The invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the conflict on Ukrainian soil complete 116 days this Sunday (19). Among the journalistic coverage of the fight made by Brazilians, what stood out – once again – was the professional commitment, sensitivity, seriousness and talent of the reporter Roberto Cabrini, sent to Ukraine by the RecordTV.
Cabrini stayed for 24 days in Ukraine during the month of March 2022. The work generated a series of dramatic and engaging reports for the broadcaster. And now the strong and revealing Ukraine missiondocumentary along the lines of Kabul missioncarried out by him and his co-worker months ago, during the conflict in Afghanistan. Ukraine mission part of the streaming service catalog PlayPlusgives RecordTVwith a release date to subscribers set for June 14.
In this conversation with R7 Interview, escorted home by Dasha, one of his two dogs (“we live here by their permission”, he jokes), Cabrini details passages and enumerates dramas and difficulties experienced in Ukrainian territory. He compares actions in Afghanistan and Ukraine. He details the shock caused by the death of a fellow American journalist, shot by Russians on March 13, less than 2,000 meters from where he was, and comments on the most important journalistic investigations carried out in his brilliant career. A wealth of conversation amid the story of suffering and risk on all sides. Follow:
What is most difficult in journalistic coverage of a war?
We spent 24 days on Ukrainian territory in this new mission. Every war has a point in common and, in the same way, each one of them has its particularities. In the case of Ukraine, one of the first challenges was the very intense cold, especially in the first days. We took between minus 6 and 12 degrees.
As you highlighted common situations and particularities, analyze these two points in a comparison between the work in the conflict in Afghanistan, raw material of the documentary Kabul missionand the one carried out now, which generated the Ukraine mission.
In Afghanistan there is religious fundamentalism. The Taliban, who had controlled the country from the inside. And the dramatic departure from the country of the Americans, who tried for 20 years to exterminate the Taliban, without success. They failed and, at one point, allied themselves with them to fight a tougher enemy: the Islamic State. So, when we were in Afghanistan, the biggest threat came from the risk of IS actions. Terrorist attacks in general. Extreme gestures and unexpected acts are common among religious fundamentalists. They can treat you with generosity and attention or kill you, from one moment to the next, if they don’t like a gesture, attitude or something that has arisen and related to you. These situations are almost always unpredictable.
And in Ukraine?
On the other hand, in Afghanistan there has not been a large-scale attack as has occurred since the beginning of the invasion of Ukrainian territory by Russia, one of the greatest war powers and war machines in the world, with powerful weapons and systematic attacks. It is more tense and apparently more dangerous in Ukraine, although in Afghanistan there was always the risk of surprises generated by religious fundamentalism. Both situations are dangerous, but the war in Ukraine, attacked by a powerful army, poses greater risks.
The Ukrainians reacted to the invasion with determination from the beginning.
With great courage. Older adults, for the most part, still have ties to Russia. They speak Russian and preserve other cultural references. But young people, teenagers and even young adults, in the supreme majority, flee the invader’s language. They advocate strengthening Ukraine’s political, social and economic ties with the European Union and, in military terms, joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, the military alliance of Western countries, something viscerally condemned by the Russian government. It is common to see in villages, for example, people producing and carrying rudimentary weapons to resist Russian forces.
Patriotism speaks loudly.
Exactly. As a result, the Russians find it difficult to completely take over Kiev — a beautiful, historic city of writers and poets — and dominate the country. They did not foresee resistance on this scale. It is one thing to arrive and subjugate militarily. The other is to get internal support to definitely take over power. This would require popular support — but the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians support the struggle for the country’s freedom.
Your journey from the Polish border to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, was complicated, wasn’t it?
Very tense. There was a lot of difficulty in getting around in Ukraine. Train schedules from cities near the western borders to Kiev were erratic, rare, often only overnight. They expressly recommended not to produce any light inside the wagons during the trip. Cellphone lights, flashlights, fire from lighters and the like could draw the Russians’ attention and trigger an attack on the train. And isn’t it that someone lit a lighter or turned on a cell phone right on the most dangerous part of the trip, in the Kiev metropolitan area, where there was a very large concentration of Russian artillery? In personal terms, it was one of the most stressful moments for us.
