Military correspondent Illia Ponomarenko in front of the destroyed bridge in Irpin: "Be a part of the solution."

Military correspondent Illia Ponomarenko in front of the destroyed bridge in Irpin: "Be a part of the solution."

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

Wielding the Pen Fighting on the Twitter Front in Ukraine

Internationally, war reporter Illia Ponomarenko is likely the best-known Ukrainian after President Volodymyr Zelenkskyy. The secret to his success is providing as much opinion as possible. But where does he draw the line between journalism and activism? A visit in Kyiv.

There were so many times something could have happened to him. On his visits to the front lines in the Donbas, where he has been more than 20 times in the past eight years. Or during the Russian siege on his doorstep in Kyiv, which he reported on almost nonstop in March. One evening, a tank shell struck the apartment building where he lives. The building shook, he says, "but as a journalist, I knew that, with my city under attack, I had to stay."

Illia Ponomarenko, 30, survived everything unscathed. But then, in mid-June, his run of good luck came to an end while riding an e-bike. It was an accident without any obvious cause. Ponomarenko was on his way to a meeting with Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. The Ukrainian ambassador to Albania, who was also present and knew Ponomarenko from Twitter, had suggested that the war reporter join them.

He lost his balance while riding down Victory Avenue, flipped his bike and crashed into a fence. He wasn't wearing a helmet. "I was in a hurry. I don't remember the fall," Ponomarenko says at a meeting in mid-August.

Pink scars run above and below his right eye, another across his nose. There are more on other parts of his body. He says the head injuries aren't the worst of it. He underwent three hours of surgery after the accident. "Considering everything, I'm doing pretty well now," he says.

Impossible to Overlook

Ponomarenko is the best-known Ukrainian journalist outside the country. Diplomats, former military notables and political analysts follow him on Twitter. For anyone following the war in Ukraine closely, it's almost impossible to overlook him, and foreign media interview him regularly. The only other Ukrainian who might be getting more attention than him right now is President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Ponomarenko is something akin to an ambassador for his country on Twitter, though diplomacy isn't always his strong suit: He can be caustic in a way that isn't dissimilar to Andriy Melnyk, the former Ukrainian ambassador to Berlin.

When Russian soldiers invaded his homeland in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, panic broke out in Kyiv, with hundreds of thousands trying to flee. Ponomarenko had stayed up all night. At 4:51 a.m., he tweeted: "This is it guys. See you in victorious Ukraine." For people worldwide, he became the most important chronicler of the war during this period.

Since then, he has been keeping an online diary, adopting a casual, often flippant tone, though consistently optimistic. A burning Russian tank is mocked with "burn motherfucker, burn." He'll give a shout-out for a Ukrainian bomber pilot who has been killed, saying he's now "in heaven forever."

Ponomarenko doesn't shy away from pathos or from violations of political correctness. His tweets are filled with lamentations and accusations, tributes and maledictions, pop culture references and memes. Within a few weeks, his follower count rose from around 78,000 to 1.2 million. "Apparently, I hit a chord," he says.

Yet how can one work as a war reporter when it is your own country that is being bombed? Is it even possible to maintain something like journalistic distance?

We meet in Café Zavertailo in Kyiv's trendy Podil neighborhood. A red, Soviet-era streetcar rattles past outside the door. Cookies are available for sale at the cash register, with the proceeds from them going to the army. The cake boxes are emblazoned with the slogan: "Be Brave Like Ukraine." Otherwise, there's nothing to suggest that there is a fighting front just a few hundred kilometers away.

Ponomarenko is sitting at a table in the middle of the room with his girlfriend Natalya Kusheryava, who he knows from their time working together at the Kyiv Post, the predecessor newspaper of the Kyiv Independent, where he now serves as a reporter. "We've only been together since December, and everything happened very quickly after that," she says. Kusheryava, 27, now works at a communications agency. She smiles at him and says it's not that easy sometimes. Ponomarenko, she says, is "very absorbed." He says everything that has happened in the past few months could fit into an entire lifetime.

Scrappy and Uncompromising

Ponomarenko speaks almost accent-free English. He wears sneakers, a hoodie and T-shirt, gesticulates a lot, smiles little and answers quickly. On Twitter, he may be uncompromising and boisterous, but in person, he's more of a nerd than he is a bully. Many of the answers he gives are vague. He often sounds like a politician who would rather present canned points of view than respond to concrete questions.

Such as the question as to whether the Ponomarenko on Twitter is an invented character, created in that knowledge that the medium craves such types.

On the way from the café to the editorial offices of the Kyiv Independent, he asks for patience. He limps. Ponomarenko suffers from acute thrombosis and is constantly having to take medication and is often in pain. And that was before his bike accident. In his current condition, he won't be reporting from the front lines any time soon.

