Ruslan Smieshchuk (right) poses with Ukrainian military press officer Iryna Rybakova while on assignment in June 2022 outside the Russian-occupied city Izyum in eastern Ukraine. (Photo: Ruslan Smieshchuk)

Frontline diary: A day in the life of a Ukraine war correspondent

Ruslan Smieshchuk, a reporter for privately owned Ukrainian TV channel Inter, had long dreamed of being a war correspondent when he covered his first conflict, the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, for local Odessa TV channel ATV. Now he hopes that the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war will be his last battlefield assignment. “War is a lot of pain and grief,” he told CPJ.  

The 38-year-old journalist is based in Kramatorsk, Ukraine’s administrative capital of Donetsk, the eastern region that has seen heavy fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces and is under partial Russian control.  

To get a sense of life on the frontline of a war that has killed at least 12 journalists on assignment, CPJ asked Smieshchuk to recount a single day of reporting — June 8 — when he traveled to Bakhmut in in the northern Donetsk region to cover the bombing of a school.

CPJ’s interviews with Smieshchuk were conducted June 9 via voice memos, and includes some details from earlier conversations on June 6 and 7. Smieshchuk’s account been edited for length and style.

5 a.m. to 6 a.m.: My cameraman and I are based in Kramatorsk, the regional center of Donetsk Oblast, the part controlled by the Ukrainian government. This is a city close to the front line, and it is periodically shelled. Recently there were several rocket attacks on industrial facilities and businesses. Russians hit them in the hope of destroying Ukrainian equipment. We all woke up, our car alarm went off, we saw flashes, and the windows were shaking.  

When I work here in the Donbas [the eastern Ukrainian region], I wake up between 5 and 6 a.m. My day begins with a) coffee, and b) checking my messages. I look through the latest communication: we have internal chats with colleagues and with press officers, where they write, for example, about shellings, about artillery and missile strikes, and airstrikes on military targets and civilians. Then, I adjust my plan accordingly: today, for example, I learned of the bombing of a school [and another nearby building] in Bakhmut where people were harmed – so I am going there. But first, time for some breakfast: coffee and oatmeal. 

7 a.m.: I hop in the car and head toward Bakhmut. Usually, when we learn about a bombing, we put on bulletproof vests, take helmets, and so we are already wearing gear by the time we arrive. Today we are stopping by a military outpost first, because civilian volunteers asked me to deliver a package to the soldiers. This often happens — journalists move freely, so we are sometimes asked to transport gear like clothing maybe even electronics, to soldiers and members of the civil defense. On the way to Bakhmut, the police take pictures of our documents at every checkpoint. This is a new policy that has been in the works for a couple of weeks now. The police take pictures of the documents and possibly hand them over to the Ukrainian secret service. The process eats up to 10 minutes at every checkpoint — unpleasant, but not fatal. There is no negative attitude towards journalists at the checkpoints – everything goes smoothly but it takes time. 

9 a.m. to 10 a.m.: We arrive in Bakhmut, and head toward the school, which was hit by several rockets. We see ruins. The school’s employees are very anxious, and simply do not understand why their school was hit, because there were no military facilities there. They express their indignation, presumably hoping to get through to the Russians. 

Sometimes we encounter a different attitude in our reporting: local residents blame the Ukrainian army for [Russian] bombings. It’s strange: Ukrainian soldiers will die in a shelling, and the locals know what happened, but they say: “No, they are shooting at themselves.” Logic does not work and you can’t convince them of the truth. You try to explain that it would be strange for the military to kill its own people, and that the flight paths of the missiles are clearly from Russian weapons, but reason does not work.   

12 p.m. After filming at the school in Bakhmut [where there were no casualties] we go to an appointment with a press officer of a military unit which we had arranged in advance. We usually make these appointments to film with the military a day or two in advance unless breaking news changes our plans. 

1 p.m. to 2 p.m.: After the meeting with the press officer, we go to Soledar [a city near Bakhmut], where soldiers escort us in an army vehicle to the frontline, as it’s not easy to get there in a civilian car. While we are driving, we hear artillery fire — judging by the sound, the fire is coming from both sides. We see that an agricultural complex was hit, and a fire started there. In general, it’s safer moving in a military vehicle, but anything can happen. You can be easily harmed by artillery fire. That has happened to journalists – it comes with the territory. 

We report from military positions; there are anti-tank system operators. The military tries to feed us, which usually happens when we are filming on the frontlines. The army’s attitude toward journalists, as I said, is hospitable. But we refuse — it’s hot and I’m not hungry — and start to head back to Kramatorsk. 

In terms of where you are allowed to go, it’s up to the military. If you are not allowed in a certain area, that’s because the positions are under constant threat of artillery, with shells flying all day. Some positions are shot at with up to 1,000 artillery shells per day, a monstrous amount of iron and explosives. I would think five times before going to one of these places — you can die there. There are times when, in my opinion, the situation is more or less safe, but the military wants to prevent casualties and doesn’t allow journalists in. It depends on the unit and the situation. Sometimes you can get into some positions one day, but not the next, because they are actively being shot at.

Ruslan Smieshchuk eats an ice cream cone while on assignment near Horlivka in eastern Ukraine in June 2022. (Photo: Ruslan Smieshchuk)

3 p.m.: We come back to our base in Kramatorsk. My cameraman and I rent an apartment. It’s so convenient, because the hotels are mostly closed. Here, we have electricity, water, internet, a shower, a bathroom, and an electric stove. We brought it with us, because there is no gas in the Donetsk region. 

4:20 p.m.: I’m warming up lunch, and sitting down to watch the material I shot, to write down the text for news, and to do the pre-editing and editing.

5 p.m.: Now I am free to contact the press officers to learn where we can go tomorrow and to make arrangements for the next shoot.  

6 p.m.: Free time begins. I usually watch films, maybe sci-fi films, or sometimes read. But in general, in the evening I try to stay indoors — under at least some protection of the walls, because from time to time rockets hit Kramatorsk. To be a war correspondent, you must feel motivated to do journalistic work under attack. This does not mean that you should strive to put yourself in the line of danger, but if you don’t feel driven when war breaks out, it means that your work will be a complete torment, and then, probably, it’s not worth it at all, because it will be an endless hell, endless suffering.

When you work in a war, you are constantly confronted with naked human grief, but you must preserve your ability to empathize with people, your humanity, and at the same time, not burn out from the work, not get traumatized, not get addicted to drugs or alcohol, which, alas, often happens in our line of work. Previously, I drank, but then I mostly stopped and haven’t been drinking for several years now. This abyss of human grief can push you to such things.

10 p.m. to 11 p.m.: Time for bed.