Arman Soldin: from Bosnia to Ukraine with a smile
Arman Soldin was barely a year old when his mother carried him onto a humanitarian flight from war-torn Bosnia to France.
On Tuesday, another conflict claimed the unshakeably smiling AFP video journalist's life in Ukraine.
Widely praised for his empathy, his courage and his professionalism, the 32-year-old French citizen had, just days earlier, finished some final stories depicting both the intensity of the fighting and the threat of death hanging over people outside the headlines.
In bomb-scarred Siversk, Arman followed Oleksandr, a former welder who became one of the war's unsung heroes by delivering bread on a puttering moped to isolated old people near the front line.
"How can we live without bread?" asked Lyubov Shcherbak, a spindly 76-year-old, as she showed the journalist her meal of three eggs, freshly laid by her hens.
Near Bakhmut, Arman visited a field hospital providing first aid to wounded Ukrainian soldiers during the night.
On May 1, he tweeted of his "pure terror" as, prone on the ground, he filmed Russian rockets battering down a few dozen metres (yards) away.
- Friends for life -
Oksana Soldin and Arman fled the panic, destruction and death of the conflict in Bosnia on a humanitarian flight to France on April 25, 1992.
TV footage from that day shows her arriving at Paris' Orly airport, Arman beside her with his then-blond curly hair standing out against his black jumper.
"Shells had blasted the staircases of our house in Sarajevo. I managed to get aboard the plane... We spent the flight on the floor, with Arman in my arms," remembers Oksana, now aged 59.
It would be six years in France before the family returned to Bosnia, once the bloody ethnic conflict had finally cooled.
More than 100,000 people died in the fighting that raged until 1995.
"Sarajevo was devastated. Arman would ask us questions all the time. We were the same age but his mind was older," remembers school friend Aldin Suljevic.
The two became friends "for life" on September 2, 1998, when they first took their seats side by side in primary school -- never losing contact even when Arman returned to France in 2002 after his parents separated.
- Uprooted -
"We went through a testing time of being rootless. We found ourselves right at the bottom of the heap as refugees. That's why our family is so close, why we talk every day," says Arman's brother Sven, 26.
He saw his older sibling as "invincible", "an idol" and "the most important person in his life".
Each summer, Arman, Sven and their sister Ena would return to Bosnia to see their father Sulejman, himself a well-known journalist.
"Arman was French but Bosnia was in his heart," his friend Suljevic said.
Suljevic believes the pain of the conflict in Arman's homeland "played a role" in his desire to cover the fighting in Ukraine.
Aged just 11, Arman played at writing news alerts in his bedroom in the western French city of Rennes, his mother recalls.
And at 16, he uploaded to YouTube compilation of excruciating images titled "Sarajevo in War", soundtracked by the sorrowful Adagio of Italian composer Tomaso Albinoni.
"Arman may not have had any ties with Ukraine but he chose to go there because he wanted to make himself useful, He wanted to seek the truth," said Oksana, a philosophy and sociology professor.
- 'Smiling all the while' -
Like many French teenagers, Arman was crazy about football and played in the youth team of top-tier club Stade Rennais from 2006 to 2008 -- only giving up on a professional career due to knee injuries.
"Football was a big part of his life," his brother Sven said.
"He was extremely good, extremely talented. He had something extra."
A French, English and Italian speaker, Arman studied in London, Lyon and Sarajevo before securing an internship at AFP's Rome bureau in 2015.
Video reporter Sonia Logre remembers him as "a dream intern".
"He wanted to do everything, see everything, know everything. He wanted humbly to learn, had a desire to discover Italy and a deep love of life."
AFP's former sports correspondent in Rome, Emmanuel Barranguet, said Arman was "beaming all the time".
"He even smiled when he would play football. He out-dribbled me I don't know how many times, smiling all the while."
Arman was hired by AFP in London that same year, where outside work and covering Brexit he threw himself into big-city life "partying from Friday night to Sunday" with a close group of friends, remembers ex-girlfriend Diane Dupre.
The young reporter was nevertheless frustrated at "not being out in the field enough", she added.
Alongside his AFP work, Arman became UK sports correspondent for French premium TV channel Canal+ from 2019, where deputy sports editor David Barouh recalled his smile and a "wild charm" that meant "everyone loved him, professionally and as a human being".
- 'Coming up for air' -
Later, whenever Arman would return from Ukraine, he would slip instantly back into the luxurious world of the Premier League and its immaculate turf -- days after being under bombardment.
"Maybe it was like coming up for air for him," Barouh muses.
Arman was already in position in Ukraine when Russia invaded in February 2022.
He had volunteered to be among the first AFP special correspondents sent in -- just as he had volunteered to cover the first lethal months of Europe's Covid-19 epidemic in Italy.
AFP photographer Dimitar Dilkoff met Arman on February 24, the day of the Russian attack.
"We went into Ukraine together," the Bulgarian said, hailing his colleague's "sunny" nature and his "desire to be the first on the ground".
Emmanuel Peuchot, a journalist with long experience of war zones and other hostile environments, joined the team last October.
He found in Arman a reporter "belonging to the younger generation, a whole social network by himself. He was always on Twitter but not at all to post his own selfies."
Peuchot remembered his colleague's "openness whenever he would meet people", saying at heart "he liked people, he was oriented towards others".
In late April this year, the AFP team found a badly hurt hedgehog in the bottom of a crater.
Arman took it upon himself to to feed and care for the creature back at AFP's base.
- 'Get people to understand' -
Just a few days later, the hedgehog -- "Lucky" as the videojournalist dubbed him in Twitter posts -- was set free again.
"Amid this cute story, don't forget there is a bloody war going on and millions of people are displaced. Help by donating to NGOs," Arman wrote in one of his final posts to the network.
Besides his daily reporting, Arman had begun working with an artist on a graphic novel about Ukraine, to "get people to understand what's happening on the ground", Diane Dupre said.
The reporter "wanted to embody the war, without making himself the story", she added.
On May 9, 2023, Arman was caught in a barrage of Grad rockets near Chasiv Yar, a Ukrainian town close to Bakhmut. The rest of the AFP team survived unharmed.
Moments before, "he was just like always, he was making jokes", photographer Dilkoff said.
Arman died "with his camera in his hand", his face showing no signs of suffering, Peuchot said,
Since his death, hundreds of Arman's colleagues and friends, as well as anonymous members of the public and politicians, have hailed the big-hearted video reporter.
Many of the dozen people AFP interviewed for this piece laughed as they remembered his hijinks, before bursting into tears again.
Born in Sarajevo and killed in the Donbas, Arman Soldin was above all "a very sensitive, very emotional person", his mother Oksana said.
"He gathered all the flowers in the world for me."