Before Feb. 24, he traveled frequently to the east, where the Kremlin has been waging war against Ukraine since 2014 with the help of pro-Kremlin separatists and its own troops. This spring, Ponomarenko reported on the battles in Kyiv's suburbs and the initially challenging supply situation. At the bridge in Irpin, he interviewed people fleeing from the occupiers under a hail of artillery shells. He was in the trenches in the Donetsk region, in Kyiv's bunkers and even remained in his apartment when the Russian army was only a few kilometers away. He and his roommates had bought provisions and agreed on escape routes. They also had access to friends' apartments for the event the Russians manage to enter Kyiv.

The Kyiv Independent is located on the fourth floor of a nondescript office building. There is no reception desk, not even a sign. The offices are located in the former premises of a software company.

The newspaper has only been around since the end of last year, and it is financed primarily through donations.

"Our Star, Our Idol"

Olga Rudenko, editor-in-chief of the Kyiv Independent, even landed on the cover of Time magazine in May. Ponomarenko plays a central role at the paper as a military correspondent. "Illia was the only Ukrainian war reporter who spoke good English when the war started," says a friend. A colleague calls him "our star, our idol."

Ponomarenko says he tweeted everything he saw in the first weeks of the war, with up to 20 posts a day. "Now, I post when there is a big issue or other users ask for my opinion. People listen to me."

He says he spends five to seven hours a day on Twitter. Ponomarenko says his "biggest mistake" was not being more active on the social media site earlier. Today, he sees it as a "duty."

The question of whether he is an activist or a journalist is a non-starter for him. He says people on Twitter follow him "because they want honesty," not because they think he's impartial. There has probably never been a conflict in history where the case is as clear as it is here, he says: "Ukraine is the victim of an illegal war of conquest. Standing up for Ukraine is the right thing to do."

The editorial offices of the Kyiv Independent

The editorial offices of the Kyiv Independent

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
Ponomarenko's mobile phone with photos from Bucha

Ponomarenko's mobile phone with photos from Bucha

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

Ponomarenko grew up in eastern Ukraine, an area that was long neglected by the government and has been contested for eight years. Putin's troops have destroyed Volnovakha, the town where he grew up, and the city of Mariupol, where he went to university. "I still have the memories of the happy times there," he says, "but death lies over everything like a shadow. How can objectivity even be possible here?"

He loved his home region, but it was also a source of suffering. Volnovakha is a railroad junction in the Donbas, a mining and steel-making region. "It has always been a problematic place," he says, "characterized by unemployment, alcoholism, crime." In his teens, he moved to a suburb with his mother and sister, and things weren't much different there. "People were just limited. The only thing they knew was school and then working in a factory."

When he was 16, his best friend died of cancer. "That was probably the shock I needed to leave," he says. "I thought there must be more to life." He learned English and studied international relations in Mariupol.

Together with 20 other students and some professors, he organized the local Maidan protest at the end of 2013 supporting the pro-European revolution that had begun shortly before in Kyiv. In early 2014, President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia, Putin occupied Crimea and his troops started destabilizing the Donbas. Ponomarenko witnessed how militias led by Moscow took control of Mariupol until Ukrainian troops, with the help of the Azov Regiment, liberated the city.

When fighting broke out on the streets, he wrote an email to the BBC, offering to work as a reporter on the scene. "My phone rang at four in the morning, and 10 minutes later, I was live on the radio," he says. Since then, he has reported repeatedly for the station from Mariupol.

After graduation, Ponomarenko moved back to Volnovakha to work at the local newspaper, Our Word. Looking for a new challenge, in May 2016, he boarded a train to Kyiv with his backpack and $100.

Ponomarenko now gets about one article a week published in the Kyiv Independent, many of them lengthy analyses focusing on Ukraine's handling of the war. His reports are full of substance mostly when it comes to Ukraine's successes. He writes critical pieces less often, on the lack of equipment and tactical leadership in the artillery war, for example. Sometimes, his articles sound like his tweets – offering motivational speeches to the people and their supporters, or he settles scores with his critics. On August 24, the six-month anniversary of the war, he wrote: "Be part of the solution, however you can, or get out of the way."

Ukraine was invaded by its supposedly vastly more powerful neighbor. It is striving for freedom and is dependent, above all, on the goodwill of its donors. What Ponomarenko is doing can only be called journalism to a certain extent. Journalism requires distance, and Ponomarenko lacks that most of the time. But he is doing something that is good for his country, providing it the mindset it has been yearning for: assurance and self-confidence, rather than timidity and excuses.

When asked again where he sees the line between journalism and activism, Ponomarenko provides an example. "When the chief of staff of the Ukrainian army had his birthday, I initially wanted to congratulate him on Twitter." After a moment's thought, he says, he decided against it.

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