News comes of yet another visual journalist killed in Ukraine, in fact the 17th since the Russian Invasion escalated in February 2022. Yes, many soldiers and innocent civilians are being killed too, but these reporters are those who volunteer to be there, propelled only be a desire to bear witness. so that we can know the truth.
Some, inevitably, die doing it.
It is a report many will pass by, but pictures by Turkish photographer Bülent Kılıç of his cheery face crammed into a helmet that made me, and many others, stop.
Arman Soldin was 32 years old, a champion footballer, intelligent, fit and well educated. It prompted me to check his entry in Wikipedia, which I found had been created yesterday morning after reports of his death. To add to it, I went in search of Soldin’s history in French, Bosnian, Ukrainian and Italian sites and found an article from March 2022 by Audrey Massias who met him during their journalism studies at the Université Lumière, Lyon, where in 2014-15 he graduated with a Masters in Journalism – New Journalistic Practices.
His previous academic attainments were distinguished; French Baccalaureate, specialising in Science, with an upper second class honour at the Lycée Saint Martin, Rennes, 2006–2009; a BA in Politics & Eastern European Studies with Politics, Economics, History, International Relations in 2013 at University College London(where he was co-editor in chef of its Eureka Magazine covering politics, society, arts and culture); and an MA in Production and Management in performing arts, and cinematography and production in film and video the Académie Nationale des Arts Scéniques de Bosnie-Hérzégovine, Université de Sarajevo in 2014.
A gifted footballer for Stade Rennais in western France from 2006 to 2008, he had to give up playing in competitions to concentrate on his studies, but this was a background that brought him to work in 2021 as a sports commentator on English Premier League, UEFA Women’s Euro, UEFA Super Cup matches for Canal+ France.
Importantly, Soldin was born in Bosnia and when he was just a baby, his hometown Sarajevo, in Bosnia, was besieged in April 1992 by the forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army. He remembered his mother Oksana telling him that
“On the eve of the event, Bernard Kouchner, then Minister of Health, went there and asked how he could help. He returned to France with 99 women and children including you and me. On the plane to Paris everyone was asleep except me so Kouchner took you in his arms.”
Consequently he is a reporter who has sympathy for the plight of the Ukraine and its people who have fled their country.
Touchingly, we see him five years ago with his mother in a YouTube video in London being interviewed in the Nomadic Community Garden in Hackney. His English is perfect as he talks passionately of the beauty of such community initiatives, and he also spoke French as fluently as his mother who lived there, and Italian, and Bosnian; all languages useful in his career after he joined Agence France-Presse in 2015 as an intern in Rome reporting on African refugee arrivals at the small Italian island of Lampedusa. In June 2018 he wrote about the stand-off between the Italian government and the Lifeline humanitarian ship with 233 migrants on board, many ill, when it arrived in Malta after a week of waiting in the Mediterranean, and in October on Nationalist Milorad Dodik winning the seat reserved for Serbs in the Bosnian collegiate presidency. From the agency’s London office in 2019 he broke a story on the thirty-nine bodies, including that of a teenager, discovered in east London in a refrigerated lorry from Belgium. During the emergence of Brexit he wrote in December 2019 on Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s opposition and her bid for a plebiscite on Scottish independence. From 2020 he was again posted to Rome.
As the Russian invasion started in February 2022, Arman volunteered immediately to be among the France-Presse agency’s first special envoys. In London, Arman received training for a week, “we learn to push back our fears and our limits, to manage confinement or the lack of visibility”. Though there is no obligation to take the training, the AFP would only send journalists to a war zone who have done so. At the end of January, as tensions mounted in Eurasia, Arman offered to go. “I was told that if two weeks later the situation got tense, I could go. On the night of Thursday February 24, when the war broke out, I left directly. Two days later, he arrived by plane in Warsaw (Poland) before joining Lviv in Ukraine by car then Kyiv where they were in a hotel with food, electricity, network, hot water. The team also had two drivers and three interpreters.
