What It’s Like to be a Journalist on the Frontlines in Ukraine

While documenting the destruction in her home country, reporter Oliya Scootercaster explains what many Americans aren't seeing.

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What It’s Like to be a Journalist on the Frontlines in Ukraine
Photo:Visar Kryeziu (AP)

As thousands of civilians continue to flee Ukraine amidst a violent invasion from Russia, those watching from afar are more reliant than ever on local reporters attempting to deliver minute-by-minute coverage, via platforms that often breed misinformation, distorted or inaccurate videos and donation scams.

With a new round of bombings in Kyiv this week and an increase in security measures, journalists — both foreign and domestic — are up against a lot while trying to document the damage from the frontlines. We spoke to one of those journalists, Oliya Scootercaster, a Ukrainian-born freelance video journalist, reporter and producer who owns and operates FNTV, a small business newswire service, about her experience thus far.

Scootercaster previously lived in New York City and has reported on both the enduring, evolving coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. She recently relocated to her home country in Ukraine after hearing that there were Russian threats of violence. After arriving in Kyiv at the end of January and moving south to Donbas, Scootercaster told us that she clocked people taking preventative measures throughout her journey.

She says people told her they had gathered their documents, had prepared their “to-go bag” and even discussed options of what to do should attacks begin. One group of civilians even started practicing combat training so they could help their country and protect their families.

Just weeks later, as civilians face a reality they dreaded, Scootercaster is traveling the route many people are taking to flee. Currently, she’s in Ternopil, where Pakistani students have recently been advised to travel to enable safer evacuations. While news wire services are doing their best to widely cover what’s happening, Scootercaster says she’s working to find the stories that are falling through the cracks and give them her own unique angle. Her latest coverage includes videos of a bustling church shelter, one of many in the western Ukraine city who are providing shelter and donations to refugees, and parents attempting to flee with their young children.

“From what I’ve gathered, a lot of people are heading to Poland, but I’ve also heard that many are staying in Ukraine and just moving to cities further away, places they say are quiet and safe,” she explained, adding that most people fleeing are families, with many traveling in groups like two families together with lots of children. However, she notes she hasn’t seen a lot of elderly people traveling at all, telling her they’re not looking to leave their homes as the refugee process is extremely difficult and they’re prepared to “take their chances” staying put.

For those who have decided to leave their homes, Scootercaster says she’s heard that refugees have been able to go to churches or government shelters and even some civilian’s own homes.

“I’ve also heard from people in Ternopil that you can just as easily knock on people’s doors and ask for help and from what I’m told, they’re very open, kind and willing to help those who are stuck here,” she told us.

However, in the chaos, not everyone has been able to find places to go, a fact Scootercaster understands intimately: “When I first got to Ternopil, it was extremely cold and there was absolutely no place to stay. I slept in my car, which had to be turned off because of gas shortages. In the car next to me, there were also families with kids sleeping, which shows that everyone is struggling with finding a place to stay or just doesn’t know where they can go. In the lobby of a local supermarket, I saw a lot of people with their luggage just sitting there.”

After spending time in Donbas early on, Scootercaster says that even surrounding cities are slowly starting to implement the same security checkpoints and that she’s seen an “increased level of paranoia about the Russian army or somebody who is trying to cause trouble in the city.”

In some cities, as soon as she pulls out her camera, Scootercaster said she must go through extensive questioning to verify she has official accreditation. Despite this, she presses on, in part to combat the rampant conspiracy theories being disseminated about her home country.

“There is an increase in conspiracy theorists that call the war in Ukraine a distraction for their causes and assert there is no war happening — that the people you see on the news are crisis actors,” she says. “My call to those people would be to leave their hometown and try to see the world. I think it’s very easy to get wrapped up in your head and assume that the rest of the world is just like your home if you’re seeing the same thing everyday. Europe isn’t America. Ukraine isn’t America. There are different countries with different traditions, histories, and upbringings. Something that might mean one thing to you, could be something totally different here.”

There’s also, of course, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s special brand of misinformation, which has been proliferated on social media and, disturbingly, been accepted by many in the U.S. or elsewhere.

“Not everything is a conspiracy theory, and not everyone is out to trick them. It’s healthy to doubt things. It’s healthy to fact-check — and we should fact-check everything. What’s unhealthy is using false sources like a photoshopped article that’s clearly not real, and spreading rumors that something is fake — that we, here in Ukraine, are fake. It’s really upsetting to see and it makes me lose hope in humanity — and intelligence,” she says.

Scootercaster stresses that she will continue to cover the destruction being done to her home, but it’s not without distress.

“Because I’m from here, it’s hard to see people’s lives thrown upside down and the places that I grew up in possibly be destroyed — or already destroyed,” she says. “It’s also difficult to think about how these families are going to recover and how people will be able to stay alive.”

She went on to say that seeing protests across the globe, even in Russia, and people offering help, have been needful reminders: “I think in a situation like this, it’s not just physical help that’s needed. Many have said they felt alone because the invasion began, nobody physically came to help. There were sanctions, but they don’t see the result of those. Some tell me they just want to feel like the world cares.”

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