Alumnus Francis Farrell: 'I experienced some crazy moments on the front line'
Alumnus Francis Farrell (International Studies, 2018) works as a reporter at the Kyiv Independent, where he covers Russia's war against Ukraine. 'I experienced some crazy moments on the front line'
Europe attracted him even when he was still living in Australia. And because he also has a European passport thanks to his Hungarian mother, it was relatively easy to make the crossing for his studies. 'It was also cheaper. I studied in The Hague, but I also lived in Albania, Hungary, London and Russia. Now I've been in Ukraine for a year and a half.'
'Will take my helmet, bulletproof vest, a first aid kit and important papers in case things go wrong.'
Since starting as a reporter at the Kyiv Independent in the summer of 2022, Francis has already reported from some of the hottest spots along the front line. For example, he reported on the Battle of Bakhmut and on the liberation of the Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts. Dangerous places and so such 'working visits' at the front must be well prepared.
'I'm leaving tomorrow, so I'm busy packing now,' Francis says on the phone. 'And in addition to the regular items, I will take my helmet and bulletproof vest, a first aid kit and important papers in case things go wrong.'
Thankfully, that hasn't happened so far, but 'I've had some crazy moments. I have not seen anything serious - such as someone being killed - but we have been under fire. And of course it is terrible to see what the Russians are doing. Whole neighborhoods lying in rubble, buildings full of large holes, and civilians in between. It's hard to see that, especially now that winter is coming.'
When Francis is at a more or less safe distance from the front, everyday life goes back to normal. There, in that "comfortable bubble," he works on compiling the Kyiv Independent, writes op-eds and does "other typical journalistic work." A profession in which his Leiden studies are never far away, says Francis. 'My Bachelor's degree in International Studies, with the Russia and Eurasia area specialisation, gave me a broad view of the region and the underlying geopolitical interests. Precisely because it offered a bit of everything – historical, economic, but also cultural and political perspectives – it was perfect for me. I think looking through one pair of glasses is too narrow.'
Not that that was clear at the time, says Francis. 'I had never really thought about journalism. I had no working experience and even thought I couldn't do it. What I did know was that I wanted to do 'something international'. That's how I ended up for an internship at the Council of Europe, but that was too bureaucratic and cumbersome for me. It did make me think about what I wanted to do. And that turned out to be journalism.'
Fiercest fighting since World War II
That Francis made the right choice is evident from the Bayeux Calvados-Normandy Award for war correspondents, where he was named the winner in the Young Reporter (print) category in October.
He received his award for his coverage of the Battle of Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk Oblast that was occupied by Russian forces who nearly razed it to the ground after 10 months of fierce fighting.
Although his fellow winners have worked for established names such as CNN, the BBC, Le Monde and The Times, he remains humble. 'I'm not good at receiving awards, but of course it's cool. But what I especially like is that I received the prize for my reports on the Battle of Bakhmut, where there has not been so much fighting since World War II. A price helps to keep that in the spotlight. And of course it says something about the quality of the Kyiv Independent.'
When he thinks back to his time in the Netherlands, he is particularly enthusiastic about The Hague. 'That's where I was during my studies and that city is really perfect for students. Everything close by, nice to the beach and of course Het Plein. And, of course, my fellow students. And I still notice that bond now. For example, an old classmate recently invited me to a workshop of a think tank in Istanbul. She had read some of my articles and contacted me as a result. Once I arrived at the event, I bumped into another alumnus. And even though we didn't know each other, we immediately recognized the connection.'