On Ukraine's Front Lines, a First-time War Reporter Gets the Story at a Cost (Part I)
Meet Brett Forrest of The Wall Street Journal
On Saturday, April 2, 2022, Brett Forrest entered the streets of Bucha after Russian troops withdrew from this suburb fifteen miles northwest of Kyiv. His discoveries there would make front-page headlines across the globe. He had already been in Ukraine for two months for The Wall Street Journal, covering everything from the first attacks by Russia in Kyiv to frontline battles across the country. This was his rookie stint as a war reporter, and he tells his story for the first time here. It is not only a harrowing adventure that left its mark on Brett, but it’s one that puts into stark relief the craft and importance of journalism. We begin near the end with Brett headed out of Kyiv for a story in the cold rain. He was accompanied by his usual crew: a driver/bodyguard, local fixer, and photographer Christopher Occhicone.
“It was really nerve-wracking. Bucha was miles outside the city center. On the road, we came across the kind of destruction that I never thought I’d see. Whole areas just leveled. We were trying to get information on what was ahead, and we kept reassessing if we should continue forward. At each Ukrainian checkpoint, we asked if it was safe, were there Russians around, was there any unexploded ordnance, would we find the road mined? They kept telling us we could keep going.
We came across more—and greater—destruction. It was basically three types. The first, armored vehicles, one after another, completely blown up, the metal turned orange from flames and exposure. Another type was businesses like shops and gas stations. The third was civilian destruction. Houses shattered. Apartment buildings caved in. Cars with bullet holes or crushed like soda cans by tanks. Our phone coverage went out. There was no way to get any more information on what was ahead. I told the guys, ‘Look, let’s drive to City Hall. Start from there.’
Want to learn about an ER doc, abstract artist, ornithologist, pyrotech genius, or other fascinating WorkCraft lives, get in your inbox!
When we arrived, there was Ukrainian militia right outside the building, and two guys were reinstalling the Ukrainian flag. They had just retaken the town and were singing the national anthem. I approached the militia leader, asking him about the social media photograph I had seen earlier showing what looked like dead civilians in a courtyard. ‘Something happened here,’ I said. ‘Can you help us?’ He told me to come back tomorrow. ‘We have to do this right now,’ I said, knowing other reporters might soon be in the area. He agreed to send us with several of his men, but he warned it was unsafe. They had only cleared a small number of mines. We got back in our car, and we followed the militia through the streets.
Nothing had been touched since the Russians left. Again, the devastation was hard to fathom. Bucha is quite a well-to-do place. There are nice houses and stores, and right among them, you see evidence of tank battles. Whole buildings in rubble. Then we started seeing the human toll. Upfront. That was difficult to understand. You’d be driving, and you’d see a leg shorn off a body in the street. Then a torso, then a head. The local population had largely been evicted from their homes and forced into building basements. They were only now tentatively coming out. On seeing us with the local militia, they called all of us over. ‘You have to see this,’ they said. And each time, we witnessed something even more gruesome. Once they walked me over to a small garage and opened up the door. There had been a serious fire that had engulfed everything. Amidst the charred remains was half a female body, the skin of her torso was black from the fire, and her facial features were basically gone.
I don’t like looking at these things, but I had to. I’m in a war. This is the sort of thing that happens in war, and I have to see it to describe it, and I have to talk to as many people as I can to learn as much as I can. Because we didn’t know what we were getting into there. For me, it was a process of understanding. At some point, I realized these people were civilians. Nobody was wearing a uniform. It doesn’t mean they were all non-combatants, but I saw an old lady shot on the side of the road, her bicycle atop her. It was hard to imagine she was military. The more I saw, the more it struck me that I was looking at a possible war crime.
I’m in work mode now. If that is what I was looking at, then I needed to collect as much information as possible. Get visual evidence of crimes. Find eyewitnesses. Talk to family members. Then rush back to Kyiv to write something quickly, that is really informative and accurate. That is what I had to do. That is why I was here.”
Brett Forrest never expected to become a war reporter. Journalism was not even his first choice of career, despite a father who was a TV sportscaster in Philadelphia. Instead, Brett wanted to be a novelist and screenwriter. But, as a steppingstone to this ambition, he started as a freelance magazine writer. In 2002, after visiting a friend in Moscow (“to walk around Red Square”), Brett took the leap to move to Russia. He fell for the heady maelstrom of the post-Soviet era. He learned the language. And he became an international correspondent for a slew of magazines, including Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and Playboy. He covered crime, business, politics, and Moscow nightlife. He also spent a good deal of time in Ukraine and later lived there as well.
After almost a decade abroad, he returned to the United States, continuing with journalism. He won a National Magazine Award as part of a team for ESPN magazine. In 2017, The Wall Street Journal hired Brett to help investigate Trump and his connections to Russia. Since then, he’s been working on the Journal’s national security desk based in Washington D.C. Still, he had never reported on a war, nor had ambitions to do so.
