Ukraine Through The Eyes of Reporters: Terrell Starr

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If a year ago, you could find people in different parts of the world who have never heard about Ukraine, this is almost impossible to imagine in 2022. The brave resistance of the Ukrainians to the Russian invasion caused a wave of true admiration around the world, making people from all countries and continents learn about Ukraine, its culture and history. Apart from Ukrainians who are working hard to expose Russian war crimes and atrocities, international journalists who report from Ukraine also play a crucial role in helping the world see the truth about the unjustified and brutal Russian war. To highlight their work and understand how they approach their important role, Ukraīner started a series of interviews titled “Ukraine Through The Eyes of Reporters”.

Our first episode features Terrell Jermaine Starr, an American journalist, hosting founder of the Black Diplomat podcast, which focuses on foreign policy issues, especially Ukraine. He’s been living in Ukraine for the past 12 years, learning about Russian colonialism and imperialism, while also reflecting on his own background and experience with oppression. In this interview, he talks about his life in Ukraine, his perspective on how Russians see Ukraine, and shares some recommendations for journalists who come to Ukraine to cover the war.

– How did your interest in journalism, specifically in foreign policy, start, and how did it lead you to where you are now?

My interest in foreign policy and, eventually, Ukraine began when I was in college. I was 19 years old when I travelled to Russia. I was not really pleased about going to Russia then because I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, the largest black city in the United States. I said, “Oh my god, I’m probably gonna be the only African-black person there.” Obviously, that was not the case. I graduated from college, and I went to Georgia as a Peace Corps volunteer. That is when I started learning about colonialism and how Russia treated its neighbours. People would come up to me telling that Russians were racists. And at that time, I was thinking, “Aren’t you all white people getting along with each other?” But that was my mind 20 years ago. I didn’t understand this region, its politics, and its culture. But it fascinated me because in Georgia, people said, “Well, you know, in Russia, we are also black.” It made me more curious. I started learning Georgian language. I can’t say that I’m Shota Rustaveli, but I can go to Georgia and communicate freely with people. I learned then that to understand Russia, and I need to live outside of Russia. I went to university to get a master’s degree and started to learn Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies. I focused on Ukraine because it was another option where I could learn more about Russia without having to live in Russia. And obviously, I was studying the history and learned more about Holodomor – it was another example of white people hating other white people. It fascinated me personally because, in America, I was always interested in the race.

The more I started living in Ukraine and learning about it, it really helped to explore my own curiosities and figure out ways to make the world a better place. I understand Ukraine precisely because of where I come from.

– Can you describe your first trip to Ukraine 12 years ago? What were your first impressions?

I was in Georgia in 2008 when Russians invaded that country. I got a Fulbright grant and arrived to Ukraine in August 2009. Frankly speaking, I experienced a lot of racism at the beginning. The landlords didn’t want to rent a house to me. I explained to them that I had money and could pay three months in advance, but they didn’t care. It was not the most pleasant experience. 95% of Ukraine is cool and great, but the 5% is really awful.

At the same time, I was really fascinated by this place because I felt like I was learning something other people weren’t. I was just watching the election between Viktor Yanukovych and Yuliia Tymoshenko. And it was interesting listening to taxi drivers speaking about the differences between these two people. Everybody spoke Russian, so sometimes I didn’t think I understood what people were saying to me. But there was one thing I noticed about the election — it was fairly competitive, which was different from Russia. So you automatically knew that there was a difference between these two countries. Russia is like Iraq, like Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-un — you know who will win. Looking at the first Maidan and Orange Revolution, and then going into Maidan, I saw Ukrainians’ democracy growing. And that’s what I loved about it.

– What did you learn about the Ukrainian-Russian conflict? What was your perspective on it before?

As a black person, I look at everything differently because of my experience. I saw a lot of things that my colleagues in America did not see. I returned to the United States, stayed for a few years, and then the invasion in 2014 happened. And I joined a group of people online – Digital Maidan, that was fighting disinformation. That was my first experience with information against Ukraine (that this is the land of Nazis and all these things). My number one job in America is writing about race and politics. And I said, you know, I did face racism in Ukraine, but I faced it in my own country, too. I could walk down the street in New York City and get killed by police. In the early days of Ukraine, all I had to do was pay “shtraf” (a fine – ed.) to the Ukrainian police and that was okay. They wouldn’t shoot me. So I said, okay, this stuff about Ukrainians being Nazis is bullshit. This is just not true. So I just started joining people fighting disinformation.

