A Cartoon Producer Turned War Reporter

From a Times Insider column by Natalia Yermak headlined “A Cartoon Producer Turned War Reporter”:

Half an hour before midnight on March 28, the first artillery shell I ever heard screeched above the tiny roof that sheltered my colleagues and me. Our newly formed team had recently arrived in Huliaipole, a small eastern Ukrainian town, to report from the war’s front lines.

A little more than a month earlier, in prewar Kyiv, my job looked a lot different — and it did not involve air-raid warnings or howitzer shells.

It was Wednesday, Feb. 23, the day before the Russian invasion began. I was working as a production coordinator at a company that produced a Ukrainian cartoon series for children called “Brave Bunnies.” The job promised a type of stability that I was ready to embrace after years of on-and-off freelance work in video production.

That day, I was struggling to write an email about an episode in which the brave bunnies meet a koala because nearby my colleagues were discussing the looming Russian presence near our country’s border. “Guys, why worry for no reason?” one of them said. “The news is just feeding communal anxiety. I don’t believe this invasion is going to happen.”

Early the next morning, when the sounds of explosions and air-raid sirens filled the air, that anxiety and disbelief quickly turned into terror.

My reality shattered. The “Brave Bunnies” team decided to put production on hold until the next week, a pause that was destined to stretch out. I packed my bag and boarded an evacuation train headed west, to join my family in Lviv.

Once I arrived, I started collecting and documenting stories as a form of volunteerism; I wanted to help share information about the war. Colleagues and friends connected me with various news media outlets. Soon, I was presented with an opportunity to work with The New York Times.

About a month after my unexpected last day at “Brave Bunnies,” I became a member of a team of five, including a reporter, Thomas Gibbons-Neff; a photographer, Tyler Hicks; a security adviser, Jon; and our driver and mechanic, Dima. (Jon and Dima preferred to use only their first names for this article.) It was an incredibly supportive group.

We headed to Huliaipole, a town caught in the middle of artillery battles. Huliaipole used to count 13,000 residents — though at this point, near the end of March, it had about 2,000. Amid constant shelling, many residents fled, although some stayed. We went to find out what life there was now like.

My job was convincing people, such as military officials and medics, to let us move about town, gathering stories and translating our sources’ accounts from Ukrainian or Russian into English. (I learned English in high school.) But that first night in Huliaipole, the sounds we heard — “a high-pitched screech and then a boom,” as Thomas and I would describe it in a Times article — needed no translation.

At the end of our first day, at our modest shelter, a house that belonged to an older man who had recently evacuated, I was lying, fully clothed, on the bed — it was still covered by the owner’s sheets. Though I was wrapped in half a dozen blankets and embroidered carpets, my body would not stop shaking.

A few weeks later, I had gotten used to the soundtrack of the war, whether it was the methodic thud of rockets in the distance or an eerie whistle and explosion that seemed just hundreds of meters away.

The premise of “Brave Bunnies” is that a family of bunnies goes on a road trip, meets other animals and learns something new from each encounter. My journey driving through my war-torn country felt like a surreal allusion to the show. We were there to ask questions, but the people we interviewed had haunting questions of their own for which there were no answers.

In April, in an area near a heavily shelled village, an older man sat among his few belongings. His dog huddled beside him, and the man clutched its leash, crying: “What did we do to deserve this?”

On a beautiful spring day, I stood next to a woman as she tried to recognize the charred remains of her brother, who had been executed by Russian soldiers. “What for?” she asked. “God, why do you take such good people?”

As the Russian army began its offensive in the country’s east, a woman believed her town would soon be besieged and obliterated. “I want to live, do you understand?” she said.

During these weeks of reporting, I have learned of unfathomable brutality, and of the strength of my countrymen and women embroiled in a war that doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon.

So until the war does end, I will be left to think of one of the cartoon’s taglines: “Brave bunnies, away.”

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