I CAN hear dogs barking in the background, and there are “packers packing", Andrew Harding tells me on the phone from Johannesburg. After 15 years in South Africa, the legendary BBC correspondent is taking up the position of Paris correspondent and will continue to cover the war in Ukraine, something he has been doing from Johannesburg for two years.
Before coming to Africa almost two decades ago, Harding spent a decade in Russia and the former Soviet Union. “I had also covered both wars in Chechnya, so I knew exactly what I was getting myself into when I put my hand up to cover Ukraine. I knew it would be a staggeringly violent and dangerous artillery war. But I speak Russian and I know Ukraine, and in a sense, because it was a European war, it's a conflict that I feel very committed to covering."
He's spent five full months on the front line as part of four teams who rotate: “It's been extraordinary, it's been tough, it's been fascinating, but also deeply, deeply sad," he says.
Just after arriving in Ukraine, he heard of a battle in a small farming town. “It was this extraordinary story of a community deciding to make what seemed like a suicidal stand against the Russians to prevent them from capturing a key bridge and sweeping further west across the Black Sea coast. The story captures the defiance and the determination of the Ukrainians, which of course no one anticipated. Certainly not the armchair generals and the Kremlin."
Harding's first report from Voznesens'k has now turned into a book.
“That report was viewed more than 5-million times on YouTube, but I felt like there might be space for a book that would, by focusing on one decisive little battle, capture in a microcosm something of the war and the spirit of defiance that stunned so many of us."
The book is written with Harding's trademark approach: a small story cracking open a much bigger and deeper narrative (just like he did with his remarkable These Are Not Gentle People, about a South African murder case with deep racial undertones that traumatised the community of Parys). He burrows into the humanity of the community, unpeels layer after layer, and writes with precision and empathy — but always with some distance, as an outsider looking in.
“Language is a contested space. In Ukraine, people increasingly don't want to speak Russian, but in the East, where there are many Russian speakers, it's still a big advantage to engage straight on with people and not through a translator. So the fact that I could use my Russian to communicate directly made a huge difference."
Harding says there is always a tension in a foreign correspondent's work. On the one hand, you are the local expert who is required to understand somewhere deeply; on the other, you have to be a fresh pair of eyes.
“I'm always curious when people ask me if I experience any editorial influence or pressure being a Western reporter in a place like Ukraine. I have never felt pressured to cover a story in a particular way. "
Harding uncovered an extraordinary spirit in Voznesens'k, but what does he ascribe it to?
“Where to begin? Firstly, Russia's neighbours have known for a long time what Russia was like. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it was never forced to confront the fact is was an empire. Instead, it came up with many excuses to return to that. From misreading maps to misforming history to pure near-genocidal rhetoric about Russian imperial supremacy. And Russian propaganda has reinforced that over the last 10, 15 years very effectively.
“The world has failed to properly listen to countries like Georgia, the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, who have been saying we have been living next to a dangerous enemy that wants to conquer us for years. And the West felt very uncomfortable about expanding Nato because it didn't want to be provocative. And now it's found itself drawn into a conflict with the very dangerous country that Putin and the Kremlin have transformed Russia into, with a clear, aggressive agenda to prevent these countries, its neighbours, from moving into Europe's democratic sphere of influence. And, yeah, there's the argument about provocation, but you could just as well argue that had Nato expanded more aggressively and quickly, we wouldn't be having a war now."
Harding tells me that living and working and reporting in Ukraine is a strange, schizophrenic experience. And terrifying and inspiring.
“Big cities like Dnipro and Kyiv are booming once again, with a sense of life returning to near normal for much of the day. Thousands of people who fled have returned because they have no money to rent homes elsewhere or feel the risks are tolerable.
“So you have these gorgeous cities with fantastic restaurants, and then, an hour further east, you are plunged into a Stalingrad trench environment of staggering violence. The artillery war, in particular, is so difficult and dangerous to cover because it's so unpredictable. It's not as if you can follow troops forward to a point where they engage in small-arms fire. You're in massive danger from rocket and artillery fire as soon as you get within any distance of the front lines.
Harding says there is a great worry about the prospect of a long war.
“I'm very worried that the Russians will be ready to sacrifice hundreds of thousands more people to grind Ukraine down. But at the same time, this sense of an existential threat has brought the Ukrainian people together. And it is very inspiring to see the dedication and determination, the sophistication of their troops and their medics, and a whole society committed to winning."
South Africa and Russia
Harding says moving between reporting in Ukraine and his home and work in Johannesburg has been very strange at times.
“I spent a few days recently in Cape Town with Brics foreign ministers, engaging with Russian journalists and diplomats and speaking to senior people in the ANC and ordinary South Africans with a different perspective on the conflict.
“I find it very sad that so many people believe the Kremlin's stance on the illegal invasion. In this increasingly multipolar world, I can understand why governments and people around Africa, in particular, don't want to be dragged into other people's wars. And they don't like the old Cold War colonialism. But Russian propaganda and diplomacy have also been very effective in quickly carving out space for Moscow's position in Africa. And of course they have the Wagner mercenaries and the chaos they are exploiting, and to some extent causing, in the Sahel.
“The West has been slow to properly articulate what it wants to do in Africa and not to sound patronising and neo-colonial. And that has left a space for people who, to their credit, have put in the time and effort to visit Africa and engaged very seriously in a way that Western ministers and Western governments do not do so much."
On leaving South Africa…
Harding says it was a difficult decision to leave his adopted home. “South Africans, when they hear I'm going, often say I'm joining the exodus. But I don't feel like that at all. I would happily stay here. But it just felt the right time to move on."
He feels lucky to have lived here for so long. “I've loved South Africa.”
…and the future of Ukraine
In the long term, says Harding, Ukraine could emerge as the most inspiring, energising, tech-savvy country in Europe, but there is a long way to go.
“The first thing I'd say is that we still need patience. Although much slower than people had hoped, I think the Ukrainian counter-offensive is progressing, and the possibility of a significant breakthrough remains. A lot will ultimately depend on what happens in Russia among the elites; not among the public, because it's a totalitarian state.
“I think Ukrainians may still make significant gains and significant breakthroughs. I think it's possible that by next year, serious negotiations could start. And that Ukraine will keep its focus on the big prize, which is European Union membership, and either Nato membership or some form of Nato security guarantees. And ultimately, it might be prepared to trade some territory in return for that.
“And Russia? I can't see a future where it is not diminished. This has just been such an unnecessary, tragic war."
And Harding will continue reporting it for as long as he can.
“I take comfort in the belief that journalism matters, that people need to be heard, and that we are building up a record of what has happened. Even if we're not making a difference, we are bearing witness. And that sense of vocation and mission keeps me going back, although you are calculating the risks versus the rewards every minute of every day near the front lines. And that's not an easy thing to do."
♦ VWB ♦
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