Maryan Kushnir is a journalist for the Ukrainian service of RFERL. He has been covering the Russo-Ukrainian war since 2015. He speaks here about his fears concerning the war, the peculiarities of work on the battlefield, and his journalistic good fortune.
First days of the war - thoughts, experiences, actions
February 23. “Everything will be fine.”
February 24. “Nothing will be fine. I was fucking wrong.”
Maryan Kushnir was convinced that Russia would not launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He tried to think in terms of military logic: the Russians had not prepared any of the field hospitals or blood banks which would be essential for supporting the army: that meant that they could not launch anything but a small attack, which the Armed Forces of Ukraine could surely hold back.
Thus, when a colleague knocked on the door of his hotel room in Bakhmut on February 24 and said, “Get up, it’s war,” Maryan thought it was a journalistic prank. But later, the RFERL editor confirmed the news.
Although his bosses suggested evacuating him, Maryan went to Maryinka in the Donetsk region in anticipation of the tanks breaking through. But it was still calm there. Besides, his driver was not ready to work in the intense fighting, so he took Maryan to Kharkiv, where the latter joined the photographer Max Levin in his car. For the next two weeks, both worked together.
We went to the ring road around the city to shoot the wrecks of military equipment and spent two days there,” says Maryan. “Shells, projectiles – everything hit the place in a row. The military were preparing for the defense, civilians were driving back and forth, cluster bombs were falling all around. Our pictures from there were picked up by the media. Next, we went to the Kyiv suburbs because the theater of war seemed to have moved there.”
Maryan covered the defense of Bucha, Hostomel, Irpin, Borodianka, the liberation of Makariv and the northern part of the Kyiv region. Afterwards, depending on how intense the fighting was, he moved to the well-known Chernihiv, Donetsk and Kharkiv regions. So he basically saw all the hotspots.
On March 9 Maryan and Max split up. Each one went his own way. By that time, they had managed to cover the evacuation of a civilian convoy from Borodianka. Both were shooting almost 24/7 and sleeping in the car, which felt exhausting. Nevertheless, Maryan wanted to work at the same pace, while Max was more inclined to slow down and take a closer look at longer stories.
A few days later, Maryan realized that Max had not yet published any photos after they had split up. He told himself that his colleague had probably gone somewhere for a story, but Maks was already considered missing. His body was found soon afterwards.
“I was discussing it with my fellow journalists when someone said: ‘We knew that not all of us were going to return from the war’,” Maryan recalls. “It was a very powerful phrase. And many more of us could still get killed.”
On March 11, Maryan was wounded.
The day before, he got a call from the servicemen of the 8th mountain assault battalion who had asked him to join their assault on Rudnytske in the Kyiv region. Maryan had already been covering the work of this battalion for a long time, so he agreed without hesitation. Early in the morning, the unit went into attack. Two of its servicemen had been killed in the meantime, and several more soldiers ended up wounded. The commander considered these losses too large, and the battalion withdrew.
Maryan decided to spend the night with the military at their base, fearful of the possible artillery attack. He knew what to do in such a case, but he could never have thought that the infantry would be hit by an Iskander missile complex, which seemed illogical. However, an Iskander landed thirty meters away from their base and demolished a building. Maryan was wounded in his ear and received a light concussion on top of that. He was taken to the hospital and examined by the medics. Following a demand from his bosses at RFERL, Maryan went to Lviv for some rest, but a week later he came back to the Kyiv region where the fighting was continuing.
At the end of March, the Ukrainian army were liberating the northern part of the Kyiv region when suddenly Maryan felt his efforts were worth something. It happened when, together with his colleague, they were taking a solitary old man out of a village which was being shelled by the Russians.
“That man wanted to stay in his own house,” Maryan relates. “He did not realize that almost nothing was left of the house itself, and he had to leave the empty courtyard. It was the house of his youth. We were filming and trying to convince him at the same time. The artillery shells were falling in front and behind his home. We had no more than fifteen minutes to stay there because it was way too risky. He could not walk by himself, so in the end, we took him out in a wheelbarrow. He went to Malyn where the locals promised to take him to a shelter in the Zhytomyr region. That man could only save the most precious thing out of his home – a photograph from the times of his youth. This was when I felt that I was not only doing journalism. My persistence in delving into the situation had helped to save at least one life.”
Maryan admits that he felt frightened every day, especially at the beginning of the warfare.
“I realized that I could have witnessed my friends being killed or see the dead body of a child,” he explains. “But then I accepted such a possibility. The worst had already happened because nothing could be worse than the war as such.”
Maryan calls himself a civilian journalist who covers the war. It was 2015 when he went to the frontline for the first time, namely to the town of Schastia. Since then, he has become one of the very few reporters who paid attention to the theme of war even during the periods of nominal lull. As for his perception, that war was very different even in its hottest phases, whereas today the situation is changing hourly, and the artillery shelling and aircraft bombardments never end.
