"My life consists of constant deconstruction." Paweł Pieniążek about the work of a war reporter


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May 5, 2023

“My life consists of constant deconstruction.” Paweł Pieniążek about the work of a war reporter

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

War seen in person looks less terrible than on television. However, when I notice that I am becoming less sensitive and danger stops arousing fear in me, I know that it is time to go home and decompress.

Photo by Gr8tgrl, Wikimedia Commons

MAREK KĘSKRAWIEC: In your texts about the war in Ukraine, you rarely share your own thoughts, you don’t make yourself the star, you give voice to the protagonists. This is valuable and rare among today’s reporters, but I’ve always wondered what your personal reflections are. You studied Ukrainian studies, you have been watching Ukraine closely for many years. Has it changed a lot lately?

PAWEŁ PENIAŻEK: Everything that is happening now is a consequence of the change of consciousness that took place in 2013. It started with a small group of people who rebelled against the authorities on Maidan Nezalezhnosti. There were also smaller regional protests. Thanks to this, when the war in Donbas broke out, these people—especially in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine—gave rise to a network of volunteers and enlisted ready to fight for their country. The war itself attracted more people. It was also then that people really started to get to know those from other parts of the country. Previously, Ukraine was very divided and it was rare for anyone from Lviv to go to Donetsk. But even then, as one military man told me, it was still a war of “hobbyist groups”.

A widespread upsurge came in February 2022, to everyone’s surprise.

Yes, the Russian invasion has become a mass experience, and social engagement has exploded. It turned out that their state is much more important to Ukrainians than eight years earlier. A real civil resistance was born. One of the heroines of a piece in Tygodnik told me that she had previously felt that she lived in a post-Soviet country, and although she went to dance competitions as a representative of Ukraine, it was not important to her what was hidden behind the flag under which she performed. But in 2022, she went with her husband to the draft commission, and although she was not accepted into the army, she became a volunteer who did not leave Sloviansk even when it was very dangerous. In 2014, all she thought about was surviving. Now she thinks about how to defeat Russia. This is an example of a very common attitude: people have started to care about Ukraine.

It’s a shame to admit it, but most of us probably slept through that moment. We used to think of Ukrainians as people who hated their state as corrupt, subject to the rule of oligarchs, in which you still had to scheme, pay bribes or go abroad to work in order to live a relatively normal life.

Ukraine is corrupt, but it has also changed tremendously in recent years. The country has opened up and some pathologies are no longer popular. The Lviv historian Yaroslav Hrytsak told me that the current war has greatly strengthened public trust instead of destroying it. People began to believe the president, the army, and the state because it passed the test, resisted Russia and became the most important bulwark for citizens. Although it must be remembered that the government and the Verkhovna Rada still do not enjoy trust. Nevertheless, there is a great need for unity and closeness. People see that the state is the guarantor holding this whole organism together.

Suppose Ukraine wins the war. Won’t all these pathologies suddenly come back?

Ukrainians have been complaining about corruption for years, yet they found themselves in it. Although this is not a quick process, the situation has been changing at least since 2014, as the state has been becoming an important element of society. It will be harder to steal after the war; people are more conscious, and more courageous in expressing their desires, so they will not accept corruption so meekly. Many failing, sluggish institutional reforms will have to accelerate and some things will probably be enforced by the EU. I also think that it will be harder to steal from people who have lost everything and went through hell, while looking them in the eye, as was the case until recently.

It is also very important that Ukrainians become attached to the places where they live through the experience of war. I saw it in Kharkiv, where many earlier wanted to leave, having had enough of, among other things, the impunity of local authorities. When full-scale war broke out, they decided to stay and fight for their homes.

We are talking about a city-symbol of Soviet science and industry. Many Russians thought Kharkiv would want secession.

Kharkiv has changed a lot, the Ukrainian language has become more common, especially among young people, and Ukrainian culture has strengthened there. But even in 2014, the city did not want to follow Donetsk’s footsteps, attempts to “swing” it failed, even though for many of its inhabitants that war was ambiguous, and Russia was not considered evil incarnate. Today it has become black and white.

Millions of Ukrainians now work abroad, for example in Poland. And they see that the world can be organized differently than in the Russian fashion.

This was of particular importance in Donbas. Before 2014, people from there traveled to work mainly in Russia, later in Poland, because since the war in Donbass, the Ukrainian authorities have been gradually hindering entry to Russia, while the European Union has introduced a visa-free regime. People went where it was easier to earn money. After February 24, these changes have accelerated even more. Bombings, violence and atrocities have resulted in a widespread resentment or even hatred of Russia.

