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Fog of war

Isabelle Khurshudyan reports from Ukraine

Washington Post correspondent Isabelle Khurshudyan leans against a wall

The day war broke out, Isabelle Khurshudyan watched it on TV. She also heard it outside her window.

In anticipation of the Russian attack on Ukraine Feb. 24, 2022, the Washington Post correspondent had recently transferred to Kharkiv from Moscow, where she had spent the previous two years covering Russia and the former Soviet states.

Now, she was in a Kharkiv hotel room, watching a friend from CNN report on the outbreak of war from the Russian city of Belgorod, just 80 kilometers away. She would watch a Russian missile launch on TV then hear it explode on a nearby street. Suddenly, the hypotheticals she and her editors had discussed were playing out in real time.

And her phone was blowing up. She didn’t respond to every text; she let most incoming calls go to voicemail. If it wasn’t the paper, she didn’t pick up. The one exception: Chico Harlan, the Post’s bureau chief in Rome.

“I had so many calls that day, and I didn't answer any of them,” she says. “But I did answer his call. He asked how I was doing, and I was like, ‘Um, there’s noises outside.’ Then he was like, ‘Do you realize the world just changed? Your life has changed. Your career is never going to be the same after this.’ I was like, ‘I cannot —’ like, ‘I cannot begin to grasp all of