Iryna Synelnyk (Photo: Andreas Lamm)
“Life in Kosovo reminds us of how we lived before the war. Mentally we are still in Ukraine”


27 December 2022

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Interview with Iryna Synelnyk, Ukrainian Journalist-in-Residence in Kosovo.

Before the war, Iryna Synelnyk lived in Chernihiv in northern Ukraine. Since 2005 she has worked as a regional correspondent for UNIAN, one of the country’s largest news agencies. On February 24, Iryna decided to leave Chernihiv for a safer place, only to end up in a town surrounded by Russian troops. Six weeks later she was able to escape to Vinnytsia. Now she is living in Kosovo. Here, journalists from Ukraine can find a safe place to work and to recover. Iryna says she’s doing well here, but still wants to go home. 

How did the war in February 2022 start for you? 

I left Chernihiv on the first day of the war and went to my sister in a small town of Lyubech on the border with Belarus. Then I found myself surrounded by Russian troops. They did not enter the town itself, but they were close by. For six weeks we lived in fear that if they came in, the same thing could happen to us that happened in Bucha.


I was afraid I might be detained. But I was even more worried that my family might suffer because of my journalistic activities. Nevertheless, I continued working, as long as I had a mobile phone and access to the Internet.


When did you decide on the Journalists-in-Residence programme?

After the de-occupation of the Chernihiv Region, my sister and I went to Vinnytsia. While there I found out about the programme in Kosovo. A colleague sent me a link. I decided to try it because my emotional condition was very unstable. I was very uneasy. It is difficult to live with the feeling of constant fear of what will happen next, when there will be another attack, and whether my city will be occupied again. To calm down and to work, I applied for the programme. 


In what circumstances did you have to work during these six weeks in Ukraine?

When there was Internet in Lyubech, I communicated with sources, wrote about Chernihiv, about the situation in the city, how it was surrounded, and how people survived. I think it’s the first war which is going online. Many described their experiences on social media. I also collected these materials. I hope that one day they will become part of history.


Lyubech is close to the border with Russia and Belarus. Russian and Belarusian state TV programmes are available in many houses. I was surprised that the elderly people I talked to were very tolerant of Putin. Many did not even know that there was a war going on, and referred to the events that were taking place as a “special military operation,” as Russian propaganda calls the war.


All day long I watched the Ukrainian news marathon, and in the evening I watched what the Russians were showing and how their rhetoric was. It made my hair stand on end. I did not understand how they could lie so openly. 


My teacher died because of the missile attack on Chernihiv; she did not manage to get down to the basement. This event shook me up. It seemed necessary to tell the whole world how people live in Chernihiv; that we have no electricity, no water supplies, there are problems with food, people are put in harsh conditions of survival, and this is happening in 2022 in the centre of Europe. I wrote for UNIAN. My colleagues and I worked without pauses. My work gave me strength. I wanted to tell the truth, I wanted to tell everyone what was going on, because everything that was happening was so unfair and terrible.


Are you still working while in Kosovo?

Yes, and now I write not only about the war, but also about relations between Ukraine and Kosovo. 


People in Kosovo also experienced war, they understand us very well and are so empathetic. They always emphasise that they know what it means to go through a war and how it affects a person. So when I write articles, I often refer to Kosovo’s past, how it was for them, what the consequences were, and how they are dealing now.


I recently did a piece on sexual violence by soldiers during the war. It was a difficult topic. But there’s a specialised centre in Prishtina which works with victims of torture, as well as with women who have experienced sexual violence. It helped me a lot. The experience of how to overcome all these events will be very useful for Ukraine, too. 


How have you changed in almost six months of living in Kosovo?

There is less anxiety. When you are in a calmer environment and work with psychologists, many things become easier. 


They organise for us numerous meetings and trips, we have quite an active life. It reminds us of how we lived before the war. But mentally we are still in Ukraine and live through everything that is going on, because many of us have relatives or close ones at the front. 


On the one hand, I feel safe, and I have all I need for my work. On the other hand, I start the day with the news and am worried about my loved ones. We moved away from the war. But the war is still with us.


Now the atmosphere around us is Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but inside everything is compressed and tense, no joy is felt, because both at Christmas and New Year’s I’ll be alone, without my family. I feel better now, but it’s like I’m still on that day, February 24.


What did you know about Kosovo before you came here? 

Frankly, I knew almost nothing. I knew that it was a Balkan country, where there was a war. I also remembered that a Ukrainian peacekeeping mission took part in it. That’s all the information I had.


Most Ukrainians still don’t understand what this country is. Ukraine still hasn’t recognised Kosovo. But Kosovo strongly supports both the Ukrainian military and journalists, and does as much as it can. In my opinion, Ukraine should move away from the Russian narrative, which claims that Kosovo cannot be recognised, because then the Kosovo precedent will be used by other countries. Although they themselves use and manipulate it now.


The Journalists-in-Residence programme gives us a monthly stipend, free accommodation, training, and psychological support. The Association of Journalists of Kosovo supports us a lot, constantly organising different events. For example, on Ukraine’s Independence Day we met the President of Kosovo, Vjosa Osmani.


We also have integration courses, where we study the culture of Kosovo and learn English and Albanian. We are doing well here, but I really want to go home. 

The Journalist-in-Residence Programme in Kosovo offers a safe space for 20 Ukrainian journalists. Fellows of the JiR Programme receive a monthly stipend of 500 euros, a rent-free furnished apartment, medical insurance, access to professional training, and psychological support, as well as a one-off payment of 1000 euros for relocation to Kosovo. The duration of the residence is 6 months with a possibility to extend. More information is available here

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