Iuliia Mendel: Hello, my name is Iuliia Mendel, and I’m here in the Kyiv Post studio. We’re going to talk today to Whitney Shefte, the Washington Post video journalist who has recently been to Donbas. So, Whitney, thank you for being here!
Whitney Shefte: Thank you for having me!
I.M: Whitney, I know that you’ve been to Donbas before the escalation. But you’ve been here, in Ukraine, for around a month, and probably feel all this information pressure, and follow the news, and meet people, and see what’s going on on the ground. You’ve been to Donbas, to Kharkiv, to the Chornobyl zone. You know, you have already the flavour and the taste of what’s going on here. And, within this information, my first question. Being an American journalist here, in Ukraine, in such, you know, difficult time, what do you think about the second speech of your President, Joe Biden, about the possible attack, invasion of Ukraine?
W.S: Yes, you know, I think that we are hearing a lot of escalated language, a lot of rhetoric from our President. A lot of the stories that we are seeing in Western media are certainly pointing to imminent attack. Biden did just say that it seems like it will happen, which sounds very definitive. You know, being here, it does feel a little bit different. You know, I think, before I came here I didn’t really know what to expect of Ukraine. That Ukraine has been at war for eight years. And it’s something that’s been important to recognise, that that has happened and that there’s been a great toll, with these nearly 14,000 people that have been killed in this conflict. So the fact that these sacrifices have been ongoing, I think, is very noteworthy. And, hopefully, hopefully this stays peaceful, but that the people, that the American public and the rest of the world is able to recognize the toll that this is taking on this country in this time.
And the mood here was much different than I expected. People were very calm and collected, and didn’t seem very concerned about war. I think that, as I talked to more people over the course of several weeks, that’s changed a little bit, I’ve seen more and more people get concerned, but not in the way that I think Americans would expect.
I.M: So is that fear, but not despair?
W.S: Yes, I think that’s probably a good way to describe it. I think that the people here seem very resilient and hopeful in spite of what could be imminent attack. You know, it’s hard for me to know whether the intelligence that the US has is accurate, of course, but we also have no reason to believe that they would be lying to us.
I.M: Sure, but you are an American here, you know, in the centre of the country that can be invaded. And you get all this information, and all these concerns, and all these recommendations to leave the country, but you are here for your work, right? And you’re doing your job very well, as I’ve seen. So, do you worry, personally, for yourself? Does your family worry for you?
W.S: Well, my family certainly worries for me, I think, since day one that I’ve arrived here I’ve heard people calling, saying: Are you OK? Are you OK? You know, going to the East and embedding with the military there for a day. It was peaceful where I was. We didn’t see any sort of shelling or anything like that. That was a week ago that we got back, about, so I know that things have changed a little bit. We have colleagues who are in the East now who are seeing shelling. And so, when I see, you know, the videos from there and reports of that. That certainly is a little bit scary, but, you know, as journalists we. It’s our job to go into these situations. You know, I spent a lot of time going into hurricanes, and wildfires, and, you know, all kinds of natural disasters. So, in some ways this is no different – you know, we go towards whatever is happening, despite the risk, so that we can show the world what’s going on.
I.M: So, natural risks are, somehow, non-predictive. What about Russian risk when you’ve been there, to Donbas, on the ground, you’ve talked to our soldiers, you saw the conditions they live in, you saw that the war is there already, right? Despite that you probably haven’t seen, you know, wounds and shelling, and, you know, killed people. But you saw a lot of things. What is your biggest impression from Donbas?
W.S: Yes, Donbas. You know, these soldiers are. They’re really tough and passionate about what they’re doing, about protecting Ukraine. You know, I think, in some ways, when they are in positions where not much is happening it can be even harder, because there’s a lot of idle time, when you’re just anticipating what’s next. But now, I think, that they are starting to see some action, and that’s always really tough when, you know. We saw the reports that one military service member was killed. You know, whenever you lose somebody, that’s gut-wrenching. But these folks definitely have very resilient spirit and to say that they are prepared to fight whatever may come.
I.M: Just for you to know that since 2014, there was almost no period when there was no shelling, but, in average, we’re getting like one, two, three shellings per day. So, since the escalation started there has been 60, over 60 escalations, violations per day, and mostly it’s about shellings, and so we’ve got wounded people and killed people there. So, you were lucky to come in a calmer period. So, you are here, you’re leaving in some time, maybe a week or two, right? When you come back home, what will you tell Americans about Ukraine?
W.S: You know, I will certainly tell Americans that Ukraine is beautiful, and that I hope it stays peaceful so that they can all come and visit, because, you know, it’s a place that, I think, a lot of Americans don’t visit for some reason or another, but I’ve absolutely been stunned by it. I think it’s such a beautiful place, beautiful people, everybody is so generous and kind, so I hope to be able to tell people that.
I.M: Ok. Thank you so much for this short but very thoughtful interview, and for your experience, for covering Ukraine every day for the world.
So, we were talking to Whitney Shefte, the Washington Post video journalist who has been to Donbas and to Kharkiv, and Chornobyl, covering Ukraine for the world. Thank you!
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