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Oleksandr Ostapa and TheBuchaCity

Independent journalism amid occupation – and liberation

How a hyperlocal newsroom is working in Ukraine’s Bucha

“I don't know why, but I was prepared for the full-scale war,” says Oleksandr Ostapa. “My car was ready. I packed my documents, water and everything else. We stayed in Bucha on 24 February and on 25 February we were on our way.”

“Even as we were driving, I kept publishing things,” he adds. “I was looking through the messages we were getting from the locals, who were sharing data on Russian military movements or looking for their loved ones.”

Oleksandr is the founder and the head of the media TheBuchaCity, a leading source of information in Bucha, a town in northern Ukraine, which came to international attention during Russia’s occupation in early 2022. He also founded the NGO Bucha is The Best City, and he is a prominent activist and a journalist.

“It took me a year to go through all the messages we received in the spring of 2022 when Bucha was occupied,” he recalls. “We launched many different channels for people to communicate and help each other. They still exist today as an independent community for locals.”

TheBuchaCity played a crucial role in coordinating aid to Bucha’s residents during the hardest period of occupation, and it is now an important platform ensuring transparency on the city’s reconstruction.

Hyperlocal, independent, and innovative

Bucha is a small town some 30 kilometres away from Kyiv. With a population of 35,000, it had no independent media in recent years. This is what prompted Oleksandr to begin working.

“I remember that it was 7 January 2015 and I looked out of the window, and I took a photo of our Bucha stadium,” he says. “The weather was beautiful, and the picture turned out great. And I thought: "So what should I do with this photo now?" That’s when I decided to create an Instagram profile, and I called it TheBuchaCity.”

Oleksandr started publishing more photos and shared the account with his friends. After a month, around 200 picked up the hashtag #Thebuchacity, and he received lots of pictures from other locals. The account started getting hits.

On 23 August 2015, seven months after the Instagram profile went live, Oleksandr launched an actual website for TheBuchaCity.

“We had 24,000 views on our first day. On that day, Bucha had a micro-technogenic catastrophe. There was an explosion at some warehouses with chemicals, and we were the first ones to write about it. I lived nearby, so I went and wrote about it first. My article was republished across Ukraine with reference to us, and that's why we got so many views,” he says.

In a year, the website got around a million views. However, it remained mostly a hobby for Oleksandr who was busy with his everyday job as a journalist and a communications expert.

TheBuchaCity came back to life after the full-scale invasion because we were the only local newsroom that continued working,” says Oleksandr. “Many residents who fled Bucha before the occupation joined us as volunteers. They were fact-checking news and writing, and in the first month of the full-scale invasion, our social media reach grew dramatically.”

After the liberation of Bucha, many of the volunteers decided to stay on with the newsroom. It was in late 2022 when the team decided to reformat their work and relaunch their website – once again becoming a leading news source in Bucha and beyond.

Monitoring renovation

Bucha was occupied by Russian troops on 3 March 2022, with the Ukrainian army liberating the town on 31 March. During the occupation, residents went through torture, rapes, and other horrors. They were almost completely disconnected from the outside world with little access to the Internet or other means of communication.

Oleksandr worked non-stop to help residents inside the town during this difficult period.

“By 1 March 2022, I was already in communication with many people from the military, intelligence, and so on. We launched many different chats to connect Bucha residents with the outside, and in just one month, we got more than 2,000 messages from local people,” he says.

Oleksandr also had relatives who had remained in the city. “My family members managed to evacuate in one bus. It was a very difficult day for me when they finally got rescued.”

He returned to Bucha immediately after the liberation – both as a journalist and a volunteer. In those early days, the team of TheBuchaCity was doing both communications work, such as sharing information on different aid initiatives and helping restore the badly damaged town.

Now, nearly two years after Bucha’s liberation, the newsroom remains as important as ever for the locals. The team has grown from two to thirteen people, and is now producing videos, documentaries, and other content that shed light on everyday life, Russia’s war, and the town’s renewal.

The platform has gained more prominence for its investigations and analytical content, including stories on Bucha’s reconstruction and how public money is being spent. The team revealed how shady construction companies were involved in rebuilding some of the damaged houses, and this has led to court proceedings against these companies as well as a greater monitoring of public spending. The newsroom also produced a series of documentaries about the war, occupation, and fallen heroes from the region – and plans to expand to other communities nearby.

Today, TheBuchaCity is about far more than just journalism. It also has a social mission and it is helping to develop a strong community of active citizens who care about their town’s restoration. Oleksandr hopes to extend this grassroots initiative to other localities nearby that lack quality media, and to provide people there with an independent news source.

“Thanks to EED’s support, we now have an office in the town centre. We are visible within society, and people know where to go and see us. Our readers visit the newsroom to meet us, and connect with us, and to support our work,” he says.

This article reflects the views of the grantees featured and does not necessarily represent the official opinion of the EED.