As It Happens·Q&A

Ukrainian journalism Pulitzer is bittersweet, says slain reporter's colleague

Maryana Drach is glad the Pulizer Board awarded a special citation on to Ukrainian journalists covering the war in their home country, but she wishes her colleague Vira Hyrych was still alive to see it. 

Radio Liberty's Vira Hyrych is 1 of at least 7 Ukrainian journalists killed since the war began

Vira Hyrych, a reporter for Radio Liberty, is one of at least seven journalists who have been killed in Ukraine since the war began in February. (Vira Hyrych/Facebook)

Story Transcript

Maryana Drach is glad the Pulitzer Board awarded a special citation to Ukrainian journalists, but she wishes her colleague Vira Hyrych was still alive to see it. 

The prestigious U.S. award commended Ukrainian journalists for "their courage, endurance and commitment to truthful reporting during Vladimir Putin's ruthless invasion of their country and his propaganda war in Russia."

"Despite bombardment, abductions, occupation and even deaths in their ranks, they have persisted in their effort to provide an accurate picture of a terrible reality, doing honour to Ukraine and to journalists around the world," the citation reads.

Hyrych, a reporter for Radio Liberty, was killed in April when a Russian missile attack struck her apartment complex in Kyiv. She is one of at least seven journalists who have been killed in Ukraine since the war began in February, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Drach, director of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty's Ukrainian Service, spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about Hyrych's career and legacy. Here is part of their conversation. 

Maryana, how did it feel to hear that Vira would be honoured with a Pulitzer?

I'm very happy that Ukrainian journalists got [a] Pulitzer. But this is not the occasion that I would have ever imagined, because we never wanted [to] speak about Vira in the past tense.

What do you think Vira would have thought of this award?

She would be proud that the world knows now about Ukrainian journalism.

But maybe this is the introduction, because I think it is important to speak today about Ukrainian producers and fixers that help Western media to report on the country. And they play a very, very important role.

Vira herself was a journalist that was at the heart of our newsroom, and she also helped other journalists to produce stories on Ukraine. 

Yes, I don't think the public necessarily realizes the work that local fixers do in helping international journalists, and at some risk as well. They are often very vulnerable.

Yes, they are vulnerable. And Vira was in our newsroom. She was in touch with our field correspondents that often work [on the] front lines in different parts of Ukraine — in Donetsk region, in Kharkiv region, in Odessa, across Ukraine. 

Hyrych's friends and family pay their respects during the funeral service in St. Michaels Cathedral on May 3 in Kyiv. (Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

What made Vira such a good journalist?

I think that she is a person with a big heart, compassion [and] empathy. And Vira's son, it was very difficult for him to come to terms with her death, and he wrote in memory of his mother that she was selfless

I think that is what makes Vira very special, because she really tried to help others.

Her last story that she helped to produce is about Holocaust survivors — a woman in her 80s that was able to leave besieged Mariupol, and her husband himself survived the blockade of Leningrad during World War II.

Vira was very happy that we found this unique story. This woman, she helped to build Mariupol and then she had to hide in basements in the city from bombings. And it was a very strong story that Vira told the world.

You mentioned Vira's son. How old is he?

He's turning 30. And she is survived by her parents. 

This is actually the reason why Vira returned to Kyiv. Because after the shelling of Kyiv started, she went to western Ukraine. But then she returned for a special reason. She wanted to see her parents that lived under Russian occupation for a month, and she was extremely worried about them.

[Her parents] spent that month without heating, without water. They had [a] well, and they had a stove and neighbours that helped them, but they did not have access to civilization for a month. And Vira returned back to take care of her parents.

Rescuers carry the Hyrych's body from a damaged apartment building following Russian missile strikes in Kyiv on April 29. (Sergei Supinky/AFP/Getty Images)

You mentioned that Vira was killed when the building in which she lived was struck by a [missile] attack. What was it like at Radio Liberty for all of you when you heard that news?

It was an extreme shock. And I can tell you that I remember vividly how that happened because we contacted Vira in the evening. It appeared that the [missile] hit her residential complex, but it was not clear. We tried to call emergency police … and they said that Vira's name was not on the list of people that were killed or missing or evacuated from that building. And only the next morning we learned that she died.

Rescue workers stopped searching for people. And then my colleagues present at the location asked them to search again. They called her phone. The phone rang and the rescue workers started to dig again. In half an hour, they found [her body].

It was a tremendous shock for the newsroom, and I can't even describe what we felt.

You can't imagine how it is for journalists in Ukraine who spent their time in bomb shelters, evacuate their families and, at the same time, report the news.- Maryana Drach, Radio Free Europe

As you move forward, what does this award mean for those of you who are still covering this war?

This is an important award for Ukrainian journalists and it is an important event for the media community. But it's also a very bitter event because it's a devastating war.

People not only cover the war; they live in the country. 

Russia attacked Ukraine without any reason. And you can't imagine how it is for journalists in Ukraine who spent their time in bomb shelters, evacuate their families and, at the same time, report the news.

So it is an important award, but this is something very painful to get this award in such times. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Paul MacInnis. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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