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A newspaper near Ukraine's border with Russia watches for freed POWs

Editor Oleksandr Motsny works with three other staffers in the office of a small weekly newspaper in Krasnopillya, Ukraine. The paper's name <em>Peremoha</em> means "victory" in Ukrainian.
Claire Harbage
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NPR
Editor Oleksandr Motsny works with three other staffers in the office of a small weekly newspaper in Krasnopillya, Ukraine. The paper's name Peremoha means "victory" in Ukrainian.

KRASNOPILLYA, Ukraine — The only open checkpoint with Russia, just 6 miles away from this woodsy border village, is the entry home for Ukrainians freed from Russian captivity.

Convoys with former prisoners of war — and the bodies of those killed — always pass through the village's main road, where the local weekly newspaper, Peremoha, which means "victory" in Ukrainian, has its office. Only four staffers work at the weekly so the whole operation fits into a small pink house. A dog named Drone plays in the backyard.

Village residents greet every convoy, waving posters that say "Welcome Home" and offering freshly baked cakes. Peremoha documents the exchanges, often listing each freed Ukrainian by name.

Olena Yeremenko stands with her grandson Nazar, 3, after picking up an edition of <em>Peremoha.</em>
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Olena Yeremenko stands with her grandson Nazar, 3, after picking up an edition of Peremoha.

"It's what we're known for," says Oleksandr Motsny, Peremoha's editor. "We don't want them to just be statistics."

This mission has kept the town focused and united throughout Russia's war on Ukraine, which is now in its third year. Villages along this volatile border are especially vulnerable to further Russian incursions.

<em>Peremoha's </em>office is located in a small pink house. The newspaper's motto is "Don't let ordinary people be erased from history."
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Peremoha's office is located in a small pink house. The newspaper's motto is "Don't let ordinary people be erased from history."

Earlier this month, Russian forces stormed into border settlements in the Kharkiv region, about 175 miles east of Krasnopillya, which is in the Sumy region. Ukrainian military leaders say they believe Russia will attack Sumy next.

"Our newspaper's motto is, Don't let ordinary people be erased from history," Motsny says.

From hyperlocal news to war reporting

The print edition of Peremoha looks like a small newsletter and is usually about eight pages long. Its work is funded by a few hundred subscribers as well as grants and donations.

Motsny's office is packed with books, scribbled notepads, DVDs and cassette tapes of 90s pop bands like The Cardigans.

"From the old days," he says, "when our Russian neighbors weren't trying to kill us."

Motsny says prior to the war, he and two reporters covered hyperlocal issues in the region.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Motsny says prior to the war, he and two reporters covered hyperlocal issues in the region.

Before the war, Motsny says, he and two reporters covered hyperlocal issues such as small businesses, farmers and milestone birthdays. Everything changed on Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Peremoha was set to celebrate its 90th anniversary the next day.

"I still have the calendar with a list of those invited to our celebration," Motsny says. "I crossed out the list and wrote WAR in red marker over it."

Russian troops briefly occupied land around Krasnopillya, but never the village itself. He remembers one of the newspaper's first post-invasion stories, about villagers trying to transport the body of a fallen hometown soldier through Russian military checkpoints.

Motsny shows part of the newspaper's archive. The Russian invasion was the day before <em>Peremoha </em>was set to celebrate its 90th anniversary, in February 2022.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Motsny shows part of the newspaper's archive. The Russian invasion was the day before Peremoha was set to celebrate its 90th anniversary, in February 2022.

"Russian soldiers stole their car and threw our guy's coffin and body bag on the side of the road," he says. A farmer under Russian occupation lent the Krasnopillya volunteers a car and helped them get back to the village so the soldier's parents could bury them.

Motsny and his staff are now seasoned war correspondents. He points to a chair where they keep body armor and helmets.

"Russians are constantly shelling the area, so we need it," he says.

A convoy arrives

The newspaper decided to focus on prisoner exchanges because of the proximity to the checkpoint. Villages around the checkpoint wanted newly freed Ukrainian soldiers to feel welcome.

Motsny gets word from sources in the government about imminent prisoner exchanges. He also gets a list with the names of the freed Ukrainians.

