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TNH war correspondent Anna Sarigianni reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: TNH
NEW YORK – While preparing the suitcases for the trip to Ukraine as The National Herald’s war correspondent, thoughts and anguish run through my mind, fortunately, for just a few seconds. The taxi is waiting. Last check and everything is ready for the first leg of the trip. Nine hours later, I arrive in Poland and the journey of a lifetime begins. The first report is on the presence of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Poland – I tell myself it is a gift from God since I subconsciously and consciously want to get a blessing before such a trip.
The next day dawns and the journey to the border begins. The country’s central railway station has been converted into a huge refugee reception area. The thoughts in my mind become more intense. Memories awaken for the reporter, convinced of what she will face, from what she witnessed in the Dodecanese. For the history of many of the Aegean islands, the inhabitants have “carried on their backs” the influx of refugees to Greece from the coastlines and Syria – and not only in recent years. This time it is different though. It is not like the refugee crisis in Greece. You see women and children everywhere. Men not at all… You see in countries where there is a real war, men are left behind to defend the homeland. At the ticket counter, I try unsuccessfully to communicate with the employee. “I want a ticket to Kyiv,” I tell her, to which she replies in Polish that I do not understand. Sign language is next. She takes the initiative to cut the ticket on her own and in a strict and rude way, she tells me: “There are no trains to Kyiv,” I imagined she said that in Polish, after I caught the word Kyiv and then I saw that my ticket had a final destination in Przemyśl.
I start to get angry and try to find someone who speaks English, until a child’s ball gets tangled in my legs, calms me down and brings me back to reality. His sweet smile, his innocent eyes and his calm look, made me think again. “This child has lost everything and has hope in his eyes and you are upset about a ticket,” I said to myself. Without a second thought I start playing with him, with a volunteer in fluent English shouting at me “I think he likes you.” Her name was Dolores from the USA. She guided me through the refugee center where you could see the sadness, pain, despair and images that break the heart. Everywhere you saw Ukrainian flags and children who a few days ago lost everything but still have innocence and hope in their eyes. Mothers wait in a corner holding their children as volunteers come and go trying to make the children feel as comfortable as possible.
Suddenly, I hear the rough voice of a policeman asking me for a passport. I answer him that I am press as he points to the exit. The measures that prevailed in the food centers were very strict and you could enter the specially designed areas only by showing your passport.
The attitude that filled me with sadness
During the Warsaw-Przemyśl trip, it was necessary to transfer by train to Krakow. The situation at the Krakow station is the same- refugees everywhere. I’m running to find the correct platform for my train. I make a stop to take some pictures of the children playing. I check the time, my train leaves in 10 minutes. I make a run for it, carrying my own suitcase and equipment, as I was alone throughout the trip. Suddenly, a grizzled old gentleman stops me, saying something in Ukrainian or Russian I did not understand (in Ukraine most people speak Russian). I was scared, I did not understand what he wanted. I tried to leave. He grabbed my arm. “I only speak English.” The minutes pass and I long for the train. He says, “money,” but I had no cash with me. I passed him and left. He was around 75. Distressed and visibly depressed. I arrived at the train where I burst into tears. I could not forgive myself for just passing him by. Images passed through my mind and thoughts tormented me throughout the journey. His gaze did not leave my mind. “And if he was your grandfather. And if he has no one in the world. How heartless you were,” I thought during the long journey until the loudspeakers announced our arrival in Przemyśl. The situation is the same. Pain, sadness, but also dignity, great dignity. You do not see beggars anywhere. The women stand proudly at their full height to take care of their children. I would describe them as Spartans, since during my conversations with them no one complained, but with honor and respect for their homeland they boasted of their husbands and sons who were left behind to fight for their land. There are no hotel rooms available anywhere. My reservation was lost because all accommodations were taken by refugees. The gentleman from Krakow comes to my mind again. Where will he sleep?
The train to Kyiv is almost empty. The security checks are extensive. Female volunteers comb through the passengers. After one night, we arrive in Kyiv. My colleagues from the Greek channel Star and the expatriate Tassos Tsiamis pick me up from the station and we head out for the first report. I hear them talking and referring to the explosions that took place last night. I felt adrenaline! I had not heard a shell with my ears or experienced anything similar! I was unaware of the danger! Roadblocks are everywhere. Even in times of calm, everyone was ready for a possible Russian invasion. Every 200 meters, soldiers check our passports, while some of them also check the trunk of the car.
The first stop is an apartment building in the center of Kiev, where a few days ago a shell completely destroyed the building resulting in dozens of people losing their property. Upon arrival, an elderly gentleman carries a bag full of debris and places it in his car. I remember the gentleman in Krakow again. I ask him: “Do you need help?” He answers in the affirmative, saying: “Help me and I will tell you my story.”
