Telegraph's Danielle Sheridan on reporting from Bucha's mass graves

'I have become emotional': Telegraph's Danielle Sheridan on witnessing Bucha's mass graves and dealing with the aftermath of tragedy

The main image that sticks in her mind is the bodies. The contorted mixture of limbs, clothes and sand. At the edge of it all is a single pink flip flop.

Danielle Sheridan (pictured) first arrived in Ukraine to report on the war for The Telegraph on 27 February, driving into the country from Poland.

The 32-year-old politics and defence correspondent’s most recent assignment has been in the ring of towns around Kyiv and Chernihiv that have only recently been left by the Russians, and where journalists are reporting on a string of what have been called Russian war crimes by the international community.

“I think I’ve seen one dead body before in my life,” Sheridan tells Press Gazette. “And then there was this mass grave behind a church, and that was really awful, just horrible to see.

“Lots of the bodies were in body bags but a number weren’t, so arms would be peeking through, you could see a sweatshirt, someone’s foot. It’s all very human.”

“And in that pit, a woman’s pink flip flop had fallen off one of the victim’s feet and it really brought it home to me that each of these bodies were living people,” she adds. “When someone is covered in a bag it disguises it all somewhat. But that woman got dressed that morning, put on her shoes, and now she’s lying in a ditch.”

[Read more: First-time war reporters from Mail, i and Telegraph share view from Ukraine]

The bodies, part of a mass grave in Bucha, were moved to the trench by locals after dogs tried to pick at the large number covering the streets of the small suburban town.

It was far from the last place Sheridan would come face to face with the very human cost of this war. In another town, she would find the corpses of two Russian soldiers left by their burnt-out tank: “mangled bodies by a piece of machinery” as she puts it.

Since then, she has shared the stories of siblings searching for the bodies of their killed family members and a woman whose garden was dug up by Russian soldiers who said they were making a grave for Ukrainian civilians, which became The Telegraph’s front-page story.

“I have become emotional when I interviewed people and they’ve been sobbing their hearts out because it’s really hard to not feel someone’s pain sometimes,” says Sheridan.

“Seeing all the dead bodies in Bucha, I was surprised I hadn’t cried as I’m normally quite an emotional person. But I was shaking so much as I stood there.

“And I was saying to someone in the car later, I don’t know why I was shaking. I mentioned it to my brother, he said ‘I think that was adrenaline in your body subconsciously dealing with the traumatic thing you’ve seen’.”

In terms of dealing with the long-term mental impacts of reporting on Russian war crimes, Sheridan’s plan is to “figure it out” a little later down the line. In the meantime, the focus is on those for whom this trauma is their lives.

‘People want to tell their stories’

Sheridan’s job has become less about tracking the latest military movements, and more about capturing the trauma of those left behind once the hordes of soldiers, tanks and drones move onto their latest battlefield.

“You’re not covering the immediacy of war, the shooting and the fighting and everything that comes with it,” she says. “Instead, you’re dealing with the aftermath, which is very challenging because you’re dealing with people that are emotionally scarred; that are completely traumatised. And you’re asking them to basically relive their horrific stories.”

She adds: “Almost everyone we’ve interviewed has gotten really upset. If not visibly crying, then you can see the strain on their face when they talk about it.”

Other struggles have included some barriers in reporting from Ukrainian authorities similar to those previously reported by Sky’s Sally Lockwood for Press Gazette.

At one point, they stopped Sheridan and her colleagues from interviewing the injured in hospitals. Ukrainian soldiers also intervened when she tried to take drone footage of the devastation, with one saying it could have been mistaken for a Russian surveillance drone and shot down.

Largely though, Sheridan reports that soldiers and civilians alike are keen to speak – “people want to tell their stories to us.”

Despite working for a traditional broadsheet newspaper, many of Sheridan’s most compelling reports have been on the end of a video camera, as she filmed the devastation left in the wake of the Russian retreat from the region around Bucha.

“It didn’t even cross my mind to take video on my phone at first. But I got an email saying: ‘We’ve heard that you’re going down to Bucha today, could you please take some videos of it?’,” she recalls.

“You bring a human element to it when viewers can see your voice and your expression. I’m taking the viewer through what I’ve experienced at that moment.”

She added: “You can talk about a massive grave that we’ve seen and found in someone’s back garden, but to actually see the pit is something else.”

As with so much of this conflict, the reported massacres of civilians outside Kyiv have fallen into the wider information war between Ukraine and its allies and Russia. Russian officials have denied war crimes occurred, saying images of mass graves and bodies were a “bold fake”.

“The level of devastation that we are seeing on the ground is horrific and we’re going out and finding evidence of war crimes that the Russians could have committed,” Sheridan says in response.

“So it infuriates me when I get messages on Twitter telling me that I’m lying when I’m making stuff up and Russia isn’t doing that. I just think ‘how can you be naive and deluded?’ The atrocities are as bad as they look and sound.”

‘I don’t have a return flight booked’

What’s next? Maybe Odesa or the Donbas, though Sheridan is far from certain; trips to war zones rarely have an itinerary.

“I don’t know how long I’ll be out here, I don’t have a return flight booked home,” she says.

“I have a bonsai tree that a friend is looking after, so I guess I do have some dependents back home,” she chuckles, before adding more sincerely: “If I get rotated out I definitely want to come back to continue writing about this.”

“It’s important that we don’t stop reporting and writing,” she adds. “This all does have the capacity to get worse. And it needs to not be given that opportunity.”

Picture: Paul Grover / The Telegraph / Danielle Sheridan



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