As U.S. troops were put on high alert late January after tensions between Russia and Ukraine increased, Jonathan Austin found himself in Donetsk – near the Russian-Ukraine border, fearing Russian President Vladimir Putin could attack at any moment.
The CTV News video producer had been on assignment in Ukraine for nearly 10 days, leaving on Feb. 2. He had been documenting and reporting in preparation should Russia invade.
He told The Herald-Mail in a telephone interview this week that he knew the invasion was coming, but he didn’t know if it was going to be in the middle of the night, during the weekend when he was out with friends or when he was visiting his parents in Hagerstown.
Then came Feb. 24, when Putin launched a wide-scale attack against Ukraine. Austin said he was already packed and ready to go back – not really unpacked after his first trip to Ukraine earlier in the month.
Flying from Dulles International Airport in Virginia through Munich, Austin finally arrived in Kraków, Poland. From there he headed for the Medyka border crossing – where thousands of Ukrainians sought refuge, bringing whatever they could carry, according to Austin.
For the first three days after the attack, he said he saw the number of tents grow by the thousands. Eventually, a textile plant nearby filled with refugees. First, there were 500,000 people, then 700,000, according to Austin.
“Some people crossed (the border) on foot, some people crossed in cars, some people crossed in these big buses,” Austin said.
He added that he noticed younger men going back into Ukraine from Poland to help fight. The closest city from Medyka is Lviv, Ukraine – which was becoming a safe haven for many Ukrainians, but was preparing for siege at any moment.
Austin said he could feel the tension in the air upon arrival in Lviv, where he spent the remainder of his assignment.
Curfews were put in place to keep people from being out past 8 pm
Air raid sirens would go off throughout the day, causing people to disperse into stores, restaurants and hotel lobbies.
Austin said he spent some time in Jerusalem during the 2014 Gaza war. The difference between the two conflicts is that Gaza wasn’t a full blown war, according to Austin.
Air raid sirens into the morning
Austin said the hotel he stayed in while in Lviv was booked up by Ukrainian families looking to evacuate the country.
For the first couple of nights, he went down to the bomb shelter in his hotel while air raid sirens went off and said there were “like 100 to 200 people at max at this hotel,” children included.
“People would actually come down to the bomb shelter with their backpacks,” he said. “They didn’t know how long they were going to be down there… they were extremely nervous.”
Austin said he was woken up in the middle of the night at least twice by the air raid sirens, leading into the morning.
After a while, he said he stopped going to the hotel bunker, claiming he felt he didn’t need to.
On March 18, Russian forces bombed a military aircraft repair facility 22 miles away from Austin’s hotel. At the time, it was the closest Russia had come to attack the western city.
Locals and the war effort
People were lining up to catch a train out of Ukraine – in the thousands, according to Austin. There were buses filled with people trying to cross the border.
“So many buses I’ve ever seen,” Austin said. “It looked like a college sporting event.”
Those who stayed helped with the war effort. Austin said he recalled learning about a steel factory that was donating steel, making anti-tank obstacles and spike strips the size of a tissue box. There was another factory with young volunteers making camouflage netting for the military. Hospitals in Lviv created more room for patients coming from all over the country.
Some Ukrainian officials banned the sale of alcohol, causing a beer brewery to make Molotov cocktails, according to Austin.
“They made about a couple hundred,” he said.
As locals helped with the war effort, bodies of Ukraine soldiers were brought into the city for burial.
Austin said he found himself in a tough spot having to shoot video of these funerals for his news company. For him as a videographer, he said he couldn’t let it affect him as much.
“That was kind of hard to shoot, to be honest,” Austin said. “You’re filming people that are crying and the media is there and these people are trying to have a personal moment.”
He added that he thinks it is important for people to see that footage and the stories that come out of it, because the people of Ukraine want to tell their story. They want the world to know what they are feeling.
The local Hagerstonian
Austin grew up in Hagerstown – a North Hagerstown High School alumnus.
He started off as a production assistant for what was NBC 25 WHAG, today known as WDVM, based in Hagerstown. He originally was on track to work in the film industry before working for CTV News, a network television station in Canada.
He has spent 12 years as a video journalist with the company at its foreign bureau in Washington, DC
Austin told The Herald-Mail in a text message Tuesday that he was to travel back to Ukraine on Friday – this time to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.
After a month of trying to seize the capital and failing, Putin has shifted away from Kyiv. But reports from the formerly Russian-occupied suburbs show evidence that thousands of citizens – men, women and children – were tortured and executed before the Russians pulled out.