How Three Washington Post Journalists Are Covering Ukraine

From a Washington Post story by Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn headlined “How three Washington Post journalists are covering Ukraine on the ground”:

The Post has been covering the escalating war in Ukraine closely, with multiple correspondents based in Ukraine and other teams around the world covering developments 24/7. We spoke to Moscow correspondent Isabelle Khurshudyan, video journalist Whitney Leaming and staff photographer Salwan Georges. The three have been reporting together on the front lines of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. They spoke to us from Dnipro, after leaving Kharkiv as heavy shelling hit the city on Monday.

We spoke to each person over the phone.

How long have you been reporting on the Russia-Ukraine conflict? When did you decide you needed to go to Ukraine?

Isabelle: For me, the conflict really started last spring when we saw the first Russian buildup around Ukraine. Back then, everybody was pretty convinced that it was a show of force: saber-rattling, challenging the Biden administration. People didn’t take the buildup seriously. After a month or two, Russia did start pulling back some of its forces. We saw the build up again in October and it kept going.

I was in Ukraine in December, right after a classified U.S. intelligence report said that the U.S. expected a multipronged invasion involving 175,000 Russian troops.

After New Year’s, it was clear things were going to escalate. My editors and I made the decision that we needed to be here before the invasion because we knew that once it started it would be very hard to get in. I came to Ukraine on Jan. 22 or 23, and I’ve been here since.

Can you give us a sense of where you are right now?

Whitney: [Dnipro] feels and looks really similar to Chicago to me — it’s on a river and it’s really cold. There’s multiple bridges in the city.

This town hasn’t seen a lot of bombing or fighting at the moment but it is in a precarious position. Russian troops are advancing from the south.

[On Tuesday] when we went out to report, it was actually a real struggle. People are very, very edgy. There’s a lot of rumors going around on Telegram that Russian agents are posing as media, that they’re taking photos of different things that they might want to attack or take over.

The situation has changed so quickly over the past few days. How do you decide which stories to focus on, and who goes where?

Whitney: Isabelle’s institutional knowledge on Russia and Ukraine has been invaluable. She’s taught me and Salwan so much. We had just checked into a hotel in the east and about five minutes later, she was like: “I think we need to go to Kharkiv, I think the invasion is closing in on us.” We were in the car within an hour and driving up to Kharkiv. And two days later, we woke up to the invasion starting by bombings.

Isabelle: You try to make a judgment, but it’s so hard. It was one thing when the invasion hadn’t started yet. Post-invasion, the situation changes so quickly. You have a plan to go to one place, then it’s not accessible anymore because of the presence of Russian forces or shelling or how dangerous the roads are.

We’ve organized it in a smart way, where we have a team of reporters in the west, a team in the capital, which is the center, and a group in the east. Any story we do, we can have all three areas covered and get those perspectives in.

Salwan, as a photographer, what are you looking for as you are out reporting? How are you deciding what to capture?

Salwan: In every war, people are the victims, not the politicians or politics or whatever. As a former refugee myself and as a person who grew up in the war in the ’90s in Iraq, I never wish it on anyone. But I can really connect with people and what they’re feeling and how they’re reacting.

What I look for as a photographer is really showing the impact on humans. This is what breaks my heart. We were in Kharkiv a couple of days before the war started, and it made me speechless to see how it went from such a vibrant city to no one standing outside at 8 p.m.

We went to this underground metro subway that was packed with hundreds of people — a lot of women and children, because men were volunteering to go fight. Being there was surreal. You don’t know where to photograph. I had to be respectful to people and also put my camera down and observe it first and make a connection with people. That’s what I did, but it was such a sad thing to see because it reminded me of fleeing Iraq. I hope all those people are okay because, again, in every war, people are always the victims — innocent people. And that’s exactly what’s happening in this war.

You and other Post journalists have filed multiple dispatches showing how the crisis is affecting everyday Ukrainians. How are you approaching people in these situations, and how have they responded to you? Have they been open to sharing their stories?

Whitney: I don’t speak Ukrainian or Russian. I have relied heavily on Isabelle’s amazing language skills. We try to be very respectful of what people are going through right now. We approach them without the camera and talk to them for a few minutes. And a lot of people want to share their story. They understand the power of media, they understand the power of video and their own voices. We just try to explain who we are, what we do and that we aren’t Russians.

Isabelle: I am a fluent Russian speaker, which does really help. The other thing is, a lot of times I’m able to tell people that my family is from Odessa, Ukraine. I was the first person in my family born in the U.S. It’s like, “My family’s from Ukraine. Your story is my story, too.” That doesn’t mean I don’t have professional distance, but I do think people are more willing to trust you in that situation, to know that you’re not a total outsider, that you have some cultural understanding.

