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Erin Burnett: ‘Ukraine’s story will define the world we all live in’


By Tricia Escobedo, CNN

Oleksandr Urazov and his family escaped war-torn Ukraine, thanks to his childhood friend, Alex Velychko, who now lives in New York.

Shortly after arriving, Urazov, his wife and their three children stayed in Velychko’s one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, where Velychko and his wife have hosted as many as 12 refugees at one time.

As part of the Champions For Change series, CNN’s Erin Burnett spotlights Velychko and his two siblings who emigrated from Ukraine years ago, and are now assisting those fleeing the war.

Burnett has reported extensively on the war in Ukraine, which broke out in February when Russian forces invaded the country.

A few months ago, the Inside CNN newsletter team caught up with Burnett shortly after she returned from a reporting trip to Ukraine. Below is an abbreviated version of that conversation:

Tell us what you saw in Ukraine and how it’s different from your previous reporting trip to the region, when you witnessed the transition into war?

I met a couple whose son was killed in the war. Their house was rubble, filled with rockets and bullets. Their backyard was a series of holes dug by Russian troops, still filled with the mattresses, sheets and cigarettes they stole when they lived there for more than a month.

Vadim and Olga had lost everything. The day I met them, their goat, who was pregnant before the invasion, gave birth to two kids. Olga held them, inhaling their smell, and murmured that it was like milk, honey and eggs. She said, “We have new life.”

Olga lost her only child in this war and yet she found joy in the newborn goats. I asked Vadim what word he would use to describe his life now — he didn’t pause. Lucky, he said. Lucky, because the Russians in nearby houses raped women and tortured people.

Lucky, he said, because God helped them. They felt lucky. And there I was, unable to fathom their loss.

I learned from Vadim and Olga that sometimes, as much as a moment moves you and affects you, you cannot understand it. I was silenced by their ability to take joy in their goats and to find themselves lucky.

I could only listen and witness their experience.

I learned from them in a new way that this is something we humans can do for one another.

In one of your reports, you talked to a Ukrainian soldier who described killing Russian soldiers like a sport. What was morale like among the Ukrainian forces you talked to?

Vlad Demchenko, a Ukrainian soldier who leads a drone unit, returned with me to a town his unit liberated. As we stood on a dirt road littered with the detritus of lost and destroyed life, Vlad remarked, “This is where I took my first patch with a Russian name on it” — meaning, the first Russian he was involved with killing. In fact, he says 10 Russians died at the location where we were standing.

Walking with him, I reached down to pick up something beneath my foot. It was a Russian uniform patch covered in oily ash. He paused and exclaimed surprise that there were any left. He thought the Ukrainian soldiers would have taken them all as “souvenirs.”

Then, he turned introspective: “It’s actually very strange when you see people being killed and you’re like, ‘Yay!’ “

He was acutely aware of how war strips the soul. He’s still fighting on the Ukrainian frontlines. While he fights for independence, he also fights for the specific parts of daily life that create a country: “There’s so many reasons why we’re fighting. We can talk about freedom, but in general, these kids need to go to school. That’s all.” He told them he fights so that they never have to.

From the early days of the war, when we saw Ukrainians lined up at ATMs to take out Ukrainian currency and men taking their families to the borders and returning alone to fight, Ukrainians’ belief in their country and their role in defending it have not changed. (Editor’s note: Erin Burnett keeps in touch with Vlad and he provides her regular updates from the frontline)

As the host of ‘Erin Burnett OutFront,’ do you frequently travel to report on stories? What other stories have you covered as a TV host?

One of my great passions in life is travel. It’s one of the reasons I always dreamed of working at CNN. I wanted to travel to find and tell stories. Maybe that started when my mother had me keep journals on childhood trips. Covid curtailed travel for us all recently, but I have traveled the world for work and that is a great gift.

Every one of the stories I’ve covered has left a mark on me.

When I was in Egypt at the start of the Arab Spring, each street was protected by armed locals; there were gunshots in the air. It was unsettled, and yet at the onset there was a triumphant celebration as people reclaimed their country. I’ll remember the possibility of that moment — although still unrealized — forever.

The children always change you as a reporter: We visited a Pakistani women’s prison where the women were serving life sentences for small infractions. Their children were allowed to live with them until they turned 7 — then they were taken away forever. In a refugee camp along the border of Mali, where people were seeking refuge from al Qaeda terrorists, I remember Mariam. Her gaze stares out at me from the photo journal I kept of that reporting trip.

And as America faces the tragedy of Buffalo and Uvalde, I think of the sad and disgusting parade of mass shootings: standing outside a Las Vegas casino, outside a nightclub in Orlando, outside the school in Newtown, Connecticut, outside a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. As a reporter, I cannot believe we cover the same story again and again and nothing changes.

Do you anticipate returning to Ukraine?

Yes. Ukraine’s story will define the world we all live in.

Switching gears a bit, tell us how you got your start as a journalist?

I got my start in journalism for one simple reason — I left jobs when they weren’t the right fit. I thought I’d end up in the CIA or as an advocate, a lawyer. I considered business school.

But when I stumbled into a job that was a media startup within a bigger company, I ended up having to fill a few roles: running numbers, creating marketing presentations and producing video interviews with CEOs and financial experts.

I realized what I loved was asking questions. It was not work! My career became clear from there. There were many bumps along the way to my dream job at CNN, but the truth is, I’m grateful for my job every day.

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