Tuesday, April 16, 2024

‘A Hug Is An Instant Way To Show I’m Heartbroken For Them.’ How Are You Today… Lisette Reymer on Reporting From Ukraine

In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check out previous chats with people like Hayley HoltRoseanne Liang and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Today we chat to Lisette Reymer.

When Capsule talks to Newshub European correspondent Lisette Reymer, it’s 10.30pm and she and cameraman Dan Pannett are in Stockholm, editing their news footage after leaving Ukraine the day before. She’s beside herself at the – quote – “luxurious” concept of getting five hours sleep and not being woken up by an air-raid siren.

For the past four months, the duo has been back and forth to the war zone in Ukraine and she talks to Capsule about how she’s coping, the resilience of the Ukrainian people and the value of dark humour when you’re in a war zone.

How are you? Where are you?
I’m good! I’m in Sweden, Stockholm. Even I don’t really know where I am, to be fair. We keep losing track!

How long have you been travelling back and forth to Ukraine now?
Our first trip to Kiev was mid-Feb, but we’d been pushing and pushing for it for what felt like a month beforehand, trying to get there. It’s a monster of a process to get it signed off but that also means there are so many levels of support, which is comforting. We’ve been back and forth four times now [to Ukraine]. Before this, I’d been back and forth to Finland and Paris a couple of times; I’d gone on tour with the All Blacks. There had been a lot of Royal content. It’s hard to remember. My life feels like it’s just Ukraine now.

What a time to be in Europe.
What a time! When I first moved to here, work sent me on a hostile training course. It’s a week – it’s so intense; they fake kidnap you, they do checkpoints, role plays where you get interrogated by the military, you learn how to dodge missiles and protect yourself from gun fire. It all seems super far-fetched – I was like, ‘I’m never going to need any of these skills’. And now it’s been the story of 2022 for me. Apart from the kidnapping part! Fingers crossed.

Jesus… I’m glad to see you’ve still got your dark sense of humour intact.
Oh yeah. We’re journalists!

Journalist Lisette Reymer in the Ukraine, with her security team, standing in the street
Lisette Reymer and cameraman Dan (centre) with their security team in Ukraine.

I saw on your Twitter that just yesterday you were in a bunker in Ukraine at 3am. When you move to another country, how long does it take for your nervous system to settle down after something like that?
It takes a while – since I’ve started going there, I don’t think I’ve properly stopped being triggered by things. I hear a siren and I assume it’s an air-raid siren. If someone knocks on our door, we think it’s the security team telling us that we need to run to a bomb shelter. Which is not normal!

When the invasion of Ukraine started, there was a global sense of ‘how can this be happening?’ and that surely it would end soon. We’re now on month four – has the mood on the street changed, is a sense of fatigue coming in?
They’re not fatigued, I don’t think. That’s not the word I’d use. They’ve always been extremely confident and optimistic about winning; the Ukrainians have backed themselves more than the rest of the world has. And there’s even more of that, now that they’re seeing results and that Putin isn’t having the success that he thought he was going to. So that’s bolstered their confidence.

But then you can’t deny that there is an immense sadness in the air. The suffering is beyond anything you can imagine; it is just torture what they’ve gone through. Everyone is affected and even though they are super resilient, it’s come at a huge cost already… and it’s not ending any time soon.

Despite all this unbelievable pain, people are still searching for this sense of happiness.

We noticed this time when we went back in Kiev, it was a beautiful, sunny day. Weather makes such a difference – when the war started, it was bitterly winter, everything was gloomy and miserable. Now there’s a different level of misery but in the weekend, the sun was shining and you could see people were out trying to enjoy the sunshine, people taking photos of their kids on a sunny day. The human spirit is so fascinating – despite all this unbelievable, unimaginable pain, people are still searching for this sense of happiness.

When you first went over in February, how immediate was that culture shock at what you were seeing?
Our first trip was before the war and I was most frightened going in for that trip, and I now look back and I’m like ‘hilarious that that was scary to me, because the war hadn’t even started yet’. But now you go in and you feel almost quite comfortable; it’s a hard thing to explain.

When we first arrived, we’d talk to people and they’d be like ‘Oh, I’m not worried. But I’ve got an escape plan, $10,000 cash, three canisters of fuel to get me across the border and five guns at home, which I’ve been explaining to my seven-year-old kid.’ I remember noticing the bomb shelters all over the city but there were no check points or anything. And then when we returned two weeks later, everything had changed.

