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“If I had stayed in Volnovakha, I would have ended up in jail”

ECPMF

04 January 2023

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Interview with Lidia Tarash, journalist and fellow of the Voices of Ukraine programme

Lidia Tarash is a journalist from Volnovakha, a city in the Donetsk region. In August 2022, she became one of 120 fellows of the Voices of Ukraine programme, which provides emergency stipends to Ukrainian journalists. Before that, Lidia had to live in the basement of her parents’ house for two weeks to escape shelling, leave the occupied city, go through the so-called Russian “filtering” procedure, refuse to work for the occupation authorities, and start a new life in Kyiv.

 

In Volnovakha, Lidia used to work as Editor-in-Chief of the local newspaper “Nashe slovo”. Due to the war, the newspaper had to be discontinued. In Kyiv, together with her three children, she has had to start from scratch, without her previous job or family support. Her parents remained in the occupied city, and her husband was arrested and imprisoned in a detention centre – the pro-Russian authorities suspect him of espionage. The Voices of Ukraine programme has become one of the main sources of support for Lidia in this difficult time.

Volnovakha is one of the cities in the Donetsk region which remained under Ukrainian control after 2014. What was the focus of your media outlet?

“Nashe slovo” was a local newspaper that was distributed to the district, which included 44 settlements. In 2016, Ukraine passed a law on denationalisation of the media. According to the law, we re-registered our newspaper and became a private independent media.

 

Until February 2022, the frontline was 15 kilometres away from Volnovakha. We covered the war, but I cannot say that it shaped our agenda. Despite occasional explosions somewhere in the distance, ordinary peaceful life continued in Volnovakha. As a socio-political media, we wrote about this life, about events and people, about local problems. Thanks to changes in legislation since 2018, local budgets increased, and the money was used to repair schools, kindergartens, and hospitals. Life was gradually improving.

 

Since the occupation, the newspaper has ceased publication, and almost the entire staff has left the city. In order to continue working on the newspaper, I would have to agree to work for the Russian occupiers. For me, it was impossible and unacceptable. The newspaper’s website is also down now. We only have a Facebook page, which is updated on a volunteer basis.

 

On 24 February 2022, Russia started a full-scale war against Ukraine. How did the war start for you? 

We had spent the entire evening the night before preparing the latest issue of the newspaper. I got home by 1 a.m., and at 5 a.m. I woke up to the sound of explosions. I wrote to my son, who studies in Kyiv. He told me that the capital was also being bombed and that Putin had started a war. 

 

In 2014, the occupation of Ukrainian territories was relatively peaceful. Pro-Russian troops entered Donetsk, they occupied main administrative buildings, changed flags, and announced that it was now “DNR”. Those people who didn’t agree with this had the opportunity to leave. There were clashes, but no serious shelling. This remained in the memory, and no one was prepared for Volnovakha to be wiped off the face of the earth.

 

The office of our newspaper was in the district administration building. Realising that an attack was coming, I assumed that this building would be the first to be hit. So I asked my colleagues not to come to work. After that I took my children – they’re 5 and 8 years old – and moved to my father’s private house. He has a basement, I thought it would be safer there. Later, it turned out that this area of town was the first to come under fire. My husband stayed in our apartment. 

 

We spent more than two weeks in the basement. All that time the city was shelled nonstop. A rocket hit a neighbouring house; fortunately ours survived, only the windows blew out. On 11 March, we realised that Volnovakha had been occupied. The shelling stopped, and a large convoy of Russian militaries entered the city. That day I finally decided to come out of the basement, walked through the streets, and was horrified by what we saw: dead people on the roads, broken houses all around, a burnt-out market.

 

It was too dangerous for me as a journalist to stay in an occupied city, so I decided to leave. First to Donetsk, where our relatives lived. And on 27 May, my children and I left for Kyiv – through Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. 

 

Already in March, in order to get to Donetsk, you had to go through the so-called “filtration” procedure. I wasn’t prepared for that.

 

What is Russian “filtering” like?

At the entrance to Dokuchaevs, through which the road to Donetsk goes, we were stopped and told that we could go further only by registering at the police department and had to come there with our documents. We were taken to the hall, where other civilians from Volnovakha were sitting. Only there I understood that this was the so-called “filtration”. Policemen questioned us and took notes, wanted to know where we had been since 24 February, what we had been doing, wrote down the contacts of all our relatives, and asked for the contacts of The Armed Forces of Ukraine servicemen. After the interrogation, the next stage was photographing and fingerprinting and then checking our phones. All of these procedures took 3.5 hours.

 

When you were forced to leave for Donetsk, only local news – or should I say Russian propaganda – was available to you. From your experience, can it have a strong impact on the perception of reality? 

There was no Ukrainian news on TV, but I could read it online. Since I am Ukrainian and a pro-Ukrainian citizen, I understood very well that everything said on local TV was a big lie.

 

Before the full-scale war began, my acquaintances who watched Russian television were always for Russia. We often had arguments about it. But when they saw what Russian troops had turned Volnovakha into, their mood changed greatly. 

 

Speaking generally about the residents of Volnovakha, I personally saw people who greeted Russians and said “thank you, our boys”. I looked at it and couldn’t believe it as people were left homeless – and were grateful for it. In their opinion, it was all Ukraine’s fault. Why? Because Russian television was steadily broadcasting in the Donetsk region, telling them that Ukraine was a sub-state and that Ukrainians did not exist. 

 

Why did you come to Kyiv and not stay in Poland or Lithuania, where you would have definitely been safe?

I went to Kyiv purposely, because my eldest son is studying here, he is 22 years old. There is a war and mobilisation, students can also be mobilised. If it happens, I would like to be with him at that moment.

 

Where do you live now? Do you have the opportunity to work?

Yes, I continue to work. The Union of Journalists of Ukraine helped me a lot, as well as the Voices of Ukraine programme.

 

If I had stayed in Volnovakha, I would have ended up in jail. When I was in Donetsk, the DNR administration called me and invited me to work for them and publish a newspaper in Volnovakha. I refused. I was asked to think about it and “call them any time” if I changed my mind. A couple of weeks later, people with guns came to my house in Volnovakha, looking for me “because of her work”. When that happened, I realised that I had to leave Donetsk urgently.

 

When I came to Kyiv, my colleagues were very supportive: they provided financial support, offered to help me join the Journalists-in-Residence programme in Kosovo, or to go for rehabilitation in Poland, where I was able to work with a psychologist. I would have stayed there for a longer time if I hadn’t found out that my husband, who continued to live in Volnovakha for family reasons, hadn’t been arrested on suspicion of espionage. Now he is in a detention centre in the “DNR”. 

 

For the first three months, my children and I lived at my son’s dormitory. In September 2022 we had to move out and to rent an apartment. These scholarships really supported us financially. I keep working, it gives me an opportunity to pay for housing and food, and to do something for the liberation of my country.

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