Three Ukrainian journalists reflect on why they stayed (or didn’t stay)

Many Ukrainians have had to make a difficult decision since 24 February: to leave their homes or stay.

More than three million Ukrainians have left the country since the Russian invasion but no fewer have remained in the hotspots such as Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Mariupol and the occupied cities like Kherson, Kakhovka, and Berdyansk.

What happens if you’re a journalist and therefore fight in the information war? Media workers are almost equated to soldiers or doctors today. For some, it is the choice of putting a press vest on and working in the field or getting themselves (sometimes with families) to safety.

We spoke with three Ukrainian journalists who have decided to either stay in their hometown, go to the safer west of the country, or flee to a neighbouring EU country.

Olena Myhashko – Stayed in Kyiv with her cat and 72-year-old father.

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Olena is the chief editor of Gwara Media. Before the war, she wrote about art, theatre, and culture in Ukraine. But one day changed everything.

On the first day of the all-out war, she wrote in the Gwara diary: “On 24 February I woke up apparently later than others — at 9 a.m.-ish. My phone had been blowing up. The first thing I saw was my mother’s message saying ‘Russia attacked Ukraine’. I panic scrolled through the news when a few minutes later I heard the sound of an explosion.”

GS News: What was the first thing on your mind when you found out about the beginning of the war?

Olena Myhashko: Actually, I don’t remember. It was a chaotic mix of miscellaneous things. The very first thought might have been: “Why am I so sleep-deprived?”. But I do remember the first thing that I did: I called my mum.

From the first day of the full-scale invasion, Kyiv was one of the hottest zones in Ukraine (for example, on the second day, the government warned people about Russian troops’ attacks in Kyiv). The Russian military bombarded Kyiv from the sky, flattening its buildings.

The new reality has forced Kyiv residents to hide in bomb shelters during air raid sirens.

GS News: Did you think of leaving Kyiv?

OM: Of course, I did. But I was also aware of my family’s situation and outlook. I decided before the war that I wouldn’t flee Ukraine without them, although I was tempted at times. I’m the only child in the family and for me fleeing the country without my mum and dad feels almost like a crime.

GS News: Why did you stay in Kyiv?

OM: Well, for various reasons. I’m in my twenties, and my father is 72 years old. Mum is a bit younger, but both parents are retired. My dad has been suffering from asthma for more than 20 years, and he also has cardiac insufficiency. On the second day of the war, I discovered that he was diagnosed with cancer.

Luckily for us, his type of cancer doesn’t threaten his life now. But he will need medical treatment and probably an operation in the medium-term.

Despite the many opportunities that I found abroad, my father refused point-blank to leave. He wants to be treated here, at home. And that’s the main reason why I am here now, on the left bank of Kyiv.

The other reason is that I want to stay with my boyfriend if possible. He isn’t allowed to leave Ukraine because he’s obliged to do military service if needed and can be drafted at any moment.

During the first days of the war, Olena changed her specialisation. She started posting news and verifying information for the Perevirka bot. From time to time, she did this from a bomb shelter.

“Here, on the more or less quiet left bank of Kyiv, I can’t really imagine what working from a hot zone like Mariupol is like,” Olena said. “For me, it’s like regular work, bar with some small changes: I sit on the floor in the corridor instead of sitting on a sofa and have the lights off.”

GS News: What do you think about the journalists who left their homes?

OM: I think that journalists, as well as other media professionals, are allowed to abandon their careers for a while and concentrate on their interests and needs. From this perspective, they can decide whether to leave or stay.

I strongly believe there are no “wrong” or “right” options here.

But I respect those who have stayed and are reporting from the hotspots, serving their civic duty.

GS News: What has the war changed in you?

OM: The circumstances made me realise that I’m no longer a free young adult without responsibilities, absolutely open to this world. I have my loved ones and family here, and I want to be with them come hell or high water.

Victoria Poverzhuk – Moved to the west of Ukraine.

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Victoria was a podcast host and a photographer. She used to write stories about creative people, but the war changed her life. She is a news reporter now.

Victoria’s hometown is no stranger to foreign aggression. She always knew that the time to leave home would come.

It started with “Did you hear that?” from Victoria’s mother on 24 February. And then Victoria's grandmother woke up and started feeling unwell. It was not the first time the war caught her. In the meantime, Victoria also received a message from her Kyiv-based aunt: “The war has begun.”

“Those were probably the most horrible words I’ve ever seen. I was standing all petrified, but at the same time, I was 100 per cent concentrated,” Victoria recalls.

She moved to the west of Ukraine. For security reasons, we can’t disclose Victoria’s whereabouts, but she is in a safe place.

GS News: Why did you decide to leave home? Was it a hard decision?

