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Finding light in the darkness: A conversation with Jane Ferguson

Foreign correspondent Jane Ferguson (second from right) with her camera/production crew. Jane Ferguson photo Foreign correspondent Jane Ferguson (second from right) with her camera/production crew. Jane Ferguson photo

In the realm of foreign journalism, few correspondents are as fearless and compassionate as Jane Ferguson.

An acclaimed award-winning journalist — best known for her nightly international reports on the PBS NewsHour — Ferguson has, for many years now, found herself on the ground and on the front lines of numerous wars, conflicts and upheavals the world over. 

And as the war in Ukraine now enters its second month, Ferguson has been in the Eastern European country since Russian forces began to invade several weeks ago. She’s surrounded by death and destruction, but also the awe-inspiring illumination of mankind in the face of darkness. 

Speaking over the phone last week to The Smoky Mountain News from her hotel room in the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv, Ferguson talked at-length about her experiences and emotions as a reporter, and also as a human being — standing at the heart of an ongoing, brutal battle for political peace and societal preservation, which remains in limbo. 

 

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A bombed out neighborhood is a common sight in Ukraine amid the ongoing Russian invasion of the country. Jane Ferguson photo

 

Smoky Mountain News: What was it like when you first entered Ukraine? 

Jane Ferguson: It’s funny, you know? I’m used to covering the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa. And so, it’s incredibly weird for me — I’m actually European, I’m an Irish and British citizen — flying into Europe, it feels so strange. 

You fly to Krakow, [Poland], and you take a car down just an incredibly developed and very pristine highway to the [Polish/Ukrainian] border. It’s about a three-hour drive to the border from Krakow. 

The border is the most innocuous, little tiny over foot. There’s two border posts, but they’re both very small. It’s essentially fencing and a few small buildings in a field. But, at this time, it’s filled with small marquees, tents and traffic, and a lot of aid agencies were there. 

And that was quite heartwarming to see. Food trucks handing out [meals]. I could see Israeli charities, the Red Cross, and the IOM (International Organization for Migration), who help people who are displaced sort of figure out logistics. There were little stalls where people were handing out warm coats and different types of shoes for children. 

And so, there seemed to be a lot of support. Also, there were huge coach [buses] there helping take people to various cities in Poland. It was all women and children or the elderly, because men aren’t allowed to leave [Ukraine]. They’re bringing them whatever luggage they can carry, walking down a small narrow tarmac pathway from Ukraine to Poland. And I’m walking in the opposite direction down the exact same pathway. 

SMN: What were you seeing in the faces of those people that you’re making eye contact with as you’re walking by? 

JF: You see a lot of exhaustion. By the time they’ve made it to the border, they’ve already been through hell. They’ve been through weeks of uncertainty. The stress of trying to make the decision of, “Do we flee? Do we not?” Some of them have come from places where they haven’t had too much choice, where it’s been violent. 

A mother alone with her kids, we see a lot of that in the train stations because the fathers had to stay. You’ll see mothers carrying the luggage, trying to carry their belongings, trying to carry a toddler or a baby, or trying to not lose sight of a small child running around — a lot of exhaustion and stress. 

I think also in those faces, it’s very likely a lot of heartache. We’ve all seen the images from the train stations of couples, of married people saying goodbye to husbands and fathers, saying goodbye to their families. That’s really adds a whole other emotional toll to this that’s quite different from many of the conflicts I’ve covered. 

I’ve covered a lot of conflicts where men stay and fight, but not so universally as this. I’ve been to refugee camps the world over, and there are men there, as well. But, to see just women alone with their kids was incredibly sad. 

It’s also fascinating to me, as an animal lover, to see how much [the Ukrainians] adore animals. I’ve never been to a country with as many pet dogs as this country. And the Ukrainians have brought their pets with them. So, when you see those Ukrainians, you see dogs and cats in little boxes, cats wrapped in a kid’s sack. People brought their pets because they had heard along the Polish border that they had waived some of the strict import regulations for bringing your pet with you. 

And, to me, that made it all the more stark, because what makes it a “family” is when I see these women and children, and then with a pet. 

 

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Reporting for the PBS NewsHour, journalist Jane Ferguson has been covering the war in Ukraine since its inception.