And the food?
Another challenging point. At that time, in Kiev, there were curfews of up to 35 uninterrupted hours. As we left early and returned late, many times everything was closed because of the ring. Eating, in those moments, became something very complicated. We tried to do some planning within that reality. We were sometimes isolated at the lodging point. Not to mention that, at first, it was difficult to find minimally structured places to stay.
Was there tension also at bedtime, even afterward, at the hotel in Kiev?
Lots of. The vast majority of sirens announcing air strikes were made at night and at dawn, when most Russian air and artillery attacks took place. We could hear the explosions. In this situation, you can imagine that sleep was extremely cut, peaked, and we woke up early every day to check the targets of night attacks. Once, one of them hit a spot less than 1,000 meters from where we were staying. We were also constantly concerned with identifying and mapping the location of the air-raid shelters we could turn to in the event of an attack that caught us unprotected.
How was the history of the shopping mall you visited?
We went to this mall the first few days in Kiev to eat, buy something and do interviews. It worked normally, intact, with a good amount of people. Days later, we returned with it practically destroyed by Russian air strikes. The thought that he might have been targeted while we were there is immediate, you can’t help it.
What about the children’s hospital?
We record dramatic stories of heroic doctors performing complicated surgeries on injured children while outside, the Russians punished buildings and killed civilians in bombings. On top of that, the doctors had to deal with the structural and supply difficulties created by the relentless attacks on the region. Sad thing.
Have you witnessed family dramas?
Many. Men cannot leave the country. They are forced by the government to stay in order to be included in the war, if that is the case. The women and children were released. Families broke up with the departure of the women, with their children and grandchildren, to border countries. And they break for good because many of these men died and still die in combat.
On Sunday, March 13, 50-year-old American journalist Brent Renaud, who worked for The New York Times, was shot and killed by Russian troops in the Ukrainian city of Irpin, in the Kiev metropolitan region. A reporter accompanying him, also hit, was taken to a Kiev hospital.
We were less than 2,000 meters from the place where he was killed. We covered the same thing that day, in two different sectors of Irpin: the situation of Ukrainians who were taking refuge, leaving their homes hastily, in a situation of abandonment and despair, because the region was the target of severe attacks by the Russians.
Were you shaken to learn of Renaud’s death?
One of the common points in these coverages is that journalists from different countries and different cultures help each other. Natural reaction of solidarity in the face of risk situations. We exchange information about more and less dangerous places, where it is or is not possible to pass and characters who can be interviewed, among other things. Most journalists stay close, often in the same hotels and lodgings. We meet at breakfast, talk a little, exchange some information during the day, talk at night. So when a journalist dies, we are all shaken.
Does it cross your mind that it could have been you?
Of course it does. We all know something like this could happen. Let’s go prepared for this. It’s part of the act of covering a war. People die in wars. But when it happens, the shake-up is inevitable.
Do these episodes make you think about giving up?
No way. We feel a lot. They are professionals like us. Their families are waiting for their return, as are ours. Renaud, for example, I knew his work well. We meet in previous coverages and in this one. He was a great professional and good people. We are shaken, but nothing that influences the decision to continue to cover or not. Ball forward: the journalistic obligation follows.
You have a long, award-winning career, filled with investigations and extensive national and international coverage. Remember the main ones.
The war in Iraq and now the actions in Afghanistan and Ukraine were challenging jobs. The investigation of the rotten band in police sectors was another tense moment in his career. It is an enemy that threatens you. When you find fugitives before the cops, the pressure is high. PC Farias paid an allowance to corrupt sectors of the police not to be located. Georgina de Freitas, INSS fraudster, did the same thing. The investigation into pedophilia involving great leaders of the Catholic Church, with sexual abuse of youths and altar boys, which won me the Esso Prize in journalism, was another laborious investigation.
You must have been pressured to stop these jobs…
On many occasions. I often say that pressure is the first and direct product of any investigation. Investigated don’t send flowers. They intimidate, sue, threaten the professional, your family, your work team, the communication vehicle in which you work, all of that. But when someone tries to intimidate you, it’s the biggest sign that you’re on to something important. As in my case, as I said, these risks are not enough to make me back down, let’s go ahead.