With despair in his eyes, Mr. Fedor collects what is left in the wreckage. Broken furniture, damaged relics of years gone by, personal belongings of his late wife that were lost in an instant. All the efforts of a lifetime were reduced to rubble. Mr. Fedor saw the catastrophe coming a week ago in his dream. And after that, a loud noise, an incredible rumbling. As he narrates the events, I look around me, ruins everywhere. I sigh heavily… it is late in the afternoon. A traffic ban has been imposed in Kyiv after 8 PM. My colleagues inform me that there is nowhere open for me to get something to eat. Even supermarkets are only open until 2 in the afternoon. Unfortunately, we did not catch them. On our way back to where we would be staying, I stopped at a gas station. Entering I got some packaged cold cuts that looked great after 17 hours without eating. Upon arrival in the rooms there is intense military mobility. They check our passports again and ask me, because I just arrived, to check my luggage. They check it and tell me “you are free to go.” The sirens signal the curfew. We all have to go to our rooms. In the following days the same scenario- wake up in the morning and close observation of the subjects.
Calm before the storm
The reporting from a war zone is an act of responsibility, but, at the same time, a very complex decision, both for the media and for the journalist. Naturally, TNH’s decision to report directly from the frontline of the war, but also on the human drama of the Ukrainian people, made an impression, given that it was an assignment in a distant country.
Nevertheless, TNH could not miss covering the first war in a European country since the end of World War II. At the same time, it was a symbolic decision, in the 107 years since the founding of the newspaper.
It was the day of the trek to Irpin. For many days, I was trying to carry out this voyage, with the Ukrainian forces daily rejecting my request, as the fighting between the forces was still intense in the area. I finally made it! My passport was my American card and the soldiers’ gratitude to the U.S. government and the military equipment they sent. I felt an unspeakable happiness. I made it! You see in a few days I knew my mission was over and I wanted to capture every corner of Kyiv.
I reach Irpin. Until two months ago, it was a city full of life. It is now a ghost town. The Russian army withdrew from the area but its marks remain indelible. The city was mined and the danger to passers-by was real. It was the first day I felt a little scared. The picture inside Irpin was heartbreaking: Damaged houses, crumbling roads, power lines on the ground, and utter desolation. Some old dogs were trying to find food and water.
On the way, I see two elderly people. Unlike a large part of the population, they chose not to leave their homes. Ah these old people will always break my heart! These and the pets I met on the street. They were terrified and hungry. Seeing so much pain around me, I started to forget my own hunger. You see the stress makes you forget that you have to stop for supplies.
The journey continues. The setting is reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. The fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces was fierce. Hunger is starting to bother us all. Tsiamis says that at the entrance of Irpin there is a bombed supermarket where the army distributes all the products. In a few minutes, we get there and there is another passport check. We get out of the car. We put on bulletproof vests and helmets and go to the point indicated by the army. Everything around us is destroyed. Suddenly, I hear a sound. I think it’s a warplane. I take out my cell phone and record the moment on video. It ended up being a shell. I break out in a cold sweat. The sounds of war do not stop. Successive explosions are heard in fractions of a second and at a distance of 800 meters. Rival forces are fighting to gain ground. We are so devoted to reporting that it takes a few seconds to realize that the whistle coming from above us is a rocket. The voices of the military bring us back to reality. “Get down… To the shelter quickly,” the soldiers are still shouting for us to come in. For a few minutes, everyone is frozen, nobody talks. The power of prayer is a balm in such cases. Christ was with us for another day. We are lucky. We are still alive. My first move is to send a message to my mom. What anguish this woman goes through with “my journalistic madness.”
The culmination of the trip
Until that day I thought I had lived it all- the hunger, bombings, war sirens, adrenaline. No! The culmination of the trip was Bucha. There were dead bodies everywhere, dead bodies on bicycles, helmets belonging to soldiers, images of charred bodies that were stacked up. It made me sick. I could not even videotape it. Two photos and I gave up. It was not clear who the people were or under what circumstances they were killed. They are still human. They are either Russians or Ukrainians. The horrific images of beaten and burnt corpses left in the open or hurriedly buried made me want to return home immediately. I saw enough! The messages were received.
It has been two days since my return. I have not put my thoughts in order. Even now that I am writing this text, there are facts that I cannot even put on paper. I bury them inside as deep as possible, as if they never happened! But they come and meet me in my sleep every night to remind me what I experienced! I don’t give them the favor. I wear my biggest smile and go on with my life because I came out alive, gaining an experience, and acquiring a different attitude to life. Memory of death, as our Church teaches us! And, unfortunately, the war continues…
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