 

SMN: And then where do you go from there? 

JF: Once you get [into Ukraine], effectively the first point of contact for journalists is we get to [the city of] Lviv. It’s about a two-hour drive from the border. That’s the main hub. It’s sort of the center for journalists and the displaced fleeing from the Eastern part of the country, which is most heavily under attack. 

And Lviv is very beautiful. It’s quite strange to be there. Cobbled streets. It’s all churches. Little Eastern European tea rooms, which are spectacularly beautiful. But, now it has air-raid sirens going off. And there’s not so much violence there, although there have been some deadly airstrikes outside the city. 

My team and I spent a couple days in Lviv regrouping. And then we took the train to Kyiv. Ukraine has this phenomenal train system, which the government has managed to keep running throughout the war. It’s actually been vastly important for transporting people. 

Many of the millions who have fled this country managed to make it to the border on the train. This country is enormous geographically. If you just bring it up on a map and look at it, it’s huge. It would be several days to drive across the country to get to the border. 

The trains have been a remarkable resource for civilians, but also for us journalists. We hop on sleeper trains and we to go from Lviv to the capital, Kyiv. When I’m reporting from the south of the country, on the coast, it’s very much so a battleground right now, as the Russians try to cut off Ukraine’s access to its Black Sea ports. The train has been a logistical gift for journalists so far in the country. It hasn’t been attacked. And I find it’s safer [to take the train] than going through so many checkpoints on [the roads and highways]. 

SMN: Are you in Kyiv right now? 

JF: I am, yes. I’m in a hotel in Kyiv. 

SMN: Tell me what you see when you look out your window right now. 

JF:  I see a classic sort of hodgepodge collage of rooftops that you would see if you looked out any window, whether you were in Vienna, Prague or Warsaw. Beautiful old houses and old apartment buildings with the usual odd modern one. 

In the distance very often, usually in the evening, you start to see the outskirts of the city, and you’ll see the glow and cracks sometimes of the explosion of artillery fire and rocket fire out in the very distance. 

Quite often you hear air-raid sirens, which are eerie and strange, being in Eastern Europe and hearing them, where it makes me think of being a kid in high school or in primary school and learning about the Second World War. 

But, we see dotted across these cities like Kyiv, these beautiful Orthodox churches and cathedrals. They have these sort of rounded dome rooftops that are golden. And those are very beautiful. 

Generally, the city looks perfectly normal until it doesn’t, until you’re driving past something that’s been bombed and the destruction is so total, so complete, because the weapons used in this war are so advanced and ferocious. 

 

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A renowned foreign correspondent, Jane Ferguson has been on the ground reporting nightly on the war in Ukraine for the PBS NewsHour. Pictured here with Ukrainian soldiers, Ferguson (second from the left, top row) has been in the country on assignment since the beginning of the conflict several weeks ago. Jane Ferguson photo

 

SMN: And I’ve been watching your reports nightly. The images of destruction look like something out of the Middle East or Dresden during World War II. 

JF: Absolutely. With Mariupol, the images of that city have reminded a lot of us reporters of Raqqa and many Syrian cities. When I walked through Raqqa, I couldn’t believe [the destruction]. But now, when I see the images of Mariupol, I can’t [believe this] could have happened in three and a half weeks. 

You know, the destruction on Syria took years of airstrike after airstrike after airstrike. Here, it’s astonishing in its scale and just absolutely shocking, the pace at which things have been destroyed — a whole city in a couple of weeks is something that is very difficult to conceptualize. When you think of the infrastructure lost, it’s just so overwhelming. 

SMN: When you’re out there reporting, obviously you’re coming across total destruction in some areas, and you’re seeing dead bodies on the side of the road. Not only as a journalist, but also as a human being, when you walk around an environment like that — especially in real time when things are still going on — how do you still have faith in humanity? 

JF: Well, a lot of people think that what we are witnessing as reporters — in war and in humanitarian crises — is just pain. We witness a lot of pain, but we’re also witnessing and filming courage. 

Ukraine has basically displayed to the world unbelievable amounts of courage and collective initiative, and kindness. When I talked [in my reporting] about seeing the [deceased] body of [award-winning filmmaker] Brent Renaud by the side of the road, it was the exact same place when they were bringing civilians out of Irpin. I was standing there interviewing [civilians] and these women — who have just come from the apartment block next door — [offered us] a tray of sandwiches, asking if we wanted something to eat. 

