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U.S. journalist killed in Ukraine was known for his ‘innate humanity and empathy’

Brent Renaud in 2015. “He had a way of getting anybody comfortable, and to trust him enough to talk to him,” said Christof Putzel, an independent journalist and filmmaker. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
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Award-winning American journalist Brent Renaud was fatally shot while reporting outside Kyiv on Sunday, according to two Ukrainian officials. His death prompted an outpouring of grief from fellow colleagues and friends who recounted his unwavering devotion to telling the stories of others, even when it meant risking his own life.

Andriy Nebitov, the capital region’s police chief, said in a Facebook post that Renaud was “shot dead” in Irpin, a town on the outskirts of Kyiv that has seen heavy fighting and shelling between Russian and Ukrainian forces in recent days.

Nebitov and an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister shared photos of Renaud’s press badge and passport. Renaud was carrying a New York Times press badge, Nebitov said, but the New York Times issued a statement on Twitter saying that although Renaud had worked with the Times in previous years, most recently in 2015, he was “not on assignment for any desk at The Times in Ukraine.”

Edward Felsenthal, Time magazine’s editor in chief and CEO, said Sunday that Renaud was working on a Time Studios project focused on the global refugee crisis.

“Our hearts are with all of Brent’s loved ones. It is essential that journalists are able to safely cover this ongoing invasion and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine,” Felsenthal said in a statement Sunday.

Renaud, 50, worked with his brother, Craig Renaud, on award-winning video journalism and documentary filmmaking projects for HBO, Vice and other major international news organizations, according to their website.

They won a Peabody award for a Vice News documentary about a school in Chicago, among several other accolades in the media industry, including two Overseas Press Club awards and two duPont-Columbia University awards.

The two have worked in conflict zones and dangerous spots around the world, covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a devastating earthquake in Haiti, cartel violence in Mexico, political upheaval in Egypt, and the war on extremism in Africa and the Middle East, according to their website.

A second journalist, Juan Arredondo, was with Renaud in Irpin when the two came under fire after passing a military checkpoint, according to a video interview Arredondo did with Italian news outlet Internazionale while being treated in a Kyiv hospital.

A reporter with German newspaper Bild recorded Arredondo being evacuated from the area by Ukrainian medics on a stretcher while holding his camera to his chest.

Arredondo said Renaud “has been shot and left behind,” but he wasn’t sure what had happened to him. Ukrainian officials blamed the killing on Russian troops.

Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said on Facebook that a journalist was “shot in the head” in Irpin and that her office plans to investigate the case. She did not name Renaud, but she posted a photo of the New York Times press badge with his picture and name cut off.

“I believe that we will bring the murderers to justice, but we will not return the life of your citizen. All the other citizens too. Unfortunately,” she wrote.

On Sunday, fellow journalists and relatives lamented the killing of Renaud while underscoring the dangers journalists often undertake to report on the news around the world.

Christof Putzel, an independent journalist and filmmaker who has known Renaud for more than 15 years and has worked with him in Mexico, Iraq and Egypt, said he was devastated by the news of his death.

“It’s such a loss, not just for me, his family, but it’s a loss to our profession,” he said in an interview Sunday, pointing to Renaud’s “innate humanity and empathy that allowed him to connect with people,” which Putzel said set his work apart.

“He had a way of getting anybody comfortable, and to trust him enough to talk to him,” he told The Washington Post. “He was the best our profession had.”

Jon Alpert, a documentary filmmaker and co-founder of New York’s Downtown Community Television Center, knew Renaud for decades and worked with him in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He described him as a “really nice guy with extraordinary courage” who “put his life on the line to film things people needed to see.”

Whether working with drug addicts in New York, cartel men in Mexico or young soldiers deployed to Iraq, Renaud was “uncommonly empathetic” with all the subjects in his films, Alpert said.

The Renaud brothers’ TV series “Off to War,” released in the mid-aughts, followed members of the Arkansas National Guard on their deployment to Iraq. It captured the “common goodness of the people that have been sent there, but also the horror of the war,” Alpert said. The series won an International Documentary Association award.

“Once you see war and you understand what war’s really like, for decent-hearted people like him, it changes you,” said Alpert, 73. “And you basically commit the rest of your life to having people understand what it’s really like.”

Renaud was in his high school’s journalism club and ran the newspaper, said Nan Renaud, 83, who was married to Brent Renaud’s father 30 years ago. She described Brent as being extremely talented and deeply committed to his work.

“Brent would go anywhere, anytime, to do what he does,” she said. On Sunday, her son, Renaud’s former stepbrother, texted the family a Twitter thread reporting Brent’s death. She called the news “awful, awful.”

Renaud grew up in Arkansas and began his career covering the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan, according to the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, where he was a fellow in 2019.

Ann Marie Lipinski, a curator at the foundation, described him as “gifted and kind” and said “his work was infused with humanity.”

“He was killed today outside Kiev, and the world and journalism are lesser for it,” she tweeted Sunday. “We are heartsick.”

Cliff Levy, deputy managing editor at the New York Times, wrote on Twitter that “brave journalists like Brent take tremendous risks to bear witness and to tell the world about the devastation and suffering caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Renaud’s death comes after Sky News journalists were shot at while attempting to report in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. Chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay and camera operator Richie Mockler were hit. They survived and were evacuated out of the country, and they were later told that the gunmen were part of a saboteur Russian reconnaissance squad.

On March 1, when the Russian military fired on the Kyiv TV tower, camera operator Yevhenii Sakun was one of the five people killed in the attack, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Renaud is believed to be the second journalist killed in Ukraine.

Carlos Martinez de la Serna, program director of the CPJ, condemned Renaud’s killing and urged Russian forces to “stop all violence against journalists and other civilians at once.”

“We are shocked and saddened to learn of the death of U.S. journalist Brent Renaud in Ukraine. This kind of attack is totally unacceptable, and is a violation of international law,” he said in a statement, adding that whoever killed Renaud “should be held to account.”

According to the CPJ, 14 journalists have been killed in Ukraine since 1995 while working on assignment, counting Sakun.

Regardless of the challenges international journalists face, it was Renaud’s commitment to the profession and the stories of the people he met that compelled him to travel the world and undertake such risks, said Putzel, his friend and a former correspondent for Al Jazeera America.

“Nothing was more important to him than the truth and the story, and that is why he put his life on the line constantly,” Putzel said. “He cared that much.”

In an interview with Curator magazine in 2009, Renaud spoke about his decision to devote his life to covering complex — and often perilous — subjects.

“I don’t think we are adrenaline junkies like some of the war correspondents who we know. We don’t seek out the dangerous assignments,” he said. “But once we are committed to a story, we are willing to do whatever it takes to tell that story.”

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