The Story of a Lifetime on Ukraine's Frontlines (Part II)
Meet Brett Forrest, rookie war reporter for the Wall Street Journal
In the first week of war, Brett and his fellow WSJ reporters rushed out of Kyiv on orders from their editors in London and New York. He never knew exactly why, but the increasing indeterminate bombing of the Ukrainian capital likely weighed in the favor of their removal. They made sluggish progress on their escape. The highways were bottlenecked with thousands of vehicles headed west, and the first seven miles from Kyiv took five hours. At one point, cars began disappearing from behind them in the traffic. They later learned that the Russians had dropped airborne troops in the vicinity and were engaging in a firefight with homeland troops. On any stretch of the road toward Lviv in the west, near the Polish border, it was possible Brett and crew could suddenly find themselves amidst a battle.
Over twenty-four hours later, they arrived unscathed in a small village in western Ukraine. Days later, they made it to Lviv. There was little action, and Brett was frustrated. “I was itching to get closer to things, but I lacked the experience to understand what that would look like and how dangerous it could be. But I wanted to be near the ‘main event,’ as I called it. At each level back from the front, you can do different reporting. In Brussels, you report on NATO. In DC, you report on how Washington is approaching the war. But I was in Ukraine, and I wanted to cover the front.
‘Be careful what you ask for,’ an experienced war reporter told him. ‘You don’t want to be in the front line because you can't talk to anybody because they're busy. There's no point to it. You want to be a couple of steps back. When those guys are coming back from a battle, taking a break, you talk to them, then you get their stories.”
From Lviv, Brett continued working the phones and reporting. He pushed to go down to Odessa, where he had a lot of contacts, and where he had been reporting previously about a possible amphibious assault. Then in quick succession, several Western journalists were killed. First, Brent Renaud, a Time magazine video journalist was shot dead while in a car leaving Kyiv. Then a few days later, three Fox News staff came under gunfire and two of them died. In the wake of this, Brett’s superiors sent him to report from Poland, no doubt wanting to reduce the number of their journalists exposed to the danger.
“I wouldn’t ever confuse my editors with my parents. Still, there’s a constant balancing act between getting the story and keeping us safe.” And, as Brett was told by veteran war reporters, the level of risk that many news organizations were willing to take had tempered after prior conflicts. “Before, you would go into a war zone and put it together on your own and just call up and say, ‘I got the story.’ Now there was constant communication and risk assessments.”
Brett pressed again to return, and after a week in Poland, he crossed back into Ukraine. First, he went to Odessa, then he traveled closer to the front, arriving in Mykolaiv, a southern Ukrainian city that Russia had been trying to capture since early in the war. Try as everyone might to keep him safe, this was war. To be on the ground reporting it, demanded one be put in harm’s way.
“There were many times when I thought to myself, ‘Wow. Now I'm in it. This is real and there’s no escape.’ I had to be sure to make the right decisions. I didn't want to risk my life. I didn't want to die over there, and while I didn't pick up a gun, I was still involved, and I was within range. Sometimes you couldn’t get out of it.
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I remember I was at a hospital, and I suddenly realized how much danger I was in. You don’t feel queasy. It’s not like I broke out in a cold sweat. Some sort of vibration would just come over you.
It was difficult to be there. There were civilians who had gruesome injuries from rocket attacks. They had been trapped in their building, crushed. It was difficult to see. I was talking to the main surgeon, who said he hadn’t gone home since the war began. He kept asking me why America hadn’t closed the skies and instituted a no-fly zone. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘There are tons of wounded people coming every day. They’re victims of these attacks. The Russians are hitting hospitals too. Other doctors in other cities tell me about it. We are sitting here talking, and missiles go by the hospital every day.’
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