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Impact Journalism – Columbia Journalism Review

Last February, a journalist named Svitlana Oslavska completed a book, Severodonetsk Reports from the Past, featuring ten in-depth stories about the city where she grew up. Days after she submitted the manuscript, Russian artillery began shelling the nearby suburbs. Severodonetsk is in Luhansk Oblast, the easternmost province of Ukraine; the devastation lasted until June. By then, whole swaths of the area were razed. Apartment complexes had become blasted-out husks. An ammonia plant that was synonymous with Severodonetsk, in operation for more than seventy years, was shut down. Almost all of the city’s residents—a hundred thousand people—had left. “At some point you lose the ability to notice where the story is,” Oslavska—who is thirty-four, with dark brown hair and wide green eyes—told me. “You say, ‘Okay, this man was killed here,’ or ‘This family was deported,’ or ‘Something really bad happened there.’ But you don’t see this as a story anymore.” She stopped writing for a while.

A world away, in Washington, DC, Peter Pomerantsev—a Ukrainian British researcher who codirects the Arena Initiative, a program at John Hopkins University focused on disinformation and polarization—was watching the invasion unfold on the news. He felt an urge to do something. He remembered that Janine di Giovanni, a veteran war correspondent, ran a program with the United Nations Democracy Fund to train local journalists in collecting evidence of war crimes in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. He gave her a call and asked if she would be interested in setting up something similar in Ukraine. She agreed right away. “Peter and I are both energetic people, and we’re both very operational, so we immediately started,” di Giovanni said. They found legal help and brought in Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian conflict reporter, who began reaching out to journalists across Ukraine—Oslavska among them.

They called their endeavor the Reckoning Project. Enlisted journalists would collect testimonies from eyewitnesses of war crimes with the goal of bringing cases against Russian soldiers, the Kremlin, and Vladimir Putin to Ukrainian courts and The Hague. Stories gathered in the process would become articles, podcasts, and videos published in news outlets such as Time, Vanity Fair, The Guardian, and Foreign Policy. “There are people who think that journalists should put out the information then walk away, and if lawyers want the information, they’ll just have to get it themselves,” Pomerantsev said. “We see ourselves as a coordinated effort that includes journalists who can gather evidence and connect that with justice.”  

Oslavska didn’t hesitate to sign up. “The Reckoning Project was like a rescue for me,” she said. For three days in May, at a hotel in central Kyiv, Oslavska and about twenty other journalist-researchers gathered in a glass-ceilinged conference room for sessions with di Giovanni, Pomeranstev, and the rest of the project’s leadership. There was a crash course in international humanitarian law, as well as training in how to collect testimonies that can be used in court. The method would require the team to conduct interviews lasting hours, or days. “We’re not a news agency—we’re not the AP—so we don’t need to do it in ten minutes,” di Giovanni said. At one point, everyone’s phone alarms went off—there was an air raid warning. The group carried on with their training in a windowless storage room.

After that, it was up to the journalist-researchers to decide where to go. Oslavska visited several villages, including Yahidne, northeast of Kyiv, which was occupied by Russian forces a week into the invasion. More than three hundred and sixty people were held captive in the basement of a school until the end of March. At least ten people reportedly died from a lack of oxygen and medical attention while in captivity. It’s believed that Russian soldiers killed seventeen. Oslavska and a cameraman gathered as many details as they could—about the size of the captives’ confines, the feeling of the air, the construction materials of the floor, the furniture in the room, signage and markings on the walls. Describing soldiers could be a difficult part of interviews, she observed. “Russians are often in balaclavas,” Oslavska said. “They don’t wear signs on their uniforms.” Adhering to the standards of court testimony meant that she had to make sure not to ask interviewees leading questions. “We want them to tell the story,” di Giovanni explained. “We don’t want to put words in their mouths.”

The journalist-researchers must also be careful not to retraumatize interviewees. If a person who has been victimized seems to have trouble recounting something, Oslavska won’t force a line of questioning; traumatized victims’ statements cannot be used in court. The risk of retraumatizing also applies to the journalists themselves. “You have to pay attention when you’re tired and overwhelmed with the stories—if you have five interviews one day, four interviews the next, and so on,” Oslavska said. “You can break down and you can start to behave in a way that’s not really good for you or the person in front of you. It’s dangerous.” She recalled how, in Yahidne, her colleagues didn’t always feel the need to stop for meal breaks. She’d have to nudge them to find something to eat—even when that just meant coffee and a Snickers bar. 

Since Oslavska’s first visit to Yahidne, Ukrainian prosecutors have identified some twenty soldiers involved in the occupation. Four of the soldiers were convicted in absentia by a Ukrainian court and received ten- to twelve-year prison sentences. Yet the possibility of those soldiers being brought to Ukraine is remote. And although the International Criminal Court at The Hague has issued arrest warrants for Putin and for Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, bringing them to trial seems unlikely. Nevertheless, the Reckoning Project remains optimistic: “We do believe we will bring war criminals to court,” di Giovanni said. “We are pursuing many pathways of justice.” 

“Honestly, I try not to think about what is the chance that all this will work,” Oslavska said. “I concentrate on the work that has to be done and to stay alive to see this go to court.” The project’s mission gives her a sense of purpose: “It was a way to still do journalism but make a different type of change.”

Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.

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