LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — After arriving in Ukraine to cover the war for National Public Radio, Nickolai Hammar said, he had a decision to make.
Was he going to dash for a bomb shelter every time he heard a shell explode or every time his cell phone lit up with an air raid warning?
Or was he going to push ahead with documenting the war and its impact on the people of Ukraine?
It only took a week, said the graduate of Lincoln High School and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to ignore the shelling in the distance and sleep through the multiple air raid warnings each night.
“It happens so many times during the night, you get desensitized to it,” Hammar said.
“One thing we heard over and over and over again, from people who had been in Ukraine,” he said. “You have to decide if you’re just going to be scared every single day, or if you’re going to accept the reality.”
Hammar, a New York-based videographer and production assistant for NPR, spent nearly a month in Ukraine after casually offering to go to the war zone “if they needed someone.”
Two days later, his boss tapped him as part of an NPR team heading to the conflict to relieve other reporters.
Hammar’s specialty is field production, having worked on documentaries of hip-hop artists in New York and covering the aftermath of a hurricane in Puerto Rico.
But the level of destruction that he saw in Ukraine was “pretty shocking.”
Huge buildings gutted by missile attacks, charred helicopters and tanks left behind by retreating Russian forces, Ukranians living in basements and storm cellars to avoid the shelling and missiles.
There’s nothing you can do about a cruise missile coming in and hitting the hotel you’re staying in.
– NPR videographer Nickolai Hammar
“The biggest threat to me wasn’t being shot by a Russian soldier, it was being hit by artillery being sent into Kharkiv every single day and night,” Hammar said.
“We had an understanding of the neighborhoods being shelled, so we didn’t stay there,” he said. “But there’s nothing you can do about a cruise missile coming in and hitting the hotel you’re staying in.”
Hammar and reporter Eyder Peralta met in Warsaw on April 3, then proceeded across the border to Lviv, Kiev and, eventually, to bombed-out villages north of the capital and to the front in eastern Ukraine.
They covered a Ukranian bomb squad detonating remnants of a cluster bomb in farm fields, described what was left in the village of Borodyanka after the Russians left and explored a warehouse in Mala Rohan that Russian troops had used as a barracks.
Sounds of shelling
In the background of one report, you could clearly hear the sounds of shelling.
“Do you understand what this war is about?” one woman was asked.
“Nyet,” she responded.
“We need peace. That’s the only thing that we need,” said an interpreter.
By the time they arrived at the northern suburbs of Kiev, the Russians had left and the bodies of civilians had been removed from the streets. The stories they were told by residents, who had slept in their basements and storm cellars for a month during the occupation, were awful.
“We did hear some people talk about some Russian soldiers in tanks who pushed down the big metal gates in front of their houses and fired into the house, then moved on to the next house,” Hammar said.
“It was indiscriminate, totally senseless violence,” he said “I couldn’t think of a military strategy that would require firing into a house in a city you had already occupied.”
Other Ukrainians told of Russian soldiers breaking into their homes, stealing their food and issuing threats, Hammar said.
The 28-year-old didn’t initially intend to be a journalist, but his mother, Catharine Huddle, a longtime former editor at the Lincoln Journal-Star, suggested that at least he tour the journalism school at UNL before deciding on a major.
Covered art, music
He ended up focusing on photography — a passion since a babysitter had given him a camera — and for a time considered being a war correspondent. Eventually, though, he landed on filming documentaries, mostly about the music and art scene in Lincoln. He worked for a nonprofit called “Hear Nebraska,” which covered art and music.
That led to an internship with NPR to produce music videos (his father, Phil, was a longtime engineer with Nebraska Public Television who often helped with music productions).
That led to more work for NPR, and eventually the full-time gig in New York City, where Hammar has been for almost seven years. His work appears on NPR.org, as well as several social media outlets, including YouTube.
He said he was nervous about telling his mother that he was headed to Ukraine, and he put it off for a week.
Mother a ‘basket case’
Catharine Huddle said her initial reaction was pride, followed by absolute terror.
“I was a basket case the entire time he was gone,” she said. “I cannot imagine what it would be like to have a child in the military. He was there to observe rather than participate, but it was absolutely terrifying.”
Huddle said she was kept up-to-date about the movements of the NPR reporting team in daily tweets from a former war correspondent who was working for NPR, noting when they crossed the border, where they were working, etc. That helped, she said.
Hammar said the scariest moment might have been when he and Peralta and their security escort, a former U.S. Marine, were arriving in Dnipro, en route to Kharkiv, when they saw huge plumes of black smoke rising from a local airport. It had been hit by a cruise missile.
They rushed to the scene and were surprised they were able to drive right up to it because they had been warned that Ukrainian soldiers were “very controlling” at sites of missile attacks.
“Pretty much the second we got out of the car, a soldier power-walked up to me, telling us, ‘You can’t be here,’ “ Hammar said.
Suddenly a noise erupted beyond some trees, possibly anti-aircraft fire or a Ukrainian jet firing up, Hammar said, but it was clear that the local soldiers did not want them to know what it was.
Hammar said it was amazing how quickly the war had shifted in Ukraine. By the time the crew got there, the Russians had left the suburbs of Kiev and had moved eastward.
Also amazing, he said, was how welcoming and generous the Ukrainian people were to the NPR team. Locals made sure they had places to stay and food to eat.
Hammar said they were basically adopted by five “surrogate” Ukrainian mothers in Kharkiv, who had taken over the kitchen of a closed hotel to make sure their children (employees of the hotel) and any random guests were taken care of.
It’s hard to understand what would make people stop fighting.
– Nickolai Hammar
People came up to them, wanting to tell their stories, thankful that someone would listen, Hammar said. One woman, he said, emerged from a storm cellar, where she had slept on bags of potatoes for a month, when a van carrying humanitarian supplies arrived.
Hammar said he didn’t completely understand the nature of the conflict before he got to Ukraine and left thinking there were many more stories to tell there.
Does he see an end to this war?
That’s a difficult question, Hammar responded.
“From an outsider, it’s hard to understand what would make people stop fighting,” he said. “There’s so much confusion around what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin wants to accomplish.”
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