Oleksandr Zahorodnyy is one of the best-known faces in the reporter team of TSN (Television News Service), the news department of leading Ukrainian media group 1+1 media. Since 2014, Oleksandr has been bringing his stories from the Donbas front in the most-watched central newscast in the country prior to the full-scale invasion of Russia.
Zahorodnyy, a seasoned military reporter, tells Georgi R. Chakarov that even he did not expect that Putin will give the order to attack Ukraine and he found himself in rather dramatic and perilous circumstances in the first days of the big war, but managed to find a “safe harbor” at the office of his work. Now, he continues to regularly report from the hottest spots in the country and believes in Victory and peaceful life afterwards as part of united Europe “because Ukraine deserves it”.
Oleksandr, the World woke up on February 24 to the news that Russia has waged a full-scale war against Ukraine but we both know that it has been going on for more than 8 years and you have been covering these events since the very start. Based on your experience as a wartime reporter, did you expect Putin to launch a full-scale attack?
To the bitter end, I believed that there would be no war. After all, it is illogical and without any clear purpose. In addition, I was convinced that putin would not be able to win it. It is impossible to defeat a united nation of millions. Therefore, the morning of February 24 was a shock to me. The events of the first days of the war took place right in front of us.
Since my family and I live in the Stoyanka area, the first propellers to bomb the Hostomel airport flew over us. They were getting into a battle line before our eyes. There were several dozen of them. I realized that these were the russian troops, seeing the Ka-52 model, and in a few minutes the first explosions were heard from Hostomel. Later, the military aircraft was put into operation, and then I recognized it is a large-scale war.
Where were you on the first night of attacks? What were your first actions?
I spent the first day with my family. I thought that the next morning everything would be over, that the russian army would shell its targets, show its strength and that would be it. However, watching the news all night long, I got a stronger feeling that there was the start of a large-scale war.
On February 25, at about 6 a.m. my wife got our children ready, as well as packed the most necessary things, which could fit in her tiny car, and left. I stayed, because here in Kyiv there is my job and the house. In addition, at that time I was also sick with COVID-19. For a few days I had bad saturation, everything was exploding there. It was clear I could not leave for anywhere. Later, the russian army tried to destroy huge warehouses to take us into a ring, tanks were put into operation. The occupiers tried in such a “Hussar way” to jump into Kyiv through the Zhytomyr highway. Certainly, they failed to do so. There were our tanks and our artillery. In short, I saw a tank battle. I even have a photo of me sitting on an enemy tank with the “V” letter.
Now, I wonder if I would do it again, risking my own life, because the tank could have been mined. In addition, there could be russian tankers inside. However, at that moment I felt that I needed to take a picture. The engine was turned off, but the electrical equipment was on. In general, there was a feeling that they ran away minutes before that. Someone else’s energy was still there.
On the third day, a neighbor called me and said that there was a cat and a dog named Dimon left in the house. So, Dimon and I lived together until the 11th day of the war. We survived several serious bombings, a shootout in the neighborhood. Then the russians bombed the gas station.
For about a week we had no light, no heating, no water. However, I tried not just to stay there doing nothing, but simultaneously to make stories with my mobile phone. I have filmed everything, and 3-4 news out of this were aired. When the russian troops set fire to the warehouses, the fire got up in the sky, and everything was covered in heavy smoke. I realized that Dimon and I would not be able to stay like this for too long. Since then, I have been living at work.
You have been on the Donbas front for 8 years. Could you describe what the war looked like during that period? How would you compare it to what happened after February 24?
In 2014, Putin was taking small steps, constantly increasing his appetite. The Head of Kremlin needs not only Donbas or Crimea. He needs the whole of Ukraine, and maybe the whole of Europe.
Being present and reporting from some of the hottest war spots, what measures do you take to protect yourself and your crew?
I was often reproached that I spent much time in Donbas without a bulletproof vest and often without a helmet. When serious shelling close to Kyiv started, it was almost the first time I wanted to have a bulletproof vest. Somehow you feel safer in it. These are the rules written in the blood and lives of innocent people.
We are also required to carry a first aid kit with us. We always look for where to hide if there is a dangerous moment when going to a place of events. However, no matter what, I’m sure that everything will be fine with me. I have a lot of plans for the future.
How do you prepare for your reports? Do you coordinate your work with the Armed Forces? Are soldiers willing to cooperate with you?
In fact, for 8 years of the war I have been repeatedly saying that it was the easiest to write news on military issues. My personal opinion is that it is much harder to make stories about classical music concerts. This can be explained by the fact that during the war I started filming by myself. The operator is not always ready to go. And it is almost impossible to screw up with filming a firing tank, as well as a fighter who shoots.
All this is easy to fix, easy to edit and to write. As a rule, plots from the front line are what you see. In addition, many fighters already know me, and are beginning to recognize me at checkpoints.
What are some of the most extreme wartime situations you have faced and covered in your reports during this time?
People died near me, I had to see many torn bodies. I will never forget what torn human bodies smell like. A few days ago, we were all on the road together and a very powerful projectile exploded close to us. Everyone captured that moment.
In addition, a soldier was wounded in front of my own eyes. At first, we were all standing in one place, and then the commander said that VOG could fly over there, so we moved a few meters away. One soldier was wounded, but I was not hit. This is a kind of luck. I try not to focus on being a military correspondent.
War is mostly a time of darkness and pain, but there is also light, hope and triumph. Based on your experience, what makes Ukrainians ever so full of hope and believing in the final victory despite all of Putin’s monstrosity?
Ukrainians love freedom. After the Revolution of Dignity, the world views have changed. At some point, people who were in the Independence Square and later in the streets of other Ukrainian cities realized that they were in power. Each of us can do something for this country, build another Ukraine, the one we want. We have changed. As the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky said: “Each of us is the President.” In addition, we are successfully defending ourselves. We are more flexible. We fight skillfully.
What would be your personal moment of triumph in this war?
I am sure of what my personal triumph will be after our victory. I really want to do reporting from Donetsk. I will be happy again when I can be stuck in the insurmountable traffic jams of the capital. It will be a great joy for me when we become part of an open and united Europe. We really deserve it. I will be sincerely happy, realizing that a peaceful sky is above my children’s heads.
I will be right back in a plane as a pilot. I will get up in the sky, have a look at the country from a bird’s eye view, inspect all the destruction that we will rebuild very quickly. After all, we want to get rid of these memories.
What does your family think about your work?
When my mother was alive, she was very worried. Soldiers at the front line often asked us not to show them, so their mothers were not worried once again. However, my mother used to always know where I was. My wife also always cares, but she understands that this is my job. She is not getting hysterical, just asking to call back upon arrival. The children are still small, so it is easier with them. In any case, I try to calm everyone down and to not tell every detail from the front line.
What will you focus on professionally and personally once the war is over?
Honestly, I have no idea. I am already quite a “worn” journalist. Definitely some changes will happen to me. Let us win first, and we will see. Nowadays, the views and comments on the reporting are giving me and others strength. I understand that people need my stories. In addition, there are cases when viewers call and thank you for your work. This cannot be anything but motivation to continue the job.
This war will make us stronger. This will be the first global victory of Ukrainians that will unite everyone. We will become more visible on the world map. We will be respected. Every Ukrainian will be the superhero who defeated the huge monster.
We are a small but a very proud and strong country. We have already “given a light” to the second army of the world. So, let’s start the fashion for Ukraine. Many will want to look at the country and its unbreakable, strong-minded people.