However his first day in the capital was life-changing. He told Massias;
“The Ukrainians blew up a bridge to slow down the Russians. The crossing was chaotic, you could fall into the water at any time. There were shelling nearby, the racket of armoured tanks, the charred bodies – civilians and soldiers. There was a lot of adrenaline, smoke too. And in the evening, we find ourselves in front of someone watching his house burn, he was cursing the Russians, he was crying. It was very intense and I cried too, it was really sad. They lose their whole life, they don’t know where they will sleep at night and live. It was all the horror of war summed up in one day. It was the first time for me and it’s as if I had lost my war-zone virginity, it changed my life.”
He was later rotated out of the Ukraine against his wishes but returned in September 2022, working as a video coordinator. Yet Arman shrugged off fear even if “the messages from relatives…make us realise that we are risking our lives. Rockets passed 15 m from our team, a car was damaged. So far I’ve been very lucky.” Of the his nearly twenty AFP companions he said most are used to these situations: “They remain calm in all situations. They can be trusted and they make you feel good.”
Despite the dangers, Arman was compelled to bear witness, putting himself at risk and under fire to secure images of the fierce military battle and the destruction all around. But he also revealed in his reports the lives of ordinary people caught up in the conflict, desperately trying to survive amid the chaos; in Kyiv, he recorded a tender moment between a conscripted father and his young son who had fled abroad, bonding over an online game; Bakhmut residents crossing the icy river to get food, water and wood; a skateboarder in a dystopian bombed city. In Chasiv Yar, where he was killed, he found a woman tending her garden. Much of Arman’s footage was shot on an iPhone, not just for speed and mobility; “I only go up to [civilian] people with my mobile,” he said. “It’s less scary for them.”
He acknowledged that this is also a media war;: “The truth matters little except for journalists. There is also an information war with two opposing propaganda machines. The amount of unverified and often false information circulating is incredible. We try to disentangle the true from the false. We have seen fake videos. In normal times, you can trust official sources, not in wartime, you can only trust yourself. He speaks, for example, of the bombardment of schools by the Russians: “It’s a reality, it’s true, but many schools also serve as a base for Ukrainian soldiers. It’s very hard to stay accurate, not to succumb to social media.”
In Kherson in December 2022, Soldin produced video for AFP of risky civilian rescues of Ukrainians stranded on islands in the Dnieper River after Russian troops retreated in November to the other side of the Dnieper, but kept snipers and artillery trained along the river, rendering it a new front line. His coverage in January 2023 showed an intense Russian offensive on Soledar,and Vuhledar, in the eastern Donetsk Oblast. On March 14, “an American journalist was killed at a checkpoint where I was only one and a half hours before.”
In April 2023 he covered Ukrainian soldiers digging defences near Bakhmut, diving for cover as they came under fire from missiles.
On 9 May 2023, the team was near the city of Chasiv Yar, Donetsk Oblast, together with a detachment of Ukrainian soldiers. Soldin was killed by a Grad rocket which exploded over the place he was lying, nobody else was injured.
Reactions from colleagues came quickly, the Committee to Protect Journalists noting that Soldin is the 17th journalist to be killed in Ukraine since 2022 and calling for investigation by Russia and Ukraine into the circumstances of Soldin’s death. Reporters Without Borders global news director Phil Chetwynd remarked that; “Arman’s brilliant work encapsulates everything that makes us so proud of AFP journalism in Ukraine. Arman’s death is a terrible reminder of the risks and dangers of reporting on this war.” Agence France-Presse director for Europe Christine Buhagiar remembered Soldin as “enthusiastic, energetic and courageous”.
Politicians joined the commentary with worthy words. French President Emmanuel Macron used Twitter to announce that “a journalist from Agence France-Presse, one of our compatriots, Arman Soldin, was killed in Ukraine. With courage, from the first hours of the conflict he was at the front to establish the facts.” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said that the “world owes a debt to Arman Soldin, an AFP journalist who lost his life today on the front line of the war in Ukraine…journalism is one of the foundations of a free society”.
Back on 21 March, he was with the AFP team in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, celebrating his 32nd birthday.
2 thoughts on “May 10: Gifted”
Very courageous, very sad… thank you James for this tribute
War is terrible, war should not exist.