I was building up my reputation as a political journalist in the United States, I covered my first presidential election in 2016, and I saw the Russian disinformation going into my own country. And the same stuff was being pushed about Ukraine. I developed my style of writing and critique in journalism and started to write for Washington Post, New York Times, and other publications. After 2016, I decided to come to Ukraine again. First, I stayed for several months, then I moved up, and now I live in Ukraine for 6 months of the year.

– Where were you on the 24th of February? And what were your actions?

I was here in Ukraine when Russia invaded for the second time. And at this point, people here are like family to me. I know these people, and I spent time with them. So when Russia invaded, I didn’t want to leave even though I could. And I was here and witnessed Russian missile strikes, I witnessed saboteurs, trying to get through checkpoints. I helped Ukrainians seek refuge across the borders. I was here like a journalist but felt like it was just my small way of supporting the country I love. And I’m still here. I plan on continuing to report here until this war ends. Because wars end. And I’m confident that Ukraine is going to win. And it was one of the reasons why I wasn’t afraid to stay here while everyone in the West was sceptical that Ukrainians would fight back. I remember when I was going with my camera, I remember one guy ran in front of me and said, “Ukraine will win, fuck Russians.” He said it in perfect English. He said, “I will kill everybody for our land.” I was doing on-demand coverage, and I didn’t expect him. And that video went really viral, getting millions of views. For me, it was more than just reporting, it was something in my spirit. And that’s what keeps me here. And that’s what is going to help me to continue to help inform the world about who Ukraine truly is.

– How do you explain the roots of this justifiable anger and rage in Ukrainians? How do you provide that context?

Many perspectives depend on the audience. If I talk with black people in my community, I would say, “Just imagine some police officers come, break down in your house and shoot you,” which is not unique in America. We have the Black Lives Matter movement, and it’s all about fighting police violence in many respects. I hate the police system in the States. I had no criminal record, I went to school, and I worked for myself. I live here now, I am taking these Ukrainian lessons, and I am doing everything to be a global citizen. But if I walk down the street in my city, in New York, and some officer decides he feels something — I am dead. That’s how simple it is. I have written about that. And if you talk to enough black people in the United States, they will articulate the same.

And when you are dealing with Russia, it is not just Russians as people. You are dealing with the whole Russian supremacy system. It means the Russians are at the top, and the Ukrainians are at the bottom. When you listen to Putin’s speeches, he talks about Ukrainians like they are “white trash”. Because in one breath, he says, “Okay, this is the country of Nazis.” And then I go in the East, in Izium, and see people’s lives just destroyed.

At the beginning of the war, my friends decided that it would be safer for us to live together. There were 4 of us, and one of the guys was from Territorial Defence, other had family in Kherson, and every day he was calling his family. That’s what I saw every day. You get up in the morning, you get your tea, and you know that Ihor is trying to call his mum and she is not picking up. And maybe a week later, they will pick up, but they can’t talk long because Russians gave them their own SIM cards, so they have to find some VPN. My Ukrainian teacher was under Russian occupation for one month. She was telling me that one of her family members was just shot there by a Russian soldier. Those are the stories that you hear. And the question is – for what? Just because they are Ukrainian. The way Putin talks about Ukrainians is how the most disgusting racists talk about black people. I felt it that way because I know how it feels to be hectored. I know how hate feels. I think it’s easy for someone who was not touched by oppression to think that hate is not a good thing. Your parents are not being killed. Your family is not assaulted sexually. You don’t have to wake in the morning and wonder how I’m going to cook food. Where am I going to use the bathroom because the infrastructure where I live has been destroyed?

I’ve been living in Ukraine for almost 13 years. The attitudes that Ukrainians have towards Russians now didn’t exist when I first got here. There were a lot of people who were deep into the Russian language, there were people who had no interest in joining NATO. I witnessed this change from 2009 to 2022. And that was Russia who did that, it had nothing to do with Ukrainians. And if we want to solve that problem, it’s the oppressor’s responsibility to change their behaviour. You should not blame the victim for emotionally reacting to someone treating them like “trash”.

– What is your response to the narrative that this war is between US and Russia, actually, since the US is supporting Ukraine?