"The first thing I do is scour the list to find the names of people from our village," he says. "We have several who are being held by the Russians."

Inna Zahorulko is a reporter at <em>Peremoha. </em>She worked on a story about Vova Kucherenko, who is a marine in Russian captivity.
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NPR
Inna Zahorulko is a reporter at Peremoha. She worked on a story about Vova Kucherenko, who is a marine in Russian captivity.

Peremoha reporter Inna Zahorulko wrote about one of those villagers in Russian captivity, a 25-year-old marine named Vova Kucherenko.

"Everyone in town loves him and his family," she says. "They are kind and hardworking people. They always helped out others. Now his mother is like a ghost, pale with grief."

The editor, Motsny, often drives past his family's house on Fridays, when he's out delivering the newspaper.

Subscribers often ask him if any prisoner exchanges are coming. Nadiia Naruzhna, a retired town clerk, says she and other villagers want to make sure to get to the main road to greet the Ukrainian convoy of trucks carrying the freed troops.

Viktoria Chub (left), Tanya Tymoshenko, Yulia Pavlenko and Natalya Kotsar hold a Ukrainian flag that they use to greet returning POWs as they come from Russian captivity.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Viktoria Chub (left), Tanya Tymoshenko, Yulia Pavlenko and Natalya Kotsar hold a Ukrainian flag that they use to greet returning POWs as they come from Russian captivity.

"When our soldiers are returned alive, we feel great joy and happiness here," she says.
"When their bodies are returned, we all mourn for their loss. But either way, we go to meet them."

Later in his paper route, he receives a text that a convoy is indeed on the way. It's carrying the bodies of soldiers. He heads back to the newspaper offices to see it approach.

His neighbors line the road outside. They bow their heads or kneel in silence as the vehicles go by.

But when the soldiers come home alive, he says, "it's like a party here. We are celebrating."

"I'm waiting for my son"

Videos of those moments show villagers here and elsewhere cheering and weeping with joy.

Nataliya Kucherenko never misses the convoys of the POWs. She always holds a poster or banner with a photo of a dark-haired young man.

Nataliya Kucherenko adjusts a flag in her son's bedroom. Her son, Vova Kucherenko, is being held captive in Russia.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Nataliya Kucherenko adjusts a flag in her son's bedroom. Her son, Vova Kucherenko, is being held captive in Russia.

"I will stand there for hours, even in the rain or snow, when I know a convoy is coming," she says. "I stand there because I'm waiting for my son."

She's the mother of Vova Kucherenko, the 25-year-old marine held by Russia.

Her husband is on the front line, and Vova is an only child, so Kucherenko lives in their small, tidy house alone. Her son's room is now filled with the posters and banners she waves at convoys.

"I wish you knew my son," she says. "He used to drive elderly women from the village to church every Sunday. He would say, 'Hello, young ladies!' when he picked them up."

Her son was captured in the southern port city of Mariupol. Russians destroyed the city in 2022, killing or driving out most of the population.

Kucherenko hasn't seen her son since 2022. She worries what state Vova is in, especially after seeing a video late last year that said her son has been sentenced to life in a Russian prison.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Kucherenko hasn't seen her son since 2022. She worries what state Vova is in, especially after seeing a video late last year that said her son has been sentenced to life in a Russian prison.

She hasn't seen him since. At the end of last year, she found a video online that said her son has been sentenced to life in a Russian prison. She says Ukrainian sources have confirmed this.

"I don't know what state he's in," she says. "It has destroyed me. It's like I'm in captivity too."

Russia and Ukraine haven't exchanged prisoners for months. Motsny, the editor, still checks his texts every day for news of a new convoy of freed Ukrainians. Instead, he's getting messages about more Russian strikes on the border.

"I go to the scene immediately," he says. "I help the wounded, help clear the rubble and only after that do I start reporting."

Maybe big-shot reporters would disapprove, he says, but so what?

"These are our neighbors," he says, "and we cannot survive without them."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Motsny checks his texts every day for news of a new convoy of freed Ukrainians. Instead, he's getting messages about more Russian strikes on the border.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Motsny checks his texts every day for news of a new convoy of freed Ukrainians. Instead, he's getting messages about more Russian strikes on the border.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
Polina Lytvynova
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