It has been almost three months since Victoria Roshchyna’s family and colleagues received any word from the award-winning Ukrainian journalist.
Roshchyna, who is known for her courageous reporting on Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, disappeared shortly after passing a checkpoint. Friends and colleagues believe Russian forces detained her.
The reporter had quickly pivoted from covering court cases to reporting from the front lines when Russian forces invaded her home country.
As a freelance journalist, she has written for publications that include the Ukrainian news websites Hromadske and Ukrainska Pravda, as well as the broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Roshchyna told the stories of children killed in Dnipro and Berdyansk. She spoke to survivors of a missile strike in Uman and reported from Mariupol, where Russian occupiers staged a celebration in front of ruined houses. She interviewed soldiers and civilians, putting a human face to the brutality of war.
But covering these stories came with great personal risk.
On March 5, 2022, the car that Roshchyna was traveling in was shot at by Russian forces. She and the driver managed to escape and seek shelter in a nearby house. Roshchyna’s camera and laptop were stolen from the car, according to reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based nonprofit.
Less than a week later, Russian security agents detained Roshchyna. She was held for 10 days, hit and threatened.
She detailed the experience for Hromadske, writing, “I didn’t feel fear … there was only despair over the unknown and wasted time, the inability to do my job.”
“The fact that she was detained by Russian soldiers and lived through that experience and went back and kept reporting as if that never happened certainly shows an incredible amount of courage and tenacity and a journalist who’s willing to risk everything to report the news,” said Elisa Lees Munoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, or IWMF.
The IWMF in 2022 awarded Roshchyna its Courage Award for her coverage of the war.
One year on from presenting that award, Munoz and others are advocating for Roshchyna’s release.
“To disappear somebody is one of the worst things that one can do,” Munoz said. “It’s certainly intended to send a message to others — we can do that to anybody.”
Roshchyna left Ukraine in late July to travel through Poland and Russia to try to reach Russian-occupied territories of southeastern Ukraine.
On August 3, she called a relative to say she’d passed through several checkpoints, although she didn’t specify where, Anna Nemtsova told VOA. Nemtsova is a correspondent for the Daily Beast who has spoken directly to Roshchyna’s family.
The Ukrainian security service informed Roshchyna’s father that she was captured by Russians, Nemtsova said. Friends have searched for her in and around jails in occupied regions but have found no trace.
VOA emailed the Russian Embassy in Washington for comment but did not receive a reply.
The Ukrainian National Information Bureau told VOA that it keeps records of prisoners of war and civilian hostages but added, “By law we cannot share the data from our records or provide any media comments thereof.”
“Her parents are heartbroken,” Nemtsova told VOA. “Her father, her mother, her sister, they’re all very, very worried about her. And they regret that she wouldn’t stop covering the most dangerous regions. But nobody could stop Victoria.”
Nemtsova, who covers stories on Russia and Eastern Europe, became familiar with Roshchyna by reading her articles.
Later, the two spoke multiple times over the phone. It was Nemtsova, a past IWMF courage honoree, who nominated her colleague for the award.
“She was treating this story, this tragedy, the invasion of Ukraine as the main thing, the why, the most important thing,” Nemtsova told VOA. She heard from mutual friends that, during the winter months of the war, Roshchyna “looked like a shadow, she was so tired.” But she kept reporting.
Maria Romanenko, a Ukrainian journalist and activist, worked alongside Roshchyna for several years while she was then editor-in-chief at Hromadske, an independent Ukrainian media outlet.
Romanenko described Roshchyna as a quiet, hardworking woman with fierce courage and a tireless commitment to journalism.
She had this “very, very impressive braveness in her,” Romanenko told VOA. She was “always going for those stories that nobody else, I think, really wanted to, and she did it willingly.”
Romanenko left Ukraine after the Russian invasion and now lives in the U.K. She said that in the early days of the war, journalists were afraid of what would happen to press freedom if Russians fully occupied the country.
In Russia, it’s not uncommon for journalists to go missing, be detained or even killed, Romanenko said. Russia “is not a safe environment for journalists,” she told VOA. “And when they invade other countries and attack other countries, they try to reproduce the same scenarios in the areas that they manage to occupy.”
Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based nonprofit, ranks Russia 164 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, with 180 being least free.
Around the same time Roshchyna was first detained, Romanenko’s colleague Maks Levin went missing. Levin’s body was later found near Kyiv. An investigation later concluded Russian troops killed him.
Romanenko says she keeps checking social media apps, hoping for news. “It’s a strange reality that we find ourselves in — just going on those chats and checking when she was last online, just hoping that it will suddenly change to ‘online now,’ ” Romanenko said.
Although Munoz, Nemtsova and Romanenko all hope for Roshchyna’s safe return, they also fear the worst.
“We don’t know in what basement she’s in. What kind of pressure she’s suffering from,” Nemtsova told VOA. “The most important thing for her friends, for supporters, for her family is that she’s alive. … We don’t know that yet.”