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Interview with war reporter: "Being at the front is a thrill"


Highlights: War reporter Caleb Larson was on the road with his friend Arman Soldin in eastern Ukraine. Soldin, who reported for AFP, was killed in a Russian missile attack. Larson was in the war zone five times, a total of seven months, it is his first war. He talks about his friend's death, the dangers of his job and why he continues anyway. The American lives in Berlin and works as a freelance journalist for the AP news agency and Deutsche Welle, among others.

War reporter Caleb Larson at the side of a Ukrainian soldier. © Caleb Larson

In this interview, war reporter Caleb Larson talks about his mission to Ukraine, the death of a friend and his personal motivation.

Munich – The war in Ukraine is claiming many victims – including journalists. Just recently, 32-year-old Arman Soldin, who reported for the AFP news agency, died in a Russian missile attack. Caleb Larson (31) was on the road with Soldin in the war zone for a long time. The American lives in Berlin and works as a freelance journalist for the AP news agency and Deutsche Welle, among others. He was in the war zone five times, a total of seven months. It is his first war. In this interview, he talks about his murdered friend, the dangers of his job – and explains why he continues anyway.

Mr. Larson, you met Arman Soldin in eastern Ukraine.

I went to the Donbass with other journalists. Kramatorsk is quite close to the front line, but reasonably safe. In the beginning, we were the only journalists in the area. Eventually, after about two weeks, Arman and his team joined them. We saw each other practically every evening. During the day we were looking for stories, in the evening we sat together in the hotel.

What kind of person was he?

There is quite a bit of competition in war reporting. You protect your stories and don't like to tell what you're working on. Arman was different. Although there was a ban on alcohol, he managed to organize a few bottles. Then he said, "Hey, let's sit down and talk about the day." He was extremely open and nice.

How did you find out he was dead?

I have a Whatsapp group with the people from back then. One of them saw a message on Twitter, posted it in the group and wrote: Oh my God, Arman is dead.

A shock ...

Absolutely, yes. Anyone who goes to Ukraine knows what the consequences can be. But there is a kind of useful optimism that prevents you from really becoming aware of the danger. In some situations, you just feel the adrenaline rush and think to yourself: Wow, that was crazy. But you also feel fearless and unstoppable.

Has your friend's death changed you?

I would say that I am now aware of the dangers in a different way. You see death and destruction, a lot of bad things. But as long as it doesn't affect anyone you know personally, you can keep all that away from you. It's different with Arman.


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What is the life of a war correspondent like?

90 percent boredom, ten percent absolute terror. There were situations when something exploded not far from me. You never know exactly where the enemy artillery fire is coming from, which can be frightening. That's why preparation is everything. Before we go to the front, we look online to see where the fighting took place, talk to colleagues who have just come from there. Your senses become sharper.

It sounds like the stress level is pretty high.

It varies greatly. In Kramatorsk, there was a colleague who was nervously at his wit's end. We are a group of four or five people, each one has to be at our best, otherwise he endangers everyone. So we said: You have to get out of here, to Poland or somewhere else. Get some rest. But there are also colleagues I have never seen stressed. I would say it's a matter of age and experience. Some are very young and very inexperienced. They say: Hey, let's go to Donbass. I often think to myself: I wouldn't even go to the supermarket with you.

Which stories do you particularly like?

That has changed over time. In the beginning, we chased after the conflict: Kyiv, Kharkiv, then to the front. In places that have just been liberated, there are incredibly exciting stories, because a lot of bad things happened there. I'm a little ashamed to say this, but being on the front line is a thrill that can't be compared to anything. What the people who have just come out of battle are saying is incredible. My last stories were different, sometimes I didn't even have to do much. You drive to a place where there are soldiers, introduce yourself, hand out cigarettes – and people talk all by themselves.

Why is that?

The soldiers have been at the front for weeks, they are just happy to be able to talk to someone.

Is there a situation that particularly sticks in your mind?

Yes, there are. When the Ukrainians liberated Kherson, I was in Kyiv, and I thought: you have to go there. So I drove all night and was in Kherson in the morning. An incredible number of people had gathered at the town hall. I asked her what it was like under Russian occupation. Suddenly, there was this great emotion, I looked around – and President Zelensky came out of the town hall. I still get goosebumps from it now.

Did you get close to him?

We were able to ask some questions, which was great. But then something happened. It is important to know that the inhabitants had no mobile phone reception for months, relatives did not know whether they were still alive. So Zelensky says: We have a mobile phone tower, we'll turn it on now. People pull out their cell phones and immediately start making phone calls. Suddenly, I see hundreds crying, screaming, laughing, jumping up and down. Simply because they could say to their parents, grandparents, friends: Hey, I'm alive. It was the most incredible thing I've ever seen. Soldiers walked down the street, people threw flowers at them, old women kissed young soldiers on the cheeks. It was very touching.

Ukraine is supposed to make it difficult for journalists to get to the front. Is that true?

Yes that's right. I think the Ukrainians have now simply realized that they have issued tens of thousands of accreditations without really knowing to whom.

That is?

There are a lot of great journalists there, but also people who say: Hey, I'm a reporter, I have a Youtube channel. These are basically tourists who shouldn't be there. So, the authorities have declared all accreditations invalid. You have to reapply now. I, too, am still waiting. You can only get into frontline areas with a press secretary. So the Ukrainians are trying to get a better overview. Of course, it's also about controlling the narrative to a certain extent.

How do you cope with all the horrible things you are experiencing?

Of course, many experiences leave their mark. But everyone who goes to Ukraine makes a personal risk assessment and at the end says: despite the danger, I'm doing this job because it's important. There is no better feeling than meeting someone who has experienced terrible things and writing down their story. For people, it's therapeutic because someone is listening to them. And I'm in the right place at the right time and I'm doing what I want to do. That's great.

How critical can you remain as a war reporter when the roles of perpetrator and victim are as clearly divided as in Ukraine?

Of course, this is also an information war. Ukraine has been incredibly successful in controlling the narrative. It's easy for them, I mean: the country has been invaded by Russia, it's defending itself, there's no ambiguity. But there are situations that are complicated.

For example?

In one of the liberated cities, Lyman, the Ukrainians wanted us to photograph the "mass graves" in a cemetery. Hundreds of graves, very dramatic. It would have been easy,After Arman's death, did you think about quitting the job? to say: the Russians killed all these people. But many of those who lay there were very old – who knows what exactly they died of? As a reporter, you should just keep that in mind. Have Ukrainians done things that don't fit into the patriotic narrative? Of course. We've all seen videos of men getting a notice in the Moscow subway and standing on the front line two weeks later. This is also happening in Ukraine, although not to the same extent as in Russia. But that doesn't change the basic situation.

After Arman's death, did you think about quitting the job?

No, not for a second. The job of a journalist is to tell all the tragic stories that would otherwise be lost. Arman was one of them. Now that he's gone, the rest of us need to take his place.

What does your family think?

After the first three months in Ukraine, I was quite exhausted and flew to my parents in Los Angeles. At some point, my mother told her that she had told her sisters about my work in Ukraine. My mother told them, "It's not surprising that Caleb is there." What I'm trying to say is that I think everyone has gotten used to it.

Are you going to travel to Ukraine again?

It depends on when I get my new accreditation. I would say that it will be within the next month or two. I'm looking forward to it.

Interview: Marcus Mäckler

Source: merkur

All news articles on 2023-06-05

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