A story of the Volnovakha.City editorial board

During the full-scale invasion, the Lviv Media Forum approved about 122 different requests from media all over the country. In a new series of materials, we decided to tell the stories of the editorial boards we managed to help since February 24. Among them is Volnovakha.City media, whose editor-in-chief is Pavlo Yeshtokin.

On the night of February 25, my wife and I woke up from a tremendous explosion. From my previous experience, I realised that I had never heard anything similar. At that time, we did not have an emergency backpack, and we discussed the evacuation plan – neither with the family nor with the editorial board. I just went outside and started packing stuff into the car.

On the same day, we left Volnovakha and went to the Zaporizhzhia region, Polohy village. A local volunteer provided us with a house where I stayed with my family. At that time, my colleagues remained in Volnovakha. The cameraman, Mykyta, continued to shoot a video showing that Volnovakha was taken. Another colleague, Nastia, was in the fighting area, hiding in the basement of a high-rise building. On the fifth day of the war, the city was bombed so hard that there was no gas, electricity, or water.

The first shelter in Polohy

Until February 24, 4 people worked in our editorial office. Now the number is the same, except for our cameraman. He has recently moved out of Volnovakha and is settling in a new place, planning to return to work. So, we hired another girl who lost her job on the TV channel after the invasion began.

In the first days of the full-scale war, we stopped maintaining websites or posting news and focused on social media. The reason was that there was no access to high-quality Internet connection and equipment.

In the first days, a man I know from Territorial Defense Forces sent me a photo showing the consequences of the Russian bombing of the central city street. Then people started asking how to evacuate. Everybody was looking for their friends. At that moment, we were engaged in searching for people, passing on information to volunteers and Territorial Defense Forces who handled the evacuation. They would come to a specific location to pick up a person, so you had to tell them which basement the person was in and what their name was. But it was not very efficient, because often no one knew exactly where their friends were.

At first, all team members had a connection, so we communicated with each other and decided what to do, what information to post, where to get it, etc. But when my colleagues stayed in the basement for several days, we decided to give all residents a command to “Evacuate!” In any way: by bike, on foot. It became clear that there would be nothing left of the city.

The editorial office after February, 24th

My colleague, Nastia, turned out to be pregnant, so the military took her to a nearby village, from where she moved on in an evacuation vehicle. They were shot at on the way and even had a punctured tire, but they made it alive. Luckily, she evacuated before a missile hit her apartment and destroyed our editorial camera.

The operator Mykyta was with his family at the other end of the city, near the railway hospital. He lived in a bomb shelter but missed the evacuation. So Mykyta was under occupation for a long time, where he was interrogated, his equipment was taken, and he was 830th in line for filtering. About two months later, he was able to get an exit document and left the city with his mother and his girlfriend. Our editorial board began to work as usual about the tenth day after the beginning of the invasion. In my opinion, even with greater intensity. We get more views on the site, create more materials, and have more unique readers subscribed to us. At first, I gave a lot of interviews: I talked about Volnovakha, our editorial board, etc. Then we were approached by the regional media construction agency ABO, which covered our salary costs, so we had to settle in new places. I came to Zhovti Vody, and Nastia stayed in her village. During all this time, we tried to get Mykyta out of Volnovakha: we collected money for him and looked for information. But at the same time, everyone was working.

More and more people began to send us photos and videos from Volnovakha. Some people left the city after the beginning of the occupation, and called and told us about themselves and what they had experienced when they reached safer areas with a stable connection. This is how the first interviews appeared.

At first, our relations were established with Volnovakha entrepreneurs because we positioned ourselves as a service for them before the full-scale invasion. When the editorial team left the city, our chat with entrepreneurs became the principal platform for communication. We started to write about them: their thoughts, business strategies, how to live and what to do next.

We also reviewed the reports of Russian journalists who came to Volnovakha to shoot their materials and compared how everything was before February 24 and how it looked now. We started keeping a list of the dead residents of Volnovakha and investigated who is currently in charge of the city (four mayors have already changed there).

The editor’s-in-chief grandmother

Currently, the site mainly works for those who have left the city. We publish various opportunities and tell them whom and where to turn for help. Our work is also of use to the people who remain there. Thanks to it, they understand the current situation, how close the front line is to them, etc. By the way, the occupiers have already opened their schools in the city and started holding various events for a beautiful propaganda picture.

I think people’s attitude towards the occupier has changed because they imagined things differently. They probably expected something like it was in Donetsk in 2014. Entrepreneurs would remain, shops would be open, the majority would support them, and no one would argue. In fact, in 2014, way more people supported the Russian vector. A lot has changed in 8 years: the attitude to the Ukrainian government, the Armed Forces, media resources, human rights, and freedoms.

I don’t remember how we contacted Lviv Media Forum. We were terrified and didn’t know what to do. We started knocking on all the doors: those we knew, those we didn’t, those who just happened on the way. We asked for either equipment or funding. After we got in touch with the LMF team, they immediately asked what we needed. It was a laptop, a camera lens, which the team had already managed to purchase with the help of other donors, and a tripod.

Houses damaged by shelling in Volnovakha

Two days after, we got the Lviv Media Forum letter stating that the application was approved and that they would send everything to us. I didn’t even have time to process it. Everything happened so quickly.

The Lviv Media Forum provided us with a laptop and a portrait lens, which we liked and are used to working with. When I ordered equipment from the team, I quickly chose a laptop I could afford. It was simple and not that expensive, so they told me to choose one more thing, and I asked for the lens. There was also a tripod, but it was funny how the team sent us an expensive and cool one when we needed just an ordinary and small one.

I have a big plan for this equipment. When we liberate Volnovakha, I will come there and shoot a photo and video reportage. There will be much work.

The Emergency Media Support Program is implemented in cooperation with International Renaissance Foundation, Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Prague Civil Society Centre, USAID – US Agency for International Development, IMS (International Media Support), Deutsche Welle Akademie and n-ost.

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