while another man went around behind me and snatched my wallet from my back pocket. They then ran down the stairs to the bunker bar and grabbed my backpack and ran away into the night. The whole thing happened in less than 30 seconds.
I’ve been in hostile environments before, and I’ve been injured in the field, but I’ve always been lucky to not have anything stolen. I was told by a variety of people that there was no point in reporting it, as naturally, the local authorities would have too many bigger problems on their hands. The mugging was to remain a mystery. Some people told me it was probably a Russian gang. Others said it might have been the Security Service of Ukraine in a case of mistaken identity for being a Russian spy.
Whoever they were, they had been watching me for a while to know that I had a backpack downstairs. Moreover, it was most likely that the material on my camera was what they were most interested in and the wallet theft was only to make it look like a simple robbery.
Apart from muggings, another pain point for journalists in Ukraine is the constant threat of cyberattacks. In the days leading up to the assault on Ukraine, I noticed periodically I couldn’t get a keystroke in Microsoft Word and my photo and video editing apps didn’t always function as they should. Google Maps became less accurate during the invasion, although this was likely to have been instigated by the Ukrainian authorities so as to mislead the Russian military advancing from inside the country. Other journalists I spoke to shared similar struggles, particularly with map accuracy on their devices. It isn’t just journalists who are targeted by cyberattacks; the Ukrainian government has also had to contend with this issue for some time now.
It goes without saying that many journalists in Ukraine are having an extremely difficult time. As of May 2022, at least 23 journalists have been killed in the field since the Russian invasion began. Aside from the risk of dying or being seriously injured in the field, cyberattacks, harassment and robbery are actually common occurrences and go with the territory. One of my colleagues later informed me that he and one other journalist had guns pointed at them by the police and a camera was ripped off them in a similar case of mistaken identity for being Russian agents.
What was to happen over the following weeks was a kaleidoscopic matrix of psychological warfare and impending hell.
Dark Days in Ukraine: A Cameraman’s War Journal — Part Two
A boots-on-the-ground report continues from Mariupol and Lviv. This is part two of a two-part series.
Dusting myself off from the robbery, I packed up a bag with my backup camera gear and headed to the eastern frontline city of Mariupol on the train. I initially stayed in a hotel with correspondents from the BBC, ITV, Radio France, TRT World and others. We shared stories at night of what we had been covering and waited to see if the invasion would go ahead as predicted.
Mariupol is a port city and therefore highly strategic for Putin. It was understood that this would be one of the first cities he would want to occupy. On my first day there, I shot raw video clips of ordinary street life, people getting on with their daily lives: buskers, young people ice skating, elderly folks feeding pigeons in parks and so forth. Even now, I get shivers thinking about how normal life in Mariupol felt before the invasion and how quickly the situation deteriorated.
Now Ukrainian mothers are giving birth in maternity wards under Russian bombs, and people have been massacred in what is being described as one of the worst war crimes of the last century.
Back at the hotel in Mariupol, I befriended Vika, a Ukrainian fixer and intelligence officer who would end up saving my life on at least one occasion. In the evenings, we chatted about the potential oncoming invasion, the disinformation campaign Putin was goading Russians and Ukrainians into believing, Russian double agents and the vigilance one needs to maintain in the field as either a journalist or an intelligence officer.
From talking with locals in Mariupol, it was evident that the majority of people didn’t want their territory to be occupied by the Russians. In 2014, Mariupol had taken the brunt of pro-Russian separatist attacks, and we visited a police station that was heavily bombarded by shelling and gunfire that year, and the building was still pockmarked with scars from the attack.
On my walk back to my hotel on my last night in Mariupol, I heard what I thought was the sound of shelling not far off in the distance. The next day, locals confirmed it was a missile strike, and I was advised to take a train back up to the capital immediately. My unofficial Ukrainian fixer Vika was also up there, and so I met with her for dinner at a Georgian restaurant on Wednesday the 23rd of February.
We sat down and ordered a couple of glasses of red wine and an entree of borscht soup. She looked paler and less jovial than usual. “It’s about to get real,” she said in a stern, James Bond-like voice. “It’s going down tomorrow. There is strong U.S. intelligence suggesting that the full invasion will begin tomorrow.”
Vika had told me in the past that she had some low-level U.S. intelligence clearance, so I knew she was probably right. We decided to end the evening early and return to our hotel rooms.
“I get shivers thinking about how normal life in Mariupol felt before the invasion and how quickly the situation deteriorated.”
I Was on the Ground for Putin’s Invasion
Sure enough, the next evening, the sound of air raid sirens followed by multiple missile strikes on Kyiv had begun. It would last for days. The hotel I was in at the time didn’t have a basement to shelter in, and so I spent most of the day in a subway station, filming and thinking about my next move. Everything had shut down, bar one or two cafes, pharmacies and a few minimarts that had long queues out the front. I called Vika and she said I should change hotels and take cover in a hotel basement with other journalists in the north of the city — this is where I took shelter while the Russian military bombarded Kyiv throughout the second night of the invasion with missiles.
