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Home » Covering a war: A conversation with Isabelle Khurshudyan, Washington Post Ukraine bureau chief

Covering a war: A conversation with Isabelle Khurshudyan, Washington Post Ukraine bureau chief

Just five years ago, Isabelle Khurshudyan was covering hockey for The Washington Post. Her job took her to cool (and safe) places such as Vancouver, Southern California and New York.

After writing about the Washington Capitals winning the Stanley Cup, Khurshudyan’s career took a twist. She left the sports beat for a new challenge, becoming a correspondent for the Post based in Moscow.

Then one day, she got a phone call from a colleague who told her, “Your life has just changed.”

It was Feb. 24, 2022 — the day Russia invaded Ukraine. Since that day, Khurshudyan has been in Ukraine, the birthplace of her parents, covering what life is like in a war zone.

It can be scary and inspiring, challenging and rewarding. And the call she got was right. The world has changed. So has her career. And her life.

During a recent phone conversation, Khurshudyan and I talked about what it’s like to cover a war while also living in a war, and what the past 14 months have been like in Ukraine.

The beginning of her life change started on Jan. 22, 2022. Khurshudyan left her Moscow apartment that day to head to Ukraine and a possible war. “We’ll see what happens,” she told her friends. “I’ll probably be back in a couple of months.”

She hasn’t been back.

“Within a week, it was pretty obvious that I was never going back to Moscow,” Khurshudyan said.

She was in Kharkiv as rumors continued to circulate that Russia would invade in late February.

“I always remember Sept. 11 (2001),” Khurshudyan said. “I was in fourth grade in New York City. That day is seared in my memory. I think Feb. 24 will kind of be the same way for me.”

That’s the day Russia invaded. The night before, Khurshudyan couldn’t sleep.

“I was physically shaking,” she said. “I was so scared. I think the period before — sort of the waiting, even two weeks before that point, I couldn’t sleep through the night. I was waking up like every two hours. There was this paranoia that I was going to oversleep the invasion.”

Khurshudyan, of course, didn’t oversleep. She awoke early that day, around 4 a.m., and, on her phone, watched Russian President Vladimir Putin give a speech announcing a “special military operation” against Ukraine. The invasion was coming. She was living only 25 miles from the border, and figured it would only take Russian troops a couple of hours to reach where she was.

“There is a certain fear of the unknown,” she said. “You have this buildup in your head. You’re like, ‘Are planes just going to be dropping bombs from the sky? Are they going to drop a bomb right on my hotel?’ It’s very scary.”

Just seconds after Putin finished his speech, Khurshudyan heard explosions outside her hotel room. The windows rattled. The walls shook. The war had started.

She calmly got up and went to the bathroom, not wanting to be near any glass.

After a few minutes, she brushed her teeth and felt a sense of calmness as she realized what she needed to do next: go to work and report on a war.

The Post’s Rome bureau chief, Chico Harlan, another former sports reporter, made that call to Khurshudyan to say that the world, and her life and career, had just changed.

She laughs and she remembers telling Harlan, “Chico, I don’t have time for this (expletive) right now.”

“I don’t know why that conversation has stayed with me, but he was right,” Khurshudyan said. “My whole life did change that day.”

Khurshudyan’s life these days is covering a war … while living in a war. It’s not like at the end of the day, she leaves work and goes to a place untouched by the conflict.

Khurshudyan makes a furry friend while covering the war in Ukraine. (Courtesy: Isabelle Khurshudyan)

Life these days in Ukraine can feel very normal at times. Even just a couple of weeks into the war, parts of life in Ukraine started to feel normal. There were a few days of having no hot food, but eventually, you could find something to eat, like fresh pizza.

These days, Khurshudyan, who was named Ukraine bureau chief last May, now lives in Kyiv — which remains a modern European city. She goes out to eat in restaurants, shops in grocery stores, and occasionally meets friends for a drink.

But the presence of war is always there. Always. Plus she sees it every day in her reporting.

“There are still curfews,” Khurshudyan said. “Everything still pretty much closes at 10 p.m. There are air raid sirens most days, which can disrupt any number of appointments. There is, obviously, you see the military everywhere. And there have been missile strikes in the city.”

Last October, a building just four blocks from her apartment was destroyed by Russian troops.

“You live with that sort of risk and the presence of war,” she said. “Every conversation you have with someone somehow relates back to war.”

And, of course, being a war reporter means that not only does the danger come to you, but you often go to where the danger is. You have to for the story.

For example, last year, she was invited to the front lines to report and, despite the risks, jumped at the chance. To get to the story, Khurshudyan, a photographer and an on-ground security adviser were driven 25 kilometers into a forest on a dirt road surrounded by mines and blown-up vehicles. The Russians target the road because it’s used as a supply route.

They reached their destination, which Khurshudyan learned was actually past the front lines, about 300 meters from Russian positions. But the Ukrainians picked a perfect spot where Russian shells were launched either too short or too far.

She later listened back to her interview and said, “All you hear in the background every few seconds is a crazy loud explosion.”

On the drive back, Ukrainian officials told her that if they found any dead bodies on their way, they would have to stop and pick them up. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. But it made her think about it the entire trip.

“I wouldn’t say we had a close call, but it was incredibly risky,” Khurshudyan said. “But it’s something you appreciate more when you’re out safely. I think that’s when you have the rush of, ‘Oh my god, what did we just do?’”

Khurshudyan speaks with colleagues while covering the war in Ukraine. (Courtesy: Isabelle Khurshudyan)

Khurshudyan now has the experience of a veteran war reporter. She hears an explosion and can tell it’s a mile away and she can continue working. Another louder sound tells her it might be time to find shelter for a bit. She still has paranoia about letting the gas in her tank get too low. She rarely lets it get below a half tank.

It all sounds so constant and unnerving, so it naturally leads to the question of why? Why cover war? Khurshudyan could be back in North America, covering the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs. But Khurshudyan wants to be where she is. She wants to cover the human factor, the human toll that war has had. She wants to cover the stories of normal people in abnormal conditions doing extraordinary things.

“I think to be confronted with some of the rawest, realist, most human emotion — that’s the kind of journalism that makes you addicted to war reporting,” Khurshudyan said. “You’re just faced with all of these emotions all the time: grief playing out in front of you in real time, or loss, or incredible bravery. You’re witnessing it all yourself. … And that’s what makes people want to do war reporting, probably. At least that’s the case with me.

“When I think about the past year, I’ve seen the best of humanity, the absolute worst of humanity, and sometimes I’ve seen both within minutes. And it makes for really powerful storytelling that’s important. It’s a rarity and gift that you get to write about something that really, really matters that the world needs to know about it.”

The Post makes sure its war reporters get regular breaks. One team will work for a few weeks and then leave the country while another team cycles in. When I spoke to Khurshudyan in March, she was on a break in Washington, D.C. But her breaks are rare. Her parents live in the United States and Khurshudyan enjoys catching up with family and friends.

But she hates being away from the story.

And the story very much continues even if American attention to it has waned. That’s why Khurshudyan feels the reporting of her and her colleagues is more important than ever.

“Now might be the most interesting time, or the most pivotal time,” she said. “It has turned into a war of attrition. Russia is banking on the West — the U.S. and everybody — losing patience and stopping the support of Ukraine. So there’s this pressure on Ukraine to deliver a big move. I think what happens in these next few months will determine if there’s really going to be an end to this in the near future. Or if this is the kind of thing that will go on for five or 10 years.”

Either way, Khurshudyan wants to continue conflict reporting. She has no interest in going back to sports, or to covering something such as politics. She wants to cover war.

“I just find it rewarding,” she said.

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