Then, in January 2022, as it became clear that Vladimir Putin was seriously threatening an invasion into Ukraine, Brett volunteered to be part of the WSJ’s team on the ground. “I didn’t expect Russia to attack because it was such a silly reckless step to take. If Putin were to invade, I thought it would be very limited, some kind of pressure to get some concessions. But if something was going to go down, I wanted to be there. I have been living and working in both countries for 20 years. I’ve put together contacts in the public and private sectors, and I have many good friends there. More so than in most countries, friendship can open doors at very high levels. There’s a permeable nature to the hierarchy in that part of the world. I could step off the plane and get to work immediately.
“At the start, the greatest challenge was figuring out what the story was. There’s identifying the story, then getting the story. Once Russia invaded, then you knew what the story was. But leading up to that, it’s hard to know. What exactly is going on? Every day, you’d wake up with a new piece of information, troops moved here or there, and you’re trying to figure out, what does this tell us? Is Russia saber-rattling or more apt to invade?
Based in Kyiv, I’m talking to members of the Ukrainian military, think-tankers, and government officials. I’m looking into their ability to defend themselves, what anti-aircraft systems they have, fighter planes, and anti-ship missiles. As the weeks progressed, we heard from more sources, mostly on the US side, that war was imminent. And we had to judge whether this was true or another pressure tactic. I’m a professional skeptic. This is the job. I’m trying to understand the motives behind the leakage of assessments. Why was the US adamant war is coming? Why was Ukraine adamant it would not?
In the last week before the war finally broke out, the mood intensified. Our team is staying at the Hyatt Hotel in Kyiv’s historical center. There are lots of meetings, writing, editing, and deadlines. More reporters are coming into the city, while Ukrainians and other foreign nationals start to leave. People are getting their families out of Ukraine. Businesses are closing. The streets are quiet. There’s no more traffic. Then things got really quiet.
One day I was waiting for a taxi outside the Hyatt, and I smelled smoke. I looked up and saw tiny bits of smoldering paper raining down on me. There was a government intelligence office nearby, and I realized they were burning their files. I picked up a couple of these tiny pieces and could still make out the letters or a word. A feeling took hold of me. It was very clear: something terrible was about to happen and it was time to get as far away from it as possible.
But I had no intention of leaving. I resolved if Russia were indeed to invade Ukraine, I had to do my part. I don’t want to be high-minded about it, but The Wall Street Journal has a big audience. It’s about as far as one can go in journalism. There’s only a small group of us at the paper who know this part of the world really well. And it’s vitally important that people who know this part of the world, explain it to people who don’t know it. This is an instance of how a reporter provides an essential public service. Because I could be making a lot more money if I was a banker on Wall Street, right? But this kind of work, especially in this context, at this moment, is essential.
It wasn't a matter of being self-important. It’s like if you're a firefighter, and you're waiting at the station house all day, all week, but there are no fires. But you're ready when there is one. You have to get involved because you have this special skill to make a difference.”
“I was sleeping on the fifth floor of the Hyatt, and it was around 4 am, and I didn’t hear my cell vibrate. I never had the ringer on. Then the hotel phone on the nightstand rang. And they’re unusually loud. I woke up, disoriented. It was our main security guy. ‘Get downstairs now,’ he said. Still groggy, I asked why. ‘It has started,’ he answered, then hung up. That’s when I heard the boom. Not too far away either.
At first, I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe Putin decided to invade Ukraine. Although we kept hearing he would attack, it just never made logical sense. And it’s not something that you can walk back from. Clearly, he made the calculation this was in Russia's best interest—or maybe in his best interest.
Then I heard several more explosions. I remember they told us about jumping in the bathtub during a bombing. That’ll protect you. I thought about that for a second. But no, I have to get downstairs, someplace safe. It was unlikely the Russians would hit the hotel, but nearby there were some prime Ukrainian government and intelligence targets. I also understood that not every Russian bomb is a guided-one. So I picked up my kit bag, vest, and helmet that sat by the door, and hurried out of the room.”
On February 24, Brett became a war reporter. As for training to be one, that was limited. In 2020, The Wall Street Journal provided some safety protocols before he reported on the riots breaking out in cities across the United States. No matter how violent, street protests are hardly a thorough education for covering a full-scale war waged by Russia.
That was not to say The Wall Street Journal was cavalier. The 2002 brutal murder of their reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan put in searing relief the dangers foreign correspondents faced in getting their stories. Before Brett had arrived in Ukraine, the Journal was already putting resources into the operation, including staff security risk professionals. They assembled cars, hired bodyguards, and collected flak jackets, helmets, and satellite phones. They also installed tracking apps on Brett’s phone, so they would always know where he was. If war came, they wanted to be as ready as possible.
Over the past few nights, Brett had put his small kit bag by the door, as advised by the head risk officer. It included a change of clothes, his laptop, chargers, food, water, and his satellite phone. The business suits that Brett had brought along with him in order to meet with Ukrainian officials were now useless (though he would lug the garment bag around with him for a few weeks). “The next time I go to war, I’m not going to bring a suit.”