Has Moscow finally compromised itself in the eyes of Ukrainians?

After all these “dubious” crimes, there are only a handful left in Ukraine who today dream of closeness with Russia. This is the biggest difference between the war in 2014 and 2022. Then, after all, Russia came with some “positive program”. It quickly occupied the Crimea, proclaimed the idea of building Novorossiya, and people in the east believed that being part of this creation, they would become part of a better-organized state. They would earn more, gain access to Russian universities and its labor market. In 2022, nothing is left of these promises.

Why did the Russians come without any offer, even a poor one, and just wade into this idiotic narrative about freeing Ukraine from Nazism? Has the empire gone mad?

I think that Moscow was lulled by a string of successes in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine in 2014 and growing influence in Africa. The weakness of the US under the presidency of Donald Trump also weighed in. This time, however, they outdid themselves; they did not sense the mood of Ukrainian society at all.

How will these sentiments evolve in a devastated country? What will the return to normal look like for people suddenly burdened with participating in a cruel conflict?

In 2014, many soldiers and volunteers were also worried about this, but somehow they returned to normal, I’d later see them on multiple occasions. Another thing is that the level of cruelty of the current war is incomparable and affects not only soldiers, but millions of civilians. These traumas will surely trouble them. I have already heard from volunteers and soldiers that when they leave for a few days, either from the zone of military operations or from their own city near the front, they quickly want to return there. These are disturbing confessions, because abnormality becomes normality for them, people get used to very bad things, sometimes they underestimate danger. That’s why rotations are so important. Time for a soldier or volunteer to find himself in a relatively normal world. The problem is that, especially at the beginning, the Ukrainian army could not afford rotations. It’s better now.

Has the war hurt you too?

Seen with your own eyes, the war looks less scary than on television. However, I try to observe myself attentively, and when I notice that I am becoming less vulnerable and danger stops arousing fear, I know that it is time to go home. Take a break, decompress. Then when I go back to the front, the fear returns, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

How do you feel in Poland?

Very well, and I don’t know how I do it, but I don’t forget my experiences, I just distance myself from them. Therefore, despite eight years spent in various wars, I can also live out other, ordinary things. However, I know many people who leave the front but take it with them and constantly talk about their experiences.

Have you had any “edge” experiences?

When we were hit by mortar fire in Syria in 2019, I was saved by the open door on an armored land cruiser that stopped the shrapnel; a medic from Burma was killed. I felt terrible, but the next day I recovered and wrote a piece. The editorial office for which I worked at the time then offered me consultations with a psychologist. However, after the first conversation, she did not see the need for further sessions and only asked me to watch myself. For now, when I go home, I go home, I don’t drag the war behind me.

When we met in the summer, you said that the sound of airplanes makes you anxious.

Yes, sometimes it crosses my mind that this means danger. However, this does not happen often. Planes regularly fly over my neighborhood and I only occasionally pay attention to them.

It’s just that some sounds are no longer innocent, but I don’t hide in the bathroom because of them. Today in Warsaw, for example, I heard two strong bangs. They reminded me of gunfire, so I froze for a split second before I realized that it was nothing. It’s hard to cut yourself off from these memories completely.

We have a difficult common history with the Ukrainians, but it is surprising that in the face of Moscow’s invasion and millions of refugees in Poland, no serious voices reminded of the Volhynia massacres [translator’s note: of Poles by Ukrainians], no desire to revise the borders appeared. Has the attitude of Ukrainians towards us changed?

For Ukrainians, Poland has not been a problem for a long time. I’ve been going to Ukraine for over a decade and only once did I hear from a drunk girl that she doesn’t like Poles. I’ve seen many people who sympathize with Bandera, but they identify him as a symbol of resistance to Russia.

This is another defeat for the Kremlin. Nobody wants to believe them that Poland wants to retake Lviv.

Exactly, but on the other hand, let’s remember that before the war, Poles’ sympathy for Ukrainians was low. A powerful linking mechanism began to function: a common enemy. Ukraine as a victim of imperial Russia aroused natural solidarity in Poles. Giedroyc and Mieroszewski’s concept of supporting nations trying to free themselves from Russia is deeply rooted in Polish society. Poles readily support Ukraine in the war, but they do not have to like Ukrainians.

This is clearly visible in social research, but let us remember that in the face of a severe crisis, people in Poland are simply afraid of taking on too heavy a burden of help. That’s totally rational.

