In November, a team of Ukrainian journalists from Odessa Life — a newspaper in Ukraine’s third largest city — visited Roanoke and The Roanoke Times. They were here to learn about American newspapers, online news operations in particular.
It was a friendly affair with camaraderie, exchanges of information and many smiles. Kindly, the group left a box of Ukrainian chocolates in our newsroom. At the time, few Americans could imagine the conflagration that awaited their homeland.
By Thursday morning, when I connected with them over Zoom, the hellish reality was front and center.
The skies around Odessa, a southern Ukrainian city of 1 million that predates Christopher Columbus, have resounded with air-raid sirens since Russia’s unprovoked invasion Feb. 24.
Tatiana Siarova, 33, an editor of Odessa Life, lives in an apartment in the city’s downtown area with her husband and his mom. Right now the city resembles a makeshift fortress, she said.
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Defensive sandbags are piled high in many locations. Another common sight is metal anti-tank barriers known as “hedgehogs,” strategically placed to thwart Russian war machinery.
Ukrainian soldiers manning city-street checkpoints halt drivers and in some cases, pedestrians. Huge concrete blockades guard Odessa’s waterfront.
From the beginning, residents of Odessa have heard bombs falling on the outskirts of their city, because Russia shelled its airport early in the invasion, the journalists said. Ominously, on Thursday some 20 ships, presumably Russian Navy, were spotted near Odessa’s Black Sea coastline.
If that sounds bad, the situation is even worse in other parts of the nation of 44 million people, which has roughly the land area of Texas.
Russian artillery has pounded the city of Kharkiv — in northern Ukraine, near the Russian border — destroying or damaging 600 civilian-occupied buildings, they said.
In Mariupol, roughly 400 miles east of Odessa, the Russians have bombed a university, a children’s hospital and, on Wednesday, a large theater where more than a thousand people had taken shelter in its basement.
One rare bit of hopeful news Thursday morning was that survivors began crawling out of the shelter below the theater’s rubble. But news reports Friday afternoon suggested most of 1,300 people who’d been in it were still unaccounted for.
“From the first day, we could hear the echoes of the war. We’re not under direct shelling like other parts of Ukraine, but Odessa is by the sea,” Siarova said. Everyone is aware of “the rule of two walls,” she added. Basically, that means you stay away from windows and always try to keep at least two walls between yourself and the outside.
On the invasion’s first day, Odessa Life’s owner and editor in chief, Gennadii Chabanov, called a meeting of his 40-some employees via Zoom. He told them the newspaper was shutting down.
One problem was their paper supply. His normal suppliers in Russia and Belarus are no longer viable. Another was his printing plant in Kyiv, rendered untenable with Russian forces gradually surrounding the capital.
The main concern, however, was his employees’ safety. “Please take care of your security first, your life is of primary importance,” Chabanov told them.
“But the same day, some of them got back to me and said, ‘You know, instead of sitting and doing nothing and being afraid, let’s do something. Let’s cover the events, let’s go out on the streets and provide the coverage.’”
With its dwindling stock of paper, Odessa Life managed to publish two special editions after the invasion. Those were delivered to supermarkets and other population centers and distributed at no charge. One was a specialty publication for low-income seniors and contained survival tips under the quickly changing circumstances.
“We compiled questions and answers for people who don’t have internet, who don’t know how to use the internet and cannot watch the information online,” Chabanov said.
“These special editions give answers about how to behave when you hear rockets flying or where you should go if you need help with a social issue, and advice for people during wartime.”
(Because I don’t speak Ukrainian, and only one of the journalists interviewed speaks English, much of the interview was facilitated and translated by other bilingual Ukrainian journalists.)
Chabanov, 54, paid his employees from reserve funds, but those were gone by the end of February. Since then, roughly 15 editors and reporters have been working as volunteers. And you could see the result on the newspaper’s website Friday afternoon.
I used Google Translate to check out a few of its headlines.
One informed Odessans of the latest recommended land-sea evacuation route to Romania. Another told readers where to find buckwheat, a grain staple, and how much to expect to pay. A third carried a government warning that war profiteers would be prosecuted.
In another, Ukrainian armed forces celebrated the shooting down of a Russian cruise missile over in the Odessa region. And a man near Odessa was arrested by Ukrianian authorities for passing information to “the Russian occupiers.”
There were also posts about healthy eating in wartime, and the condition of animals in Odessa’s zoo.
“We continue to update online now, with the website and across all social media,” Chabanov said. He was speaking from Lviv in western Ukraine, near the border with Poland. He’s trying to arrange alternative printing there. On Friday morning, the city was hit by Russian missiles.
“It’s hard to find people — official sources — for what’s going on and we’re trying to be as active as possible, given the situation,” he said.
Millions of Ukrainians have fled to other countries. But many more millions are left, and they’re giving the Russians a hell of a fight. Friday the Ukrainians mounted a successful counteroffensive near the capital, Kyiv.
“The Russians have failed to get deeper into the country,” Chabanov said. “Their routes have been stopped in all directions where they were entering, from the north, south and east.”
Besides self-survival and informing the public under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, the journalists of Odessa Life have other important considerations — such as their families.
Siarova’s husband is from Donestk, one of the regions in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian separatist forces have been fighting since 2014. At that time, he fled to Odessa with his mother. The couple was trying to start a family, but have put those plans on indefinite hold.
Siarova’s brother and his family have evacuated to neighboring Moldova.
Valentyna Chabanova-Babak, 31, the newspaper’s online products manager, moved herself and her son, Lev, 5, to Poland on Monday. They’re staying with a friend of hers, a woman who has two children of her own. She’s trying to get Lev enrolled in a Warsaw kindergarten, but there’s a lot of red tape, she said.
Her husband remains in Ukraine, where he works in IT. Thursday he was in Lviv (the western Ukraine city, near Poland’s border, struck by Russian missiles Friday) working and volunteering in the war effort, too.
Lev hasn’t yet heard the distant rumble of exploding bombs like his parents did, because those came at night and he was asleep, she said.
But “he knows that there’s a war, and he’s very upset because we needed to go to Poland, without my husband, without his father…” At that point her voice trailed off and she was overcome with emotion.
One of the interpreters on the call was Olena Vlasova, who’s also presently in Poland, too. She’s with her 5-year-old daughter, Marta. Before the war, they lived in Kiev.
“Of course, she wants to go back home,” Vlasova said. “She’s asking why the world is not helping us fight? She’s also asking, why is it only Ukraine, and everyone else is afraid of Russia?”
“Ukraine is on the border of other European countries — who will be next,” Vlasova said.
Odessa Life has started a Patreon account for people who wish to contribute to their wartime publishing efforts. Here’s that link: https://www.patreon.com/odessalife