Journalism that can save lives: The story of a Ukrainian reporter from frontline Mykolaiv

June 6, 2024

Olena Kozubovska working in the village of Ternovi Plody.

Photo: Serhii Ovcharyshyn

Reports under fire, interviews near minefields, frank conversations about the pain of injury or loss: Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the work of journalists – whose job it is to tell the world the stories of others – has been challenged in ways never seen before.

Olena Kozubovska from Mykolaiv started working as a journalist when the full-scale invasion broke out. Read about her choice to work in a frontline city, warning others of danger, and the dreams that motivate her to get up in the morning.

Not just a job 

Olena Kozubovska at work in Voznesensk. Photo: Serhii Ovcharyshyn.

I consciously decided to become a journalist when I was in the 10th grade. It was an unexpected choice for my family and even for me, because I’m a rather shy person. No one could have imagined that I would be a journalist and so freely communicate with people, and search out heroes. But I can’t imagine myself in any other profession now.

I graduated from the Faculty of Journalism at the Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts in the summer of 2022. However, I only had time to study offline for six months, as teaching was transferred online: first because of the COVID-19 pandemic, then because of the full-scale invasion. 

For about a year I worked for the Ukrainian Women’s Battalion NGO, then in February 2023 I joined the independent Mykolaiv-based media outlet NikVesti. 

Olena Kozubovska at work in the village of Novohorivka. Photo: Serhii Ovcharyshyn.

I’m originally from Mykolaiv Oblast, so for me it’s not just a job in a frontline city, it’s actually an opportunity to protect and warn the locals against dangers that arise as a result of the war. 

But the truth is that sometimes it is impossible to predict disaster. In April 2023, a missile hit near my house. My younger sister helped me get out of the rubble. Fortunately, both of us were practically unharmed, with only minor injuries to our arms. After this incident, I lived with my parents for a while, because I was afraid to be alone. But not for long, as in June 2023 I returned to work. The calling of the job was stronger than fear. 

You can never talk about mines too much

Mykolaiv Oblast remains one of the most heavily mined areas of Ukraine. According to the Mykolaiv Regional Administration, as of May 2024, 288,000 hectares of land needed to be surveyed and demined.

Mine safety is my topic, and I often do stories about explosive objects, the rules of handling them, and people who are involved in the mine issue in one way or another. 

Interestingly, the majority of accidents in the region are related to the improper handling of explosive ordnance (EO), and the media play an important role in warning and informing people about the dangers.

Olena Kozubovka and Serhii Ovcharyshyn talking to Oleksandr Voskobiynuk,  a local resident of the village of Ternovi Pody. Photo: Mariia Khamicevych.

I’m impressed by our people – how much they fight for their existence, and how much they love their land. But this also has a negative side: they have invested their entire lives in one thing, and they don't care whether there are mines or not – they go to work in the fields. And no matter how much you talk about and explain the risks, it's never enough.

I remember when we came to shoot a report about farmers. They met us and took us to the field and there were ... piles of ammunition! Then one of the farmers said: “Just don’t get close to them, because we don’t know if they are all neutralized!”

“Why did you take them out?” I asked in shock.

“We'll show you!” they said.

There are different kinds of stories. Once, after filming a story about the deminers of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine (SESU), we decided to drive around the neighbouring villages to listen locals’ stories. As we approached the town of Snihurivka, Mykolaiv Oblast, we saw a grey-haired man grazing cows. We got closer, and there were red signs saying “Beware of mines!” and what looked like ammunition nearby. 

“Sir, do you know the mine safety rules?” I asked. 

“Of course!” he says. “How do they go? Don’t come near it! Don’t touch it! Call the State Emergency Service!”

And he starts telling us all about it in detail, while standing in a minefield!

The most interesting thing is that he really knows the rules, but he still doesn’t follow them.

Bohdan Reshetnyak, a local resident of Snihurivka. Photo: Olena Kozubovska.

According to the government of Ukraine, 25% of Ukraine’s territory is potentially contaminated with mines and explosive devices. Personal safety is important! If you see a suspicious object, follow these rules: Do not touch or move a suspicious object under any circumstances! Using sticks, clothes or stones, mark the object's location. Report the discovery by calling 101 or 102.

Someone’s story can save lives

To be honest, it’s not easy to work on this topic. I’m a very empathetic person, so I take on the feelings and emotions of others very strongly.

Ihor Viryovkin, a local resident of Ievheniivka. Photo: Olena Kozubovska.

At first, it was very difficult to work with people who had an injury. For example, when I was writing a story about two brothers who lost their legs as a result of a landmine explosion, I had to choose the right words carefully so as not to cause additional pain. After all, the victims of explosive ordnance (EO) are traumatized not only physically but also emotionally. I don’t want to harm them even more, but it is important for me to tell their story because I believe it could save another person’s life.

Of course, I would like to see fewer such stories, so that people would be more responsible before taking their next step. So that they not only know the rules for handling suspicious items, but also follow them in real life. 

Olena Kozubovska and Volodymyr Stefanyk, a worker of the municipal enterprise “Mykolaivelektrotrans”. Photo: Serhii Ovcharyshyn. 

I dream that all the people I report on will experience positive changes in the near future, and I want to make good stories about their lives. I want every field in Mykolaiv Oblast, and in Ukraine as a whole, to be mine-free. This motivates me to wake up in the morning, whether on Journalist’s Day, or any other day!

Disclaimer: Recently, Kozubovska received training in sensitive journalism and communication for social and behavioural change as part of an initiative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Ukraine and the Government of Japan, implemented by BBC Media Action. This is part of a project to inform the public about the dangers of EO and to promote safe behaviour.