On October 24, 2023, Chernihiv's Novozavodsky District Court of Chernihiv examined the interview that Russian pilot Alexander Krasnoiartsev gave on March 24, 2022 to Ukrainian blogger Volodymyr Zolkin.
On October 24, 2023, Chernihiv's Novozavodsky District Court of Chernihiv examined the interview that Russian pilot Alexander Krasnoiartsev gave on March 24, 2022 to Ukrainian blogger Volodymyr Zolkin. © Iryna Domashchenko

“Reporting War Crimes Trials Was Not My Plan. Then Russia Invaded.”

How a journalist from Kherson dedicated herself to the arduous but essential task of covering court cases.

Tuesday, 16 January, 2024

I never dreamed I would end up reporting on war crimes trials. When I graduated in journalism from Kherson State University in 2009, my plans were to cover social issues.

People’s daily struggles were what mattered to me: housing, low wages, lack of transport, poor standards of living. Just like life though, journalism is unpredictable. 

After Russia launched its full-scale war against my country and my people, I found myself immersed in the world of tribunals - poring over tomes of jurisprudence, studying criminal and international humanitarian law, attending court hearings on murder, torture, rape and abduction, and interviewing Russian prisoners of war. All amidst the background sound of air sirens and shelling. Just like now: I am writing these words as I shelter in the corridor of my flat in Kyiv, as rockets rain over us.

I entered a courtroom for the first time in 2018 . Russia had occupied Crimea four years earlier and Kherson, a mere 100 kilometres from the boundary line, dealt with cases related to the occupation. I started attending hearings, mostly at the pre-trial stage, for example on preventive measures for those detained at the administrative border. These were mainly individuals suspected of state treason and encroachment on the territorial integrity and inviolability of Ukraine, like Crimean lawmakers, officials and members of illegal armed Crimean formations. 

I soon realised that courtrooms are a world apart: few people are aware of the critical issues debated and decided behind those doors. I understood then how important it is to report on legal proceedings - and how difficult it is. Language is one of the main challenges: legal terms are very specific and reporting on the processes in simple language is a skill that must be learned and requires time.

Until then, I had worked for local television stations, newspapers and online outlets, before setting up my own publication, which I ran with my husband, also a journalist. Between 2015 and 2017 our Samvydav website - a Ukrainian term that refers to uncensored, underground material. We covered all aspects of life in the Kherson region without censorship or political influence. My work then led me to deal with Crimea, working with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and its Crimea.Realities TV project. We filmed hours of valuable and exclusive footage about life along the administrative border with Crimea, the situation at checkpoints and the North Crimean Canal and the struggle of displaced persons. 

All this was challenging but rewarding work, and I felt I was contributing to keep people informed.

Then Russian tanks started rolling into my home region. 

On the morning of February 24, 2022, Russian forces broke through the checkpoint with Crimea and my husband and I realised that tanks could soon reach Kherson, just over 100 kilometres away. We did not want to live under occupation. We hastily packed three small backpacks with documents and clothing for my five-year-old daughter. We caught the last train departing from the railway station. If we had arrived a minute later, I don't know what our fate would have been. 

The next day, we found ourselves in Lviv, nearly 1,000 kilometres away from home, and in a country in a state of war. 

It was a step into the unknown, but I continued working as a journalist covering developments in the south of the country.  I was under huge stress, with no idea what was happening to my loved ones under occupation. Until Kherson was liberated on November 11, 2022 I had no communication with my family and friends. I resisted the urge to call those who were in hiding, for fear of putting them at risk, and I did not reach out to my contacts as I did not know who had betrayed my country and defected to the Russians. Indeed, I found out later that one of my first editors in Kherson was notified in absentia of suspicion for collaborationism with the Russians during the occupation.

In June 2022 we moved to Kyiv and I began reporting for the Ukrainian site Court Reporter. It felt like a moral obligation. The horror of Bucha and Irpin had surfaced: torture, rape, looting and kidnapping had become part of Ukraine’s daily discourse. I wanted to let the world know. 

The war has drained us all, stretching the capacity of every individual and institution. The judicial system is no exception: the workload is colossal. Every day I navigate a bureaucratic maze, witness first hand the shortcomings of our criminal legislation and see how overburdened judges, lawyers and investigators are. Nonetheless, the system is functioning and verdicts are being delivered. The demand for justice is massive and it is critical for the victims to be heard, to know that they are not alone. This means that every verdict, including those in absentia, is an achievement. 

One of the cases I have been following for months is against Andriy Medvedev, a Russian prisoner of war accused of cruel treatment of civilians. At each hearing I met Tetiana, a resident of Irpin. She is not a victim in the case, just a concerned citizen who attends court hearings on war crimes in her town and wants to know that justice is in progress. 

I have come a long way from my first trial. When I started working as a court reporter, I was bewildered, I felt I could not do it - at the end of the day I am not a lawyer, I am just a journalist. But then I thought “exactly, I am a journalist”. I know how to look for information, interview people and track down details. I can ask the very questions that those without a legal background want answered. 

My skills have developed since then, and I have learned so much.

Covering cases of child rape and communicating with the families of those who have been killed or gone missing is emotionally hard. It is also hard to balance the importance of reporting with the fundamental respect of victims’ rights; you cannot retraumatise them with your questions. People have lost their loved ones, or suffered torture, or are still grieving. Testifying in court is for many a coping mechanism but they are still fragile, and we reporters need to handle this with care. 

Often, after writing a piece or attending a court hearing I feel the need to take a shower and wash that information off myself. But the knowledge does not leave you, it stays with you, in your brain and on your skin. 

Legal reporting is arduous. It requires knowledge and dedication and keeping track of cases is akin to a marathon, rather than a sprint. It also needs time, a rare commodity in war torn Ukraine. There are few journalists with the training to deliver it. 

The trials of the war crimes committed in Ukraine will last decades and become part  of history. For me, covering them comes with a sense of duty towards my country.

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