After a rough night on the second day of the war in the hotel basement, I was awoken by another international journalist and colleague of Vika’s.
“We need to go now, right now. We need to evacuate. Quickly pack your things!”
We walked out onto the street, and a driver pulled up to the hotel entrance and scooped us up in his van. Being the tallest, I climbed into the shotgun seat and turned to look at the driver. He passed me a cat in a carrier bag and said, “That’s my cat. Hold it.”
As the car swerved through the city at speed and the cat meowed in my lap, I looked through the front windscreen to see smoke billowing out from a building on the city skyline, evidence of the missile strikes from the night before.
We arrived at the train station, along with hordes of other people all trying to escape. It looked like a scene out of the fall of Saigon. Fortunately, at this point, nobody required a ticket, and we managed to board a train later in the afternoon. The train’s lights were all turned off — I assumed so as not to be seen from above — and we rattled off to Lviv, our destination in the west of the country and closer to the Polish border.
Along the way, we heard an almighty noise that, at first, I thought was a missile but which turned out to be a low flying Ukrainian fighter jet speeding past the train window. After the initial shock, a sense of relief and feeling protected kicked in. I decided to stretch my legs and walk through the train carriages. I stopped at one carriage’s exit and stared out of the window at the sprawling countryside in front of me. I looked down at the stairs inside the train that were below me and noticed a mysterious pool of blood — that I assumed was human. I shot a few seconds of video of it and then returned to my seat, somewhat shaken by what I’d seen.
I Visited Lviv, a Western City in Ukraine
The train arrived at a packed Lviv station early the next morning, and we headed to a hotel.
The architecture and atmosphere in Lviv felt more like Vienna than a post-Soviet town.
It seemed unusually calm and normal and carried a different vibe than both Kyiv and Mariupol. However, every night for my entire one-week stay there, air raid sirens would wake us early in the morning, and we would take cover in the hotel’s basement.
“Stay away from the windows,” a hotel guest said to me after I sat at a table close to a window.
This routine of sleepless nights and early morning air raid sirens became a new normal and something that we all tried to get used to.
Vika called me to say she would arrange a driver to take me to the Polish border and to be ready early in the morning. She also asked me if I could take her passport out for her and FedEx it to her to a location outside of Ukraine. Sure enough, the driver handed me her passport and two envelopes on the car journey out to the border. It took me a while to realize what was going on, and later, I suspected that she was probably on a hit list and afraid of being captured by the Russians. I opened the envelopes, and inside was a significant amount of cash in two different currencies, which I later wired to her bank account after posting her passport back to her from Poland.
After getting stopped along the way a couple of times at military checkpoints by soldiers carrying Kalashnikov rifles, where I showed my press pass and passport, the driver eventually dropped me as close to the border as he could.
I got out of the car and walked with my luggage toward the customs booth. Along the road, there were hundreds of abandoned suitcases that had been stacked up on top of each other in a massive pile. It looked like some type of graveyard — but for luggage. I assumed that people must have been rushing to get out of the country and were no longer able to carry all their belongings.
I noticed a young man in a Ukrainian military uniform crying at the crossing whilst he said goodbye to his young partner and their child, who were also both in tears. All Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 were now banned from leaving Ukraine. The young woman and child walked ahead of me and crossed over to the Polish side. It was nothing short of a scene out of a World War II movie, only this was real and happening in the year 2022. A young, smiling Polish customs woman walked over to the Ukrainian woman and instantly put her arm around her and comforted her. The true human cost of this war had well and truly sunk in by this stage.
The Polish response to the influx of refugees (one of the largest exoduses since World War II) coming across the border was astonishing. The Poles were well organized and ready to assist their neighboring country with all the resources they had. One got a sense that the Poles, in some ways, are suffering from a kind of survivor’s guilt and are rightly concerned that they, too, may become a target of Putin’s aggression one day.
“During my time in both Ukraine and Poland, I saw the best and worst of humanity.”
I Stayed on the Ukrainian-Polish Border for Ten Days
The Ukrainian refugees were all given a free SIM card as soon as they crossed over into the refugee camp on the border, and hot food and drinks were also being handed out by volunteers from World Central Kitchen. I decided to work with Dave, a Polish documentary filmmaker and a journalist friend of mine, for the next 10 days on the border filming and doing interviews with aid workers and refugees.
On our first night, we got to witness a Ukrainian woman reunited with her elderly mother after they had become separated in the chaos of the first week of the war.
“It’s mother’s birthday today. We got separated during the war, and I am waiting for her to cross through tonight,” she said to me pensively whilst we hovered around one of the fires burning in the camp to keep warm.
For the next few days and nights, Dave and I would witness many more highly emotional moments in that cold border town.
The adage that war brings out the best and worst in people is true, and I know that today. During my time in both Ukraine and Poland, I saw the best and worst of humanity. I went from covering the glamorous catwalks of Ukrainian Fashion Week to becoming a war refugee myself in the space of a few weeks. The resilience and sheer determination of the Ukrainian people’s willingness to defend their country under extraordinarily difficult circumstances is something I can’t nor will I ever forget.
All images taken by the author © Hugh Bohane.