When did you experience the first air-raid siren?
We had one on our first night in Lviv. They happen every day now, multiple times every day. They’re the most unsettling at night time and they happen a lot at night. So all night, you’re up. You get back to your room, take a deep breath, rest your head and then you’re up again 15 minutes later with another siren.

What are the shelters like?
They’re very quiet. Everyone is trying to sleep. People bring their animals down there. But there’s a shelter keeper in every shelter – you come down to the shelter and there’s a Ukrainian man who will show you to your mattress, show you where the kettle is. Imagine that being your job!

I know this is a dumb question but how are you coping with all this, mentally? Because you must have been in survival mode for so long.
It’s hard to answer and I think about it a lot, because people ask me about it a lot – particularly from my work team, who are always checking in. And the support system from work is always there when we need it. I’m a tiny bit scared that it’s going to hit me like a tonne of bricks in a year or so.

But I’m very lucky – I work with Dan [Pannett] 24/7, who is the cameraman, and we’ve got a great relationship, so we talk non-stop. Sometimes it’s about the stupidest stuff and we laugh a surprising amount, just because we have to keep some level of positivity.

It’s that human desire to be happy when you can… that’s what gets you through.

There was this one day in Lviv and we were in the most horrendous situation – still now, it can make me cry if I talk about it – where everyone was running to get on the trains to get out of the country. Dan has his headphones in when he’s filming and I can talk to him through the microphone and if I see something, I’ll tell him so he can get a shot of it.

In the microphone, I said ‘Girl in the puffer jacket!’ and it was the middle of winter, so literally everyone was in a puffer jacket. And he was like, ‘What a f—king stupid description! “Girl in a puffer jacket?!”’ And we just started hysterically laughing as this kind of survival mechanism because it was so bad. I mean, we toned it down right away! But again, it’s that human desire to be happy when you can… that’s what gets you through.

I was looking at your Twitter and I saw that you were in Gallipoli this year for Anzac Day. How did it feel being there in the midst of all this?
[Pauses] I didn’t like it. I found it really… this is going to be controversial but I found it really difficult to be there, at first. Once I’d covered the story and had good conversations with historians, I had a way better understanding of it.

But there was a lot of discussion as to whether Turkey would allow New Zealand and Australia to keep coming back to the peninsula, given the fact that we were the invaders into their land. And in my brain, because I was so caught up in Ukraine and Russia, I was like… ‘Well, in 100 years’ time, are the Russians going to come back to Ukraine and do a commemoration there of how brave their soldiers were?’

Wow. That is such a good point.
I was really working myself up about it but I can see now that I had real tunnel vision about it, because I’d been so immersed in Ukraine. But so much has changed in the world now, so much has changed in how we see war – you really can’t compare the two. And the relationship between Turkey, Australia and New Zealand is so incredible and valuable; the fact that they can all now stand together and say ‘this was a devastating time for all of us.’ It’s a remarkable relationship now. But it wasn’t easy getting my mind around one conflict versus another.

It’s an important note to consider as well because it reminds me of the sanctions conversation, somewhat. When you sanction a country to punish its government, it’s not the people in charge who suffer. I understand it as a political move but also, it takes a huge toll on a population who haven’t asked for any of this.
Totally – there’s so much stuff like this that’s going on. I know Russians who I just feel sick for at the moment because the attitude around Russians is so negative and so many Russians have absolutely nothing to do with this war.

When we crossed the border yesterday, we saw these two little boys – I reckon aged five and seven – and they were crossing the border with a woman and the little boys had Russian passports. The woman had a Ukrainian passport and she was hiding the Russian passports in her Ukrainian one, and when she came through the checkpoint, she gave the two boys these little Ukrainian flags to wave, because the feeling towards Russians is so bad.

These are young children, there’s no way they are responsible or involved in what’s happening but there’s such an awful feeling there towards Russians, she felt like she had to give them little flags to wave to show ‘we come in peace.’ It’s just a tragedy, from all sides.

The only way you can cope with that is knowing that they want the story out, they want the world to know about what’s happening.

I think it’s really important to look at it in that way – war is a tragedy for everyone involved.
When you asked about the mental health side of things, knowing how important the work is and what value it is providing is a huge part of how you cope. You are talking to people in the most vulnerable situation – we’re going up to people after their whole lives have been destroyed and we’re asking them to talk to us, on camera. Like filming someone and not turning the camera off when they start crying… that’s not a normal feeling.

The only way you can cope with that is knowing that they want the story out, they want the world to know about what’s happening. People have said to me, ‘it’s so nice how you hug them or touch their arm’ but that is a human response. A lot of the time there’s no shared language, things are going through a translator but a hug is an instant way to show that I am just heartbroken for what they’re going through.

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