I tell them that our job is to report about what’s happening on the ground, to show what the effects of this are, to show people what’s really happening.

Salwan: You have to really respect people and not photograph them in their most vulnerable time. There’s always a balance to making an impactful photo and not overstepping. So what I always try to do is to make a connection, smile, talk to them. And not just walk around, take pictures, and then go and leave and never think of these people — because these situations stick with me for the rest of my life. I think what plays to my benefit is me going through similar things, so I can totally understand and feel it.

There’s a lot of misinformation being spread about the conflict. In addition to your own on the ground reporting, how do you assess which sources to trust and how do you vet this information?

Whitney: People we have met, we’ve stayed in communication with. For example, with the Freedom Square in downtown Kharkiv, which was the home of the territorial defense, there was a supply chain tent where people were gathering to go out on assignment and being trucked off to different stations to protect their city — [it] was hit with at least one bomb. A lot of these videos were coming over Telegram, and there’s an amazing team back at The Post that works to verify these videos and lets us know which ones that they can say with great confidence are true. There’s a Slack channel where Isabelle and I can share clips on Twitter and Instagram and they’ll go through and try their best to see if it’s verifiable. And we work with people on the ground — we had at least two people who could give us an idea of what was happening at the square.

Out of everything that’s happened, what has been most surprising to you so far? What’s something that’s staying on your mind?

Whitney: On a really selfish note, I’ve been really amazed in the past few days of what people are willing to do in order to help us with our reporting. Fixers who had to leave in order to take care of their families are now contacting us being like, “What can we do to help?” Our fixer [on Tuesday] tried to refuse payment when we first started talking to him, and when we gave him the money, he was like, “I’m donating this to aid organizations. Whatever you guys need from me, even after you leave the city, let me know.” People are eager to help in any way they can.

(A fixer is a local journalist or contact who helps other journalists in areas they aren’t as familiar with, often by serving as translators.)

Isabelle: I think it would be the resilience and chutzpah of Ukrainians. Whether it’s older women who are spending their time weaving camouflage nets for military equipment or all of these people who are volunteering for the Civilian Defense Force. You see lines to the blood bank of 3,000 people, and they’re waiting in line while there’s shelling ongoing. People are finding their own ways to mobilize. And I think that’s something Russia underestimated — what the civilian resistance would really look like.

Salwan, what is one photo that will stick with you? Can you tell me the story of that photo?

Salwan: One of the photos that went viral on my Instagram — it’s of families at that train station [in Kharkiv]. There are two photos, but one has been on my mind.

In that train station, I remember the mother — I was trying to approach her. She gave me a smile that kind of told me, without saying, to wait a second as she was trying to comfort her daughter. I was, of course, respectful, and later I approached them and had a conversation. [The mother] told me that [her daughter’s] dad is in the army right now. And that stuck with me because this young girl, I don’t know if she will ever see her dad again, and her mother was doing her best to comfort her.

Whitney, you took a video of a boy playing piano in Kharkiv that drew a huge reaction online. How did that video happen?

Whitney: That was day one of the invasion. We had changed hotels and were waiting to check-in. The lobby was pretty tense. There were rumors that Russian forces were going to come into the city at any moment. I had gone into my room and heard some piano. It was actually a song my mom used to play when I was a little kid at night when I couldn’t fall asleep. I walked up to the hallway and looked down, and there was a teenage kid, probably 12 or 14, playing the piano. I recorded a video, mainly to send to my mother, and then Isabelle was like, you should post that and send it in. Then we went out to report, and I never saw that kid again.

Honestly, I haven’t really had time to focus on [any of the reaction], but I’m glad it touched a lot of people. I think it’s one of those things when there’s a lot of devastation and horrible things going on, it was a moment of peacefulness and beauty that people are clinging to.

Isabelle, I heard that you recently turned 30 while you were in a bunker. Can you tell us about that?

Isabelle: We were in Kharkiv, which had been pretty heavily hit. The local government put out a message that was like, “If you go outside today, police might mistake you for a Russian saboteur and shoot you.” So we did as much reporting as we could without venturing too far out and most of the day was spent inside of the bunker.

But it was nice. Salwan brought me a piece of cake from the breakfast buffet. The hotel gifted me a bottle of wine even though they’re not supposed to be selling alcohol, and some of the freelance and other media celebrated with me. It’s not how I envisioned spending my 30th for sure, but all things considered, I did feel really loved. And I honestly wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. I think this is one of the few times, at least in my case, when you feel like what you’re writing about is really, really important and you’re doing a real service. So as difficult or as dangerous as it can be, it feels like a really great responsibility that you want to embrace.

Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn is the community editor at The Washington Post, with a focus on comments, live chats and reader submissions. She comes to The Post from Mother Jones, where she was the assistant editor for audience and breaking news.

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