A reporter’s call to service in Ukraine, and what is left behind

KYIV – One year ago, news broke that the dam at Ukraine’s Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant was destroyed in an explosion.

That unleashed a torrent of water that burst the banks of the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine, swallowing up towns and farmlands and destroying nature preserves. Upriver from the dam is one of Europe’s largest nuclear power stations, which was also threatened as it relies on the river to cool the reactor.

Ukrainian and international investigators have determined that Russia set the explosives from inside the Kakhovka dam, destroying the massive structure that was built in the Soviet era and completed in 1956. The blast on June 6th, 2023 caused what is widely considered the worst ecological disaster in Europe since Chernobyl.

Kakhovka Reservori on June 7, 2022 (top) and June 18 (bottom) of 2023, before and after the Kakhovka Dam breach (Photo by Lauren Dauphin/NASA Earth Observatory)

Our Report for the World corps member, Dmytro Simonov, who covers the environment for Ukraine’s leading digital news organization, Ukrainska Pravda, or UP, warned about the dangers related to Russia’s control of the dam in March 2023, and after the explosion, he helped explain the devastation and provided context on what the story meant.

As it became clear to the world that Russia, which had controlled the area surrounding the dam since the start of the war, had placed explosives inside the dam, Simonov was reporting on perhaps the most egregious case of “ecocide” in the modern history of warfare. He was serving his country and UP’s readers by enlightening and informing them on the complex and layered challenges posed by Russia’s concerted attack on Ukraine’s environment. Now that assault is the basis for a ground-breaking prosecution that Ukraine plans to bring before its own courts and eventually to the International Criminal Court seeking financial restitution against Russia for the intentional destruction of Ukraine’s environment, a newly established category of war crime, referred to as “ecocide.”

We were anticipating more coverage by Simonov on this first anniversary of the explosion of the dam, but that will not be happening. Simonov has been mobilized for military service, and he has been called to focus on the frontlines not the frontpage. He, like all Ukrainian males between the ages of 25 and 60, are required to register for service, to take a physical exam and, if approved, be eligible to fight for the Ukrainian military. With a newly strengthened law requiring registration and imposing increased fines for draft dodgers, a surge in young men across all of Ukrainian society are being enlisted at a time when the war appears to be at a tipping point.

Dymtro Simonov, at the Ukrainska Pravda newsroom, on the day he received the news he was being called to serve in Ukraine’s military (Photo by Charles Sennott/The GroundTruth Project)

The fate of Ukraine hangs in the balance as Russian forces advance near the northeastern region of Kharkiv, while Ukraine’s military deals with the consequences of a seven-month delay in funding caused in large part by a politically divided U.S. House of Representatives over the question of what role the U.S. should play in the war.

On my trip to Kyiv last month, I met with Simonov, 32, in a buzzing UP newsroom with breaking news unfolding about advances by Russian troops. It was the same day that he received the news that he was being conscripted by the military. Simonov is an outstanding journalist who joined our program in 2022 to serve his community by informing and enlightening them on the impact of the war on Ukraine’s environment. He has also reported extensively on how some industrialists and land developers have used the distraction of the war and reconstruction efforts to push forward on projects that are damaging the local ecosystems.

This image made from video provided by Ukraine’s Presidential Office shows the damaged Kakhovka dam near Kherson, Ukraine, Tuesday, June 6, 2023. Ukraine on Tuesday accused Russian forces of blowing up a major dam and hydroelectric power station in a part of southern Ukraine that Russia controls, sending water gushing from the breached facility and risking massive flooding. (Photo by Ukraine’s Presidential Office/AP)

We intended to discuss plans for the coverage of the anniversary of the dam explosion. But suddenly, our conversation was much more about his wife and how he would tell his two young children about the fact that he would be going to war and would likely not be seeing them for quite a while. Part of the new mobilization is a dramatic shift in which troops are being informed that they should not expect to come home until the war is over.

“I am going to, of course, answer the call to service. It is our duty and so I am going. I do not yet know where I will be assigned or when this will all end,” said Simonov, his voice trailing off a bit with the heavy emotion evident in his tone as he stared out blankly from his desk in the bustling newsroom.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on Ukraine to exempt journalists from the general mobilization. CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Gulnoza Said wrote in a 2022 statement, “Ukrainian authorities must allow the country’s journalists to continue covering the war and defending the truth, and exempt them from compulsory military service.”

“Ukrainian authorities know very well that the information war is no less important than the war in trenches,” she added.

Simonov agrees that journalism is critical and that there should be a way for news organizations to be exempt from the mobilization laws. But he also said he knows that this is a fateful hour for Ukraine and that he is at peace with his decision to answer the call to service.

“Journalism that serves Ukraine matters, and I believe in that. But it will not mean anything if we do not have a country and a future where we can set our own path for democracy,” said Simonov, adding that when his military service is over, he plans to return to the public service of journalism and to continue his work reporting on the environment.

UP’s Editor-in-Chief, Sevgil Musaeieva, said that eight journalists from her newsroom have joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion in early 2022. “This is sad that such a talented journalist, unique in his expertise on climate change, has to join an army,” Musaeieva said, referring to Simonov. She added, “He is the best on this topic in Ukraine and nobody can replace him. I respect this choice. But it’s hard and heartbreaking for me every single time.”

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