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‘We have to remember there’s real suffering going on:’ At Northwest Passages talk, S-R reporter Eli Francovich reflects on time in Ukraine

UPDATED: Tue., June 21, 2022

There was Kyle Varner, a physician at Providence Holy Family Hospital; Jared Malone, a Marine veteran who works as a counselor in Post Falls; Marty Becker, a veterinarian who lives in Bonners Ferry.

Spokesman-Review reporter Eli Francovich interviewed all three of them and several others with ties to Eastern Washington and North Idaho who traveled this year to Eastern Europe to help Ukrainian refugees.

Francovich spent six weeks in Ukraine, Poland and Romania writing stories and shooting photos for Spokesman-Review readers. There are over 30,000 Ukrainian Americans in Spokane County.

He shared those stories and his own experiences to a crowd of around 100 people Tuesday night at the Montvale Event Center in downtown Spokane as part of The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages series.

Francovich was the first reporter in the newspaper’s roughly 140-year history to cover a war. The Spokesman-Review was one of a handful of local newspapers across the country to send a reporter to cover Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its fallout.

Besides local doctors and military veterans, Francovich spoke to countless Ukrainian refugees who traveled long miles and days to seek safety in Poland. He mostly used his cellphone to translate, but also relied on helpful humans on a few occasions.

Most of the refugees Francovich spoke to were not wealthy because most of the rich Ukrainians had fled by the time he arrived in Eastern Europe, he said.

Francovich said he was a few hundred miles from the front lines of the war, but “the stress was in the air.”

There were military checkpoints and air raid sirens in Lviv, where he spent some time in a hotel, but there were also people going about their day like a war wasn’t happening.

“It was a weird juxtaposition of normal life and then this stress and tension of war,” he said. “I had never experienced anything quite like that.”

Francovich said he had two main takeaways from his experience.

The first is that Americans, like himself, do not know what war is like because one has not happened on this nation’s soil since the Civil War.

“You just can’t know it,” said Francovich, adding that he was 300 or 400 miles away from the fighting but he felt it.

The second takeaway was the beauty of the humanitarian response for refugees, but Francovich said he hopes people don’t politicize it.

“We have to remember there’s real suffering going on,” he said.

In addition, Christine Holbert, founder of Lost Horse Press, recited poetry – in English and Ukrainian – from one of her Ukrainian poetry series books Tuesday night. She said she started the series to honor her nationality, parents and ancestors.

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