The building in Dnipro that was destroyed after being hit by a Russian missile The building in Dnipro that was destroyed after being hit by a Russian missile 

Ukrainian journalist: The courage to speak for those no longer able to do so

Svitlana Dukhovych, with Vatican News' Ukrainian programme, gives her testimony of reporting on the war in Ukraine, on the occasion of the International Day of St Francis de Sales, organised by the French Federation of Catholic Media, the Dicastery for Communication, SIGNIS and UCSI (25-27 January 2023).

By Svitlana Dukhovych

On Sunday, 15 January, of this year, when I sat at my computer to prepare my notes for this speech, my hands refused to type on the keyboard.

Images of the previous day's tragedy began flooding my mind: on 14 January, as Ukraine celebrated Saint Basil's Day or 'Old New Year' (1 January according to the Julian calendar), a moment in which usually many people gather together, a Russian missile hit an apartment building in Dnipro, leaving dozens dead and dozens more injured... some of these were children.

The pain in my soul, on the one hand, sucked away my energy leaving me with no more strength to do or write or say. Yet, on the other, I realise that those 40-plus people can no longer speak and I find that I have to speak. 

I remembered the beginning of the war. Certainly, on the morning of 24 February, the shock was much greater than it is now: in 11 months of war, the mind learns a bit to react to such news. That day, the only thing I wanted to shout to the whole world was: "Do something!" But I understood that this appeal was mainly addressed to myself: I had to speak in the place of so many Ukrainians who could no longer speak because their lives had been interrupted by a bullet, a missile, or because they were mourning their loved ones. I had to tell their pain. I had to make those who did not know who to tell their pain speak: those who were fleeing the war, those who were helping millions to survive, or those who were praying.

For me it was not about the courage to speak (as is the title of this panel discussion), because there was no danger for me. I was not taking any risks. Rather, it was about trusting both the people I work with and our readers and listeners: if I stop talking about my pain and if I don't help my people talk about their suffering, it means that I don't trust that anyone is capable of listening and understanding this pain, of sharing it. It means that we have lost trust in the idea of building humanity, and that violence may have reached its final goal. 

For me, this is what it is all about: I speak because I have faith in humanity, because I have hope.

Encouragement also came from our leadership, which saw the mission of Vatican media - and the Dicastery for Communication as a whole - as being to stand by those who suffer, to give them a voice and to look for some light of hope even amidst the darkness. 

From the first day of the war, I began searching Ukraine for contacts of foreign language speakers to give their contacts to our colleagues at the various language desks, so that they could interview them. I interviewed some of them myself. The first among them was Father Ruslan Mykhalkhiv, Rector of the Roman Catholic seminary in Kyiv. 

"There is a sadness in us," he said in the 25 February interview, "but it is not the sadness that paralyses. People are frightened and are trying to flee by emptying their bank accounts and filling up with petrol to get on the road. At the same time, we as a Church are prepared for the emergency. Our priests stay at their posts and are ready to welcome the people who are fleeing: we also open our seminaries if needed, to provide safe accommodation."

Those first interviews showed me the way. When I studied Communication Sciences at university, I never took any course on how to communicate and do journalism in war. People like Father Ruslan taught me how to interview people who are at war and suffering. He spoke with great dignity about his pain and the pain of the people, without despair, without contempt for anyone. I learnt from him that shock and sadness must not paralyse me; I must act.

I started translating some interviews/testimonies from Ukrainian into Italian, and it was a great surprise to me that colleagues from other language desks were taking them up and translating them into their own languages. Of course, without the support of our management, which proposed to our small Ukrainian editorial team to take on another contributor, and without the support of my Ukrainian editorial team with Father Timoteo in charge, I would never have made it, because they took over the work I was doing before. We worked and continue to work, practically, without holidays. The fatigue - both physical and mental - was a challenge. But I would say it was not the greatest.

The biggest challenge was the difference in language, culture, mentality. Even before, we had discovered that some words are difficult to translate from one language to another, because the concept itself did not exist, such as, for example, the word 'caress': in Ukrainian, but also in other Slavic languages, one does not say 'to caress', but one says 'to embrace', 'to cuddle'. Another example of the linguistic difference: during the months of war we often found ourselves having to translate the phrase 'conflict in Ukraine' from Italian (or other languages). Our Italian colleagues told us that it is a synonym for war, but in the Ukrainian language the word 'конфлікт' (conflict) means 'discussion', 'quarrel', and is only rarely used to define a broader phenomenon.

With the beginning of the war we realised, more than ever, how different not only our languages and contexts are, but also our ways of thinking and communicating. We realised that the same concept of peace, which we all desire and which may have seemed so clear, is interpreted in different ways in different contexts. So it was crucial for us to confront ourselves: not only to speak, to explain to our colleagues, but also to listen to them in order to make the feelings and experience of our people living through war understandable. 

Each interview, each testimony was a lesson in life for me. I learned how to act in this time of war. I think my colleagues did, too. From some interviews, one could learn how to become more courageous. For example, a Greek Catholic priest from Mykolaiv, Father Taras Pavlius, who is also a military chaplain, told of a young soldier who, like all the others, approached him and asked for a blessing. The soldier asked for prayers for his mother, his brothers and for more courage. "When there is heavy bombing, different thoughts come to me... And of course fear comes," the young man said. "Father, pray for me to have more courage, more strength." "For me," said Father Taras, "it was a testimony of great love to God and to one's own people.

The testimony of Oleksandr, a young man from Kharkiv, made me realise that the meaning of one's existence is not only found in reflections, in books, but in actions. From the first days of the war in his city, which is 30 km from the Russian border, rockets and missiles were constantly arriving. "After a few weeks, my mind could no longer cope with this and I realised that I had to react to overcome this state. With his bike he started bringing food to elderly people in his apartment block and later created a whole network with other volunteers. "After helping people a first and second time," he told us, "I realised that in this I found myself again. I know, maybe it sounds strange but as long as I have the chance, I want to keep helping.

The story of Sr. Svitlana Matsiuk from Khmelnytskyj (central Ukraine), who went to a hospital to visit wounded soldiers and helped refugees who told her of the terrible scenes as they fled their cities, sticks in my mind. "Listening to them raises many questions about God and also about the nature of evil," she said. "Before the war I knew that evil existed, but it did not touch our lives as it does now. This is another reality in which there is also God who suffers and is crucified there... And God answered me with a question: 'Do you want to enter with me into this reality?' I don't want to run away from it, creating illusory worlds for myself, but I want to enter it, to be there to do the greatest possible good."

The honest words of this nun, who was not afraid to ask God the questions, gave me more strength. I realised that I too do not want to run away from reality, even if it is very painful, and for me this means continuing to collect these testimonies and make others listen to them. 

The title of this conference is "How we can make ourselves heard". I believe that if we learn to listen first, to find what is human, what is profoundly good and what makes us similar to one another - our sufferings, fears, the will to live despite everything - we will also know how to help others learn to listen. By the way, I could not have done my job without learning to know my colleagues, without knowing how to listen to them even when they do not speak. 

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27 January 2023, 14:01