I’ve often heard people from different political views say that Russia is reacting to American imperialism and imperialism via NATO. First, I would say that America and Russia are both imperialist states and institutions. As a political reporter, I’ve covered elections, and I’ve seen voter disenfranchisement. I’ve seen people whose rights were stripped. When people identify the United States as an imperialist state, they’re telling the truth. The challenge is that you don’t see imperialism anywhere else. That’s the issue. Just like America stole land from indigenous communities, so has Russia. Do you think those people that have the Asiatic features are indigenous Russian people? No! How do you think these people became Russians? That’s not their ethnicity. They have been colonized. They were butchered, they were killed, and they were murdered. And so when you think about the way Siberia is carved up — it is not indigenous land to Russia. If Russia was chewed to its indigenous, Russia arguably would be half its size.

Let’s look at the Russian Empire and those annexations. Those countries were joined by gunpoint. None of these people wanted to be in the Soviet Union. Ukraine especially. Why do you think people in this region speak Russian? Why do you think much of Africa and the West is speaking French? That’s not their language. Francophone countries colonized them. And Russia is no different. That’s just a fact. And if you care about imperialism, I would spend less time thinking about NATO and think more about why so many Eastern European countries want to join it. If there was no NATO, much of Eastern Europe, like Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic States, would be in the same situation as Ukraine. I think American people don’t have the same compassion for Ukrainians, Bulgarians, and Estonians because, in the American context, they are white. But in the context of Russian imperialism and Russian supremacy, they don’t fit the context of white because they are not Russian. And we’ve spent so much time fighting against oppression directed at people of colour that we have not considered the Ukrainian via language, via statehood, being who they are. That is another form of racism and linguistic oppression.

– What do you recommend to foreign journalists who are coming to cover Ukraine? What do they need to know and how to approach this region, the topic?

My recommendation for journalists coming to Ukraine to cover this war is pretty simple. I challenge them, and I challenge myself as well to decolonize my analysis. That means, if you are in Ukraine, you should conduct your journalism in a way that centres Ukraine, and it should focus on Ukraine. Seek out Ukrainian scholars, Ukrainian experts, and Ukrainian historians. Again, my perspective comes from being a black American and a journalist in the United States. And my analysis comes from my experience covering the Black Lives Matter movement. As journalists coming to Ukraine, it is not our right to give the oppressor the benefit of the doubt. This war is illegal, these annexations are illegal, they are wrong, and they are committing war crimes. And these soldiers, who are coming here, are killers. Ukraine is right, Russia is wrong — that’s just the truth.

There is a saying in black American culture, “We know white people better than they know themselves.” I think Ukrainians know Russians better than they [Russians] know themselves. And because I come from that background, I listen to Ukrainians. I never lived in Moscow, so I don’t understand that lens. I automatically want to center Ukraine because my life experiences condition me to understand the oppressed and that enforced my journalism. I think journalists coming here must go through the same self-reflection that many white journalists had with the Black Lives Matter movement. The landscape of our journalism in America changed because black journalists demanded it to change. I think that the analysis of Russia from a journalism standpoint is changing because Ukrainians are demanding it. In addition to journalists having to centre Ukraine, I would also encourage my Ukrainian colleagues to check and make sure that these journalists are centring you. Because from our experience, you’re not going to be centred unless you demand it.

– Lastly, what’s your favorite place in Ukraine and why?

My favourite neighbourhood in Kyiv is Podil. And my favourite place in Ukraine is the Carpathian Mountains. Before the war, I wanted to start a tourism company here. I was in the west of Ukraine, creating a plan for what would 10 days in the Carpathians look like. And I would spend a month in the Carpathian Mountains and I would go there, and my Ukrainian friends would say, “Oh, I have never been there. You know more about the Carpathians than I do.”

I lived in a town called Svaliava. I stayed there for about one month, and I liked to run. And it was kind of amazement for locals. Because even for Ukrainians, this place seems isolated. So just imagine this black dude with a beard running. They were watching me and saying, “Oh my god!” And sometimes the kids would run along with me like I’m Rocky. And people wouldn’t give a damn about me trying to stay in shape. I’m literally running, and they come in the middle of the road and stop me, offering shashlyk and beer. They didn’t care that I spoke Russian because I was a foreigner. But it made me learn Ukrainian. The Carpathians are my favourite place because it’s a beautiful spot that no one knows about. If I wanted to go to Paris or Spain or any of these other places, I could do it without a problem. But it’s boring. Everybody goes to Spain and France. Very few people go to the Carpathian Mountains.

– Do you have something you would like to say to Ukrainian people?

Борітеся і поборете. [translation – Keep fighting – you are sure to win! – a fragment of the “Caucasus” poem by Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko]

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