Maryan can easily use military terms and the names of the weaponry, which his own experience has taught him how to distinguish by their sounds.
During such a war, where one of the frontline armies has to fight back, it’s obvious that there is a risk of journalists getting hurt. Thus, only experience can help you, or suggest the need to take a break. Maryan heard his first alarm bell after a month and a half of continuous work when all of a sudden, he stopped paying attention to the shelling. He just sat in the car, smoking and pondering whether he should go and film something else. As soon as your basic survival reflexes begin to unravel, you’d better get some rest.
“I think I will be frightened again when I return to the frontline,” says Maryan. “In another case I’d probably have to go to a psychiatrist. Fear is inevitable when you are surrounded with firing and bloodshed, but it must be controlled so that you can take cover in time and stay alive instead of ending up in the wrong place. It’s local fear. Global fear, by contrast, makes no sense: it’s too late to worry about war, for instance.”
From the very first days, Maryan did not hesitate for a minute when considering whether to keep covering the war. His many years of experience in this field simply left him no other choice. On the other hand, he is convinced that inexperienced journalists should not push themselves to the frontline if they cannot deal with their fear. There are many other ways to reveal the nature of the war. As for Maryan himself, he has gained a wealth of knowledge and an extensive base of contacts, which in the current situation constitute his most valuable resource.
“I specialize in the armed forces,” Maryan explains. “The military are familiar with my modus operandi; they trust me and admit me to their positions. I can show how they apply different kinds of weaponry, so that the outside world can see them not as a crowd of random people, but as a professional army which is waging a defensive, not an offensive war. They ask me to join their assaults because they have already seen my work. They know that I do not distort information or produce propaganda: I show things the way they really are.”
Maryan has learnt how to work in such a way as to avoid interfering with the fighting. He can distinguish commands and responses, calculate the positions of the military, see the places to take cover and continue shooting so that he does not get wounded and become a burden for the unit. Also, he trusts his intuition, which often tells him whether he can keep working or should rather refrain from shooting.
Along with this, Maryan witnesses the work of the foreign media. Their way of filming often discloses the positions of the Ukrainian military. They livestream bombardments and shelling, as happened for example when Hostomel was being attacked, which could allow the Russians to adjust their targeting more precisely. The foreigners rarely follow the principle of doing no harm, which is a substantial issue for the Ukrainian media. It is sufficient for them to simply have a picture, regardless of whether it reveals the essence of the event and the people involved in it.
They also come to the frontline in several armored cars, in teams of six or seven people who demand that the Ukrainian military show them everything right away, which irritates Maryan a great deal too.
Maryan has named his own diesel frontline car Leska. He bought it after he was injured. Leska is not very new, but she’s quick and cheap. Movement means life during wartime; thus, agility is the most important characteristic for any car. Leska looks like a civilian vehicle, but is marked with the label ‘PRESS’. It has already become a familiar sight at the checkpoints, where the military, who usually see no one but other armed men on the road, wave at this car.
Maryan chose the name because the first car to take him and his colleague to their first frontline trip was also called Leska. Later, he constantly came across this name in every journey he took to the Donbas, when it was either found written on a Coca-Cola bottle or some locals called their cat by this name. Besides, it’s also the name of Maryan’s grandmother. For this reason, he considers it lucky for himself. It’s a kind of military superstition.
“It’s my good journalistic fortune, which some of my colleagues haven’t had,” Maryan says. “Our obligation is not just to shoot but also to come back alive. So far, I have been lucky enough to avoid death or captivity.”
Maryan is not only lucky, but wise enough to see the real standard of the Ukrainian army. He has witnessed its transition to the contract form of service, beginning to develop according to the requirements of NATO. At that point only the motivated soldiers, who were eager to learn, remained in the military. Younger people, who no longer think in bureaucratic categories, came to master new kinds of weaponry, alter the course of a battle by using messengers, operate drones and the newest communication systems, and create small independent units on pickup trucks or motorcycles to carry out orders in the most effective way and protect their groups. The only question was whether this army would be able to hold the Russian troops back due to their lack of ammunition. Still, in the end, they have succeeded.
Maryan’s only dilemma in his work on the battlefield is whether to become friends with the military, because this kind of friendship can easily end with a funeral. However, he finds that he can’t do anything else.
“Besides, the death of war correspondents can also be just a matter of time at this stage,” Maryan goes on. “As for me, I’m interested in becoming the journalist who will be the first to announce victory.”
For him, victory will be symbolized if he can shoot a photograph of Feodosia, a town in Crimea currently annexed by Russia, from the sea when it has been liberated.