I can’t ignore the horror and the pain that the war is causing. Dead bodies make you feel this incredible, physical sense of dread inside of yourself. You can’t pretend to not feel that. But, it’s true what they say about war — that every single emotion is so incredibly heightened. 

There this sense of kindness, courage and community here. And I think that the Ukrainians are behaving in a way we would behave if we were invaded by an incredibly hostile armed force. 

There’s a tendency for us to think that in times of war our darkest nature comes out. But, what’s happening here — and what I witness every day — is some of the best of human nature is coming out, too. So, the darkness, the intensity and the pain of watching death, and the sort of totality of it all, is very much matched by every other emotion. 

SMN: We’re all watching your reporting every day. But, in terms of you being physically on the ground, what is the message that you want to relay to the world about Ukraine, about what they’re currently going through, and what that says about everybody else on this planet? 

JF: In my reporting, wherever I am, I try to convey first and foremost what the impact of war is like on human beings. What it’s really like on people and the impact of war on a deeply personal level for individuals, and how war is experienced personally by everybody. 

And so, for Ukraine, what I suppose I would most like people to take away is that war is something that completely upends millions of lives. I mean, that has been the most stark thing for me here — these communities that have not known war for [many years]. 

To be displaced from your kids on a train, traveling away from you. You don’t know where they’re going. You don’t know if you have a country anymore. I think the most important thing for everybody else in the world to understand is that the devastating cost of war to civilians is quite hard to quantify. 

It’s not just the number of people who have fled the country or the number of deaths or the number of injuries — it’s a deeply personal individual catastrophe for each and every family. 

 

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Reporting for the PBS NewsHour, journalist Jane Ferguson has been covering the war in Ukraine since its inception.

 

SMN: I don’t know if it’s getting on too much of a metaphysical level. But, it’s just an odd thing to talk to you about where you’re at right now. Like, when I’m done this conversation, I’m going to go around the corner and get lunch, and not be in fear for my life of getting lunch. You get in such a rhythm being in the Western world, especially one of safety, where you might almost take it for granted. 

JF: Sure. And that’s your right. That’s the luxury of peace. And that’s something everybody should enjoy, and not ever feel guilty about. I don’t want people to watch images and hear stories from war and feel bad. I want people to watch and feel empathy, so that when they do hear about displaced people and refugees or they hear about war crimes, to care about other human beings, not to feel bad about their own peaceful lives — to be able to relate and empathize with other humans. 

SMN: And that’s the essence of your reporting, to show the beauty of what peace is and how we all deserve it. Thankfully, we don’t see war on the soil here in the United States. But, to see your reporting also makes people feel empowered as a human being, and to want to be a better person every day. 

JF: It certainly does. People ask me, “How can you not be so pessimistic and bitter given your experiences on the road?” But, for me, it’s the opposite. I mean, I would do an unbelievable disservice to all the people I’ve met — in refugee camps, in field hospitals, in bomb shelters — throughout my career if I didn’t walk around with an astonishing amount of gratitude, thankfulness and grace. 

Whenever I look at my own life, I couldn’t possibly feel anything other than an incredible sense of honor that I get to live my life. And I’m perched at the very, very top by living in peace, living with all my needs met, the freedom to move around the world, knowing that my family and my loved ones are healthy and safe — these are things I just don’t take anything for granted after seeing the things that I’ve seen. 

Leave a comment

2 comments

  • I would think it impossible to put a positive interpretation on what is happening in the War in Ukraine or in any other war. Jane Ferguson has done so and in doing so has made me hopeful for those suffering and for those of us who are watching. Let’s hope that we never become inured to what we are witnessing!

    posted by Judith Hughes

    Wednesday, 03/30/2022

  • I would think it impossible to put a positive interpretation on what is happening in the War in Ukraine or in any other war. Jane Ferguson has done so and in doing so has made me hopeful for those suffering and for those of us who are watching. Let’s hope that we never become inured to what we are witnessing!

    posted by Judith Hughes

    Wednesday, 03/30/2022

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