“Down in the hotel parking garage was the ‘safe place,’ the bomb shelter. There were lots of people, including Sean Penn. He was in Kyiv doing a documentary, and we had met a couple days before at the lobby bar. It was all bizarre. Explosions are going off, and the other WSJ reporters and I are huddled together, ready to get moving. This was exactly why we were there. So we can tell people what’s happening and analyze it. Pretty soon, we left the garage to go up to a hotel boardroom. We start working the phones. It’s a huge team effort because you want to get as much information as you can, make sure it’s right, and get it out there immediately.
To start, we’re getting most of our insight from people we’ve already been talking to in Ukraine. Government and military officials. We’re calling everybody we know. You learn ‘A’ from one person, then you take that to another and learn ‘B’ and then you go to a third and say, “I heard A and B, I understand this is true,’ then they add to what you know. At the end of a series of calls, you put the phone down and hash something out. You’re not writing necessarily for posterity. At that moment, you’re writing information. Paragraphs you write are assembled with other paragraphs from other reporters, and together you have an article. You’re also talking with editors in New York and London and bureaus elsewhere.
Do you want a Work/Craft/Life profile that will surprise, inspire, or move you every week? Get it in your inbox.
In those early hours, we’re sequestered in the hotel. We’re still learning what’s going on around us. Given the reach of social media, we’re also seeing a lot of stuff happening very close. When we see the first videos of Russian attack helicopters and airborne soldiers descending on a military airport not far from Kyiv, it’s shocking. Two things are going on in my mind. First, this is not a limited attack. Russia is making an aggressive move to decapitate the government. Speaking to military experts, we understand that if Russia secured the airport, they could bring in larger troop transports, have thousands of troops in Kyiv, and possibly walk right into the city. The professional side says, oh my goodness, this is really something we need to learn about so we can explain it to readers, very quickly. You have to get out there.
But then there’s the personal side. If they succeed at the airport, what else are they doing in the city, where are they? Western reporters aren’t exactly the favorites of Russia. We had earnest discussions with the security staff, and the other reporters, about what to do if we get surrounded. I’d never contemplated that before. I didn’t serve in the military. It was a new sensation, and we’re talking about cleaning our phones, destroying our laptops.”
Ukrainian forces fought off the attack on the airport, and Brett continued to work from the hotel. Other WSJ reporters left to report in Kyiv’s streets, but Brett was not given clearance until the third day of the war. “I was pushing to go and finally the security guys said ‘Okay, okay, you can go.’
“It was scary. I put on my bulletproof vest and helmet. Then I got in a black SUV with a bodyguard and photographer. I had learned a building on the left bank of the Dnieper River that runs through the city was hit. A pattern had developed, the Russians start shelling at 4 am for several hours, then stop. But we didn’t know if they would stick to that and start bombing in the daylight, nor if there was Russian infantry around. We drove over a bridge, and I’m thinking, okay, well, we got to the other side. Finally, we reached what was a high-rise apartment building. It was on fire, smoke pluming out of several levels.
I went straight up inside with a guy who was retrieving his belongings. Both sides of his apartment were blown out. The whole place was wrecked. Everybody was shell-shocked. I’m trying to figure out what happened. Was it a ballistic missile? Some people on the scene said the Ukrainians had hit a Russian airplane and parts of it had landed on the building. When I returned to the street and circled around the other side of the building, that’s where the real destruction was. Huge swaths of it were on fire, whole apartments ripped open. Some local firefighters, who had been up late drinking, shared videos with me that showed flames leaping out of the building soon after it had been hit. They explained that the wreckage of a Russian plane was only a half-mile away. I also learned the name of the hospital where the injured from the building were being taken.
Standing there, I suddenly was hit by this feeling that, wow, I’ve never seen anything like this before. Looking at the building, there was no way that nobody died. It was serious destruction. It’s the stuff you only see in movies. But here it was, real.
Pushing this away, knowing I’m on the clock, I came up with my reporting plan. I needed to continue interviewing people at the scene. Then I would go see the plane, then head to the hospital and interview victims and survivors. At that moment, there was a tap on my shoulder. It was my bodyguard. ‘We have to go back to the hotel immediately,’ he said. I resisted. ‘No, it’s serious, the bosses say.’
As we returned to the Hyatt, I was picking out quotes from my notebook and typing an article on my phone. A colleague said he needed five paragraphs for an article immediately. The deadline pressure was immense and had now become constant. That’s the environment we were in. Go out. Get something. Write it. Publish. When we pulled into the hotel, I was tapping out my last few sentences. The head of our security announced, ‘Alright, we have 15 minutes, and we’re leaving Kyiv. It’s too dangerous. We have to leave now.’”
This concludes Part I of Brett’s story. Part II—featuring his escape from Kyiv, his struggle to cover the ‘main event’, treacherous times on the front lines, and the searing impact of Bucha on a rookie war reporter—will publish on June 12, 2022. If you’re not a subscriber, please become one to receive into your inbox. Please share this story as well.
Join my weekly newsletter for more illuminating profiles.