A little over six weeks ago, Yulia Zubova was starting a new job as an export manager for a home accessories company in Kyiv.
The 37-year-old, originally from Donetsk, had been waiting on the role for a long time.
“It was my dream job,” she told VOA via phone. “It was a nice company that manufactured stylish lamps and other home accessories and sold them to many countries around the world.”
Two days later, on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine and Zubova, like other residents in Kyiv, was forced to leave her job and everything else behind.
For about a week, she stayed outside of Kyiv, wanting to help the war effort but not knowing how.
Then a friend working as a fixer with foreign reporters called.
“He proposed (for) me to do the same in Kyiv, saying some journalist needed help,” Zubova said. “I took the job as a way to help my country during this difficult time.”
In journalism-speak, fixers are local people who work closely with foreign reporters on everything from securing interviews, translating, and booking hotels to more crucial work including advising on possible threats and no-go areas.
Often these are journalists already established in their home country. But some like Zubova are new to the profession — and learning on the job while navigating a war zone.
“This is my first time ever working as a fixer,” Zubova said. “I have only been doing it for three weeks or so.”
Zubova had to quickly familiarize herself with the demands of the new job, relying heavily on her English-language skills and knowledge of Kyiv and its surroundings.
“The first journalist I worked with was American, who has been living in France. He works as a freelancer for a British newspaper,” she said.
Since then, she has been in such high demand that she had to refer some journalists to fellow fixers.
Before she started, Zubova says, a friend warned the job was not without danger.
“He told me up front there is some risk with being a fixer. But nowadays even staying at home is a big risk for us in Ukraine,” said Zubova.
Russian forces are accused of targeting civilians, including journalists, across Ukraine.
Since the beginning of the conflict, several journalists have been injured and at least seven killed, including Oleksandra Kuvshynova. The 24-year-old known as Sasha was assisting Fox News. She was killed by incoming fire alongside photographer Pierre Zakrzewski on March 14.
Fox paid tribute to Kuvshynova, describing her as “incredibly talented” and praising her work in helping the network’s journalists navigate Kyiv.
Focus on safety
Attacks on the media have renewed conversations about the important role fixers and local journalists play, and the responsibility foreign news outlets have in ensuring the safety of everyone who works with them.
The situation “is so dangerous for everybody everywhere” in Ukraine, Daria Tarasova told VOA.
Before the war, Tarasova was editor-in-chief at “Shuster Online,” a show broadcast on YouTube in Ukraine. More recently, she has been helping a news crew with CNN.
With 15 years’ experience in journalism, Tarasova has a unique ability to connect people and local authorities with foreign journalists.
“It is very important to show the whole world what is going on in Ukraine,” Tarasova said. “We are just trying to do what we can do.”
With dangers mounting for journalists in Ukraine to cover the war, many international bodies and media organizations have launched safety and training programs.
Among them is the London-based Frontline Club, which is in the process of setting up a center to support freelance journalists in Ukraine.
British photojournalist Paul Conroy, who is on the board of trustees, is helping to get the center up and running.
Speaking to VOA from the side of a road in Poland, while driving to Ukraine late last week, Conroy estimated around 3,000 freelancers have headed to the war.
“A lot of them are people who it’s their first time in a conflict zone because it’s so accessible, because it’s smack bang in the heart of Europe,” Conroy said during the phone call.
The Frontline Club will provide first aid and hostile environment training for “foreign freelancers or local journalists who need that kind of assistance on the ground,” he said.
Conroy came under attack while on assignment in Syria with the late U.S. war correspondent Marie Colvin in 2012, and covered wars around the world. He emphasized the importance of fixers and local reporters in conflict zones.
“Without the role that fixers play on the ground, there would be no international news as we know it,” he said. “From the moment you step in a country, you're out of your zone and you need somebody who knows the local situation, who knows the lay of the land.
“When you step there, you are at the mercy of people's goodwill, and that goes not just (for) freelance journalists, also for international news organizations like AP [the Associated Press] and Reuters. They need fixers and without them, the news would look very different.”
Sharing stories with the world
Oleksiy Muzhchyna, a 39-year-old working with foreign journalists, including a crew from the Qatari-funded Al Jazeera TV, said many Ukrainian fixers and journalists lack experience in covering conflict, which makes them more vulnerable to Russian attacks.
“Most of the fixers and journalists in Ukraine have not received any training that would ensure their safety and that of the foreign journalists who are with them,” Muzhchyna told VOA.
Before the war, Muzhchyna worked as a marketing manager in Kharkiv. Now he helps crews reporting on attacks on his city.
Muzhchyna says foreign news organizations have a responsibility to provide local fixers with the means of protection, “because after all, fixers are responsible for the lives and safety of the [foreign] journalists.”
But for export manager-turned-fixer Zubova, helping foreign journalists convey to the world what is happening in Ukraine outweighs the associated risks.
The new job is rewarding, so much so that Zubova said she may consider a career change after the war.
“I like this job very much,” she said. “I feel like I’m in the right place now.
“The most interesting thing about this job is witnessing many important situations and talking directly to people to share their stories with the world,” she said.