Newhub’s Europe correspondent Lisette Reymer tells Stewart Sowman-Lund what it’s like to report from the frontline of the ongoing war – where she’s just returned for the fifth time this year.
It’s nine minutes to midnight on Ukraine’s east coast but somehow New Zealand journalist Lisette Reymer has found the time and the energy to speak to me. Earlier in the day, Newshub’s Europe correspondent was trudging through live landmine territory. Now she’s sitting in a hotel room, curtains drawn in accordance with the strict blackout instructions.
Reymer, 28, has spent weeks in the war-torn country this year, reporting from as close to the frontline as you can safely – if that’s even the right word – get. This is her fifth visit, her fourth since the Russian invasion began in February. It’s also her most dangerous, with her base this time in Kharkiv, just a few kilometres from the Russian border and the frontline of the war.
You’d think that reporting on the war, one of the biggest news events of the decade, would be enough work for Reymer. She only took up her post at the end of last year. But 2022 had other ideas. Along with Ukraine, Reymer helped lead Newshub’s coverage of the Commonwealth Games and the death of Queen Elizabeth II. She was positioned outside Downing Street as Boris Johnson’s tenure as British prime minister ended – and it’s looking increasingly likely she’ll be there for another leadership spill soon.
While any European correspondent would have been wise to prepare for the passing of the monarch (Reymer admits she took a black blazer and “geeky” cue cards with her everywhere, even on holiday), battlefield reporting wasn’t on Reymer’s radar. The mandatory war zone training she underwent before taking up the role never seemed like it would ever get used.
“We thought it was just the biggest hoot. We put on our vests and our helmets, and we were all taking photos being like, ‘we’ll never do this again’. And now it’s all I’ve done this year,” Reymer laughs. “We were in this random forest in Kent for a week and they were throwing missiles at us and kidnapping us and teaching us how to go through checkpoints and negotiate with scary army guys with guns.”
Thankfully Reymer hasn’t had to directly deal with any missiles or kidnappings, but the checkpoint prep has come in handy. Her reporting has seen her cross countless borders, visit most of Ukraine’s biggest cities, and report from active war zones, bomb shelters and underground bunkers. There have been, she admits, “some scary moments” – that close landmine encounter from earlier being one of them.
“We were under pretty strict instructions not to go off the pathways because there are just so many landmines. We ended up with this family who were pretty much the only ones still living in town, and they were giving us a tour,” explains Reymer. “We’re walking down this strip of pathway… and then we saw a big mine, like a chunk of artillery in the ground and I saw, out of the corner of my eye, one of the locals kick it. And I just screamed! I was like, ‘I’m gonna die’.”
Despite the heavy, emotional stories that have dominated much of her tenure as Europe correspondent – and despite talking to me from a hotel room in a blacked out Ukrainian city at midnight – Reymer radiates positivity and optimism. She speaks about walking through war zones like one might describe going for brunch. That’s not to say she isn’t fully cognisant of the danger she’s in – because she very much is. The sole purpose for being in Ukraine, Reymer explains, is to help New Zealanders back home understand the magnitude of what’s happening on the ground.
“I feel quite passionately that for New Zealanders to care properly, for people to really to sit up and pay attention, I think that needs to come from a Kiwi,” Reymer says. “Someone who they can really relate to and that they feel like they know. And I think that that’s a huge responsibility and privilege that we have over here at the moment. And that is the sole reason we keep coming back.”
After dominating the headlines in the early weeks of the invasion, the Ukraine war has been pushed deeper into the 6pm news bulletin by the death of the Queen, the continuing impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and our own domestic issues. It’s people like Reymer – along with her former TVNZ counterpart Daniel Faitaua and Today FM’s Tova O’Brien, both of whom have spent time on the ground in Ukraine – who ensure the story remains on the minds of New Zealanders.
“Unless we keep on bringing people’s awareness to it by coming back and doing trips like these, I think it’s really easy for it to just slip away into the background or for people to get fatigued by it,” agrees Reymer. “I don’t know what it is about human psychology that you just need to see one of your own somewhere. It does make a difference when people recognise themselves in stories.”
Traditionally, journalists have been expected to keep a degree of emotional distance between themselves and subjects. That’s somewhat shifted over the past few years; think of John Campbell openly showing emotion in the hours after the 2019 mosque attack or Hilary Barry reporting live following the Christchurch earthquakes. Reymer, too, has managed to balance a level of journalistic neutrality with obvious empathy for her interviewees. The most emotional part of the job, explains Reymer, is not necessarily when she’s out in the field or crossing live back to the studio in Auckland.
“The quietest part of my day is when I watch the story for the last time before I approve it. And I think those minutes when you’re just sitting in silence, and you’re trying to really focus on the story, and you watch it – those are the times when I’ve started tearing up,” she says. “Because on the last watch, I’m kind of able to watch it as a viewer and see these people’s stories for the first time again.”
Spending time in Ukraine over the past few months has “completely changed” how Reymer views her role as a reporter. “I think it’s just a really human thing to connect with these people who are telling you the most vulnerable stories of their lives, in just the most horrendous situations,” she says. “A lot of the time we don’t have a shared language… and there’s not a whole heap of instant understanding. But if I put a hand on their shoulder, or hug them, or just give them a really big smile, or hold their hand, instantly there’s a warmth that is shared.
“I hope that they can feel safe with me and they know that I’m going to do the best I can to share their story and do it justice.”