Editor’s Note: Margo Gontar is a Ukrainian journalist who founded the 7,62 project, which tracks Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. She also cofounded the StopFake project in 2014 to tackle Russian disinformation and propaganda. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
I last spoke to Oleksandra Kuvshynova – or Sasha, as I knew her – on March 5.
As a Ukrainian journalist working as a consultant for Fox News, she told me that she was so busy and tired covering the Russian invasion that she could barely open her eyes in the morning.
She sent me a selfie that showed her wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest and updated me on her whereabouts. When we last talked, Sasha had just managed to leave the city of Irpin, which had been devastated by Russian attacks. She told me she was lucky to get out of the city safe and sound.
Despite the danger she faced, she cracked a few jokes and sent me memes because “you can’t get through it without humor,” as she once said.
Nine days later, on March 14, Sasha, along with Irish news cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski, were killed when their vehicle came under fire in a suburb of Kyiv. Fox News Correspondent Benjamin Hall was also injured in the attack.
When I first learned about her death, I couldn’t pull my strength together. In the initial hours, disbelief overwhelmed me.
I wanted to pick up the phone and call her.
My mind told me a story I wanted to hear: I would dial her up, and she’d laugh into the speaker and tell me everyone made a mistake. We would arrange to have coffee, and she’d tell me about another escape, another brush with Russian shelling in her quest to do what journalists do – bring the story to the world.
But then the reality came flooding back, and I knew silence is all I’d get on the other end.
Then came the questions. People kept calling, asking if I knew Sasha, and I realized I did not have a single bad word to say about her. She was bright, beautiful, smart, funny Sasha, who made movies and loved poetry and film. She was always hunting down the facts, boldly joining the Fox News crew to report from the front lines.
It was always nice to spend time with her – to do business or to have a glass of wine. To just be around her. She was only 24.
Before this, I never understood how people write memorials to their loved ones, but now it feels somehow like the only way to make it through.
It feels vital to capture the memories I have of Sasha: the woman whom I worked on music projects with, drank wine with in our favorite bars; the friend who inevitably became what all Ukrainian journalists must now become – a war reporter. And because of the war, this light is now gone.
As surreal as it is to think about, writing about my friend’s death is just the latest writing I’m doing on this war. Much of my professional life as a journalist has involved chronicling Russia’s attacks on my people. I cofounded Stop Fake, a fact-checking organization that was launched in 2014, when the war in Ukraine was still limited to the east. More recently, I’ve gone from reporting on the Russian troop build-up along the Ukrainian border to covering the daily deluge of war.
And Ukrainian journalists, just like their foreign colleagues, are working hard every day – in an environment that grows increasingly hostile – to ensure the world gets a clear picture of what’s happening here.
Sadly, Sasha and Pierre were not the only journalists killed in this war. Yevhenii Sakun, a Ukrainian camera operator, died on March 1 when the TV tower in Kyiv was struck by Russian shelling. Brent Renaud, an American documentarian, was killed in a shooting that also injured journalist Juan Arredondo. Russian correspondent Oksana Baulina, who was covering the war for an independent investigative news site, died in Kyiv. And the famed Ukrainian photojournalist Maks Levin was found dead in a village north of Kyiv on Friday, after he was reported missing for more than two weeks, according to Ukrainian officials.
Sky News’ chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay also described how he and his team were attacked near Kyiv on February 28. They were ambushed by a saboteur Russian reconnaissance squad, they were later told.
“It was professional, the rounds kept smashing into the car – they didn’t miss”, Ramsay recounted.
And then there are those held captive. A Ukrainian journalist Victoria Roshchyna was held by Russian forces in occupied Berdyansk before she was released. A Radio France fixer and interpreter was taken prisoner by Russian troops on March 5 and held for nine days, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). During this time, his car was machine-gunned and he was left in an icy cellar, beaten with rifle butts and steel bar, repeatedly tortured with a knife and electricity and subjected to a mock execution and food deprivation for 48 hours, RSF reported.
In a number of cases, it seems that Russians are deliberately targeting journalists, as Mstyslav Chernov of the AP chillingly chronicled from Mariupol.
As an adviser to the Mariupol mayor told me, Russians may be continuously shelling the city in part to prevent people – including journalists – from going outside to document what’s happening and sharing it. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US is “looking very hard” at whether Russia is deliberately targeting journalists, he told NPR two weeks ago.
And while many brave reporters from around the world have come to report on the war, it’s personal for the Ukrainian journalists. Many of us are learning in real time how to cover Russian forces smashing our beautiful houses, destroying our lovely cities. How to cover Russian forces killing our friends.
This war has gone on for more than a month now, and the terrifying and dreadful and sickening dances all around us. For Ukrainians, we’ve already had front row seats to more than 800 hours of horror, with no end in sight. We don’t know when an attack will hit the places we love and remember– the coffee shops where we used to gather with friends, the corners where we had our first kisses or the parks where we played as kids.
We don’t know when the shelling will hit our loved ones, or when it will hit us.
All the scary stories and horror movies we once consumed now seem harmless, fading away in the presence of this real horror: what one human can do to another.
In the weeks before Sasha’s death, everything felt surreal. That’s just what your brain does: It pretends all this isn’t quite real.
You know it is. But you also can’t quite believe it. There’s a threshold, and it protects you.
It’s as if there were a thin glass between you and this enormous, overwhelming suffering. It’s still right there – you can see the wave of devastation, ready to swallow you, but it’s slightly distant. If you stretch out your hand, it’s almost as if you can touch what’s really happening.
But the glass still holds it back, and the overwhelming feelings remain at bay.
And it actually works pretty well.
Until your loved one dies.
The denial is strong, like a thought so painful my mind won’t allow itself to follow it all the way to the end.
I know rage will come, too.
Somewhere there will be more grief.
And then the acceptance will come.
But I know that the emptiness I feel – emptiness where Sasha was – as well as the feeling that this should’ve never, ever happened, not here nor anywhere else – this feeling will never leave.
And for that, I will never be able to forgive – because not only is Sasha dead, that thin glass protecting me has shattered.
My brain can’t protect me anymore. Like it can’t protect all the others mourning their loved ones killed in this war Russia started in Ukraine.
This belief in the good of humanity can’t be restored the way you restore buildings. Nor can it be rebuilt the way Italy plans to rebuild the Mariupol Drama Theater.
I can’t bring Sasha back.
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At the end of our last chat, she told me how tired she was and how she just wanted some pancakes.
A little later she wrote: “You will not believe. I went down for breakfast – and there they were! Pancakes!” She wrote then that she smiled like a happy child for the rest of the day.
When I learned she was killed, my first weird thought was: That place where she is right now – whether it’s heaven or Valhalla – better have some damn good pancakes.
Sasha died attempting to show the world the truth of what’s happening every day in Ukraine. And while her job is done, now it’s our job to continue the fight.