In the long term, this refugee crisis will, in my view, have a positive effect on both societies. Various people come to Poland, women, children, not only economic immigration. For weeks, and sometimes months, they live under one roof with Poles. That is why I believe that it will be beneficial—both societies will get to know each other better.

Paweł, how did you become a war correspondent?

It was a bit of a coincidence. When I was writing for Krytyka Polityczna, the protests on the Maidan began. I ended up in Kyiv because of my education, and then there was Donetsk. I thought I was going to observe the anti-Maidan there, but Piotr Andrusieczko persuaded me to go to Sloviansk, where the situation was getting out of control. Uniformed troops were already there, Russians also it turned out later, with captured combat vehicles. Shootings and clashes soon began. It was new to me, I wasn’t even interested in the military prior to this. I gradually became immersed in this world and really matured along with the fighting in Donbas.

It was also then that I noticed that I was most interested in the human condition in the face of war, when the mass of small problems disappears and life in its raw version comes to the surface. I wondered why some people ran away and others stayed to fight. Why you might think you’re going to be a hero and then run after the first explosion, even though you’re a good person. Or you become a hero without seeing these qualities in yourself before.

Are you less interested in the theater of war?

I am less interested in stories of brave companies going into battle and more in all the ambiguities of war. The turning point was 2015; in separatist-controlled Donetsk, I went to a neighborhood under regular shelling. Wars sometimes have a strange schedule. There, relative silence fell from 8am to 4pm. People came out of cellars and saw destroyed houses, broken windows. But every day they cleaned, repaired everything, someone put up a stand, but not even to earn money, just to feel normal, to make contact with others, to resist the rules of war, to try to regain control over life. I’ve seen it in various wars. Someone cleaning their apartment every day because he wanted to preserve what was left of his humanity, someone else gardening. Or going to work to maintain the elementary rhythm of life, even though there was nothing to do there.

I am currently working on a book about everyday life during war in which I will talk about many such situations. About clinging to the scraps of a past everyday life in order to not be broken.

You’ve been to Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine. Different regions of the world, religions, cultures. Is what you just said a common feature of war?

Yes, it is a common experience, although the conflicts are different. There was no frontline fighting in Kabul, just suicide bombings and booby traps. There, as in Syria, I learned that the absence of a visible, highlighted enemy can be even more psychologically devastating. It’s like a continuous siege without a siege. You don’t know who to trust, an attack can come from anywhere. In Karabakh, the conflict was different: ethnic, binary, clear. The “red lines” of divisions were quickly recognizable there. In turn, in Syria, the puzzle was the most multi-layered due to the numerous sides involved in the conflict. It was also there that I saw most clearly what a proxy conflict in which empires get involved is, and what an advantage aviation can create along with the devastation it can bring.

Why do you go to wars?

I think it’s very important to make people aware that war is nothing abstract, like a movie on TV or a computer game. It’s something concrete that can start very easily. Especially in our polarized world, where we stop being able to talk to each other and thus create the ground for a conflict with unknown consequences. Many wars show that you can wake up one morning to find that nothing will ever be the same. You will see armed people on the streets of your city, although you previously underestimated the threat, not believing that war was possible. Pro-Ukrainian activists in Donetsk reproached themselves for a long time for remaining passive, and when they realized that they had to act, it was too late.

How do you assess Polish foreign journalism in comparison to the USA, Great Britain or Germany, where the media is still strong?

For years, no one in Polish editorial offices thought that a journalist’s trip to the war meant more than just tickets and a hotel. There was no training in safety and medicine, no bulletproof vests, helmets or first aid kits. Ukraine has changed a lot, but it’s still not the best. There are no security protocols when a journalist is moving through dangerous territory. This can be tedious, but it is comforting. Even today, there are editorial offices that can send a journalist to a conflict area without adequate insurance or the ability to provide someone or themselves medical assistance.

Do you sometimes have the feeling that when describing the reality of a distant country, you can simply be wrong? You can live in Poland, know it well and have a completely different opinion about it than your own neighbor.

My life consists of constant deconstruction and verification of myself and the world. For example, I am critical of my work in Ukraine in 2013-15. Back then I was inexperienced, too involved. I stood on the Ukrainian side, rooting for it too much. Today, it is a plague in journalism, reporters are known to wear Ukrainian uniforms, mixing journalism with activism, becoming a channel not much different from the messages of the Ministry of Defence. In my opinion, even understanding who is the victim and who is the aggressor, I should always doubt, verify everything, look holistically, because I believe that reliable journalism is much more powerful than propaganda. That is why I do not get involved in fundraising, for example, for the army of Ukraine. I see my job differently.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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