Victoria Poverzhuk: I was fighting a war within me every single day. I remember that a few years ago, I had this dilemma: “If there is a big war, what decision will I make?”

It was crystal clear that no one in my family would flee. My mother would never abandon my elderly grandmother, and the grandmother’s health wouldn’t allow her to travel that far. Eventually, my family convinced me to leave. Another important factor was that I wouldn’t be able to work properly and think clearly in my hometown.

Victoria relocated with her team. The journey took two days, but it was easy, and she endured it without complaining.

Relocating to the west is a good decision for those who don’t want to flee the country. But because of hundreds of thousands going to the west, it is confronting a huge problem: it is extremely hard to find an apartment to rent.

“We spent the first two nights after the arrival in a refugee shelter. We called hundreds of hosts but heard ‘we are booked’ or just short beeps. On the first days, we asked volunteers for some stuff and food. Our team washed in each other’s rooms, hand-washed their clothes, and borrowed kitchen utensils from each other. But all these things are minuscule. You can’t even call them a problem,” she said.

GS News: I know it's a difficult question for many reporters. In your opinion, do journalists have the moral right and option to leave their homes and evacuate?

VP: It is a difficult question for us all. On the one hand, we are the ones who can show the realities of the war and life in the shelled Ukrainian cities under the constant bombardment. On the other hand, if I can no longer be productive and fruitful here, there is no point in staying. A journalist is a living person who feels fear, confusion, and panic. And these feelings should not affect the quality of my work.

At the end of the day, wherever I am in Ukraine, I don’t have the feeling that I’m away, that I’m far from home. It feels like I’m just in another part of the city. And I saw with my own eyes how united Ukrainians are now. Even the ones who are strangers to each other have become friends.

Anastasiia Morozova – She’s abroad now.

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When the war began, Anastasiia was in Riga. She was attending a training event for journalists. On the morning of 24 February she woke up at 8 a.m. as usual and saw messages from her mother.

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“Don’t come back, there’s a war,” one such message read. And so Anastasiia was stuck in Riga. It was difficult for her to come to terms with the fact that she couldn’t return home. But she didn’t give up.

Anastasiia started helping journalists find accommodation and work.

“I realised that I was now doing more than I would in Ukraine,” she said.

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GS News: Is your family staying in Ukraine?

Anastasiia Morozova: My parents are in Ukraine, in Sumy. They decided to stay because my mother doesn’t want to leave the house empty. However, my younger sister came to Warsaw together with my grandmother. They are staying with me.

Anastasiia was a freelance journalist before the war. She used to write analytical articles about economics and politics. Unfortunately, her media outlet wasn’t able to afford freelance journalism after the war started. In the first month of the war, Ukrainian employers had lost more than $80bn. Moreover, she felt like it was not the right time for her to use her degree. Anastasiia says she was lucky to be able to quickly find a new job in Warsaw.

“It concerns cross-border investigative journalism. The topics we cover also widely publicise the war for Ukrainian independence, the topics of Russia and Belarus. For example, right now we are looking into the assets of Russian oligarchs. We are convinced that this should help impose more sanctions on the Russian elite. This way I kind of feel helpful to my country in a professional way,” Anastasiia said.

GS News: So, to stay or to go? What should Ukrainian journalists do?

AM: I think that journalists can use the option to work from abroad. But there isn’t an option not to work. I decided to work from Poland for the good of Ukraine because I know that here I can be more helpful than in Ukraine.

I know that I will have a stable internet connection and will not have to hide from the bombs. Obviously, I will not get the news firsthand and won’t be the one to break them. But there are hundreds of journalists who report the news. Whether I am one of them will not change the situation dramatically. As a matter of fact, here in Warsaw, I am able to help my colleagues who have arrived in the country with translations to find a place to stay or find a job.

I see my personal mission during this war as helping journalists do their job in good conditions. If I were in Ukraine, I would be just another journalist. When I’m abroad, I am able to arrange good life and work conditions for dozens of other journalists.

GS News: What’s the main lesson you have learned since the war started?

AM: In 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, I learnt that propaganda was a real weapon, and it was vital that Ukrainians created content that would counteract this weapon.

Unfortunately, even eight years later, we still do not have a powerful tool to fight the information attacks and, as time flies and technologies develop, the power of propaganda gets even stronger.

There are more than 30 confirmed cases of crimes committed by the Russian military against journalists in Ukraine, including international reporters. Being a journalist in Ukraine today is a dangerous and brave mission that not many of us are able to take on.

Our journalists help Ukraine in various ways: they extend their helping hand to others like Anastasiia does, work in the information field like Victoria, or fact-check information like Olena.

One thing they have in common with the rest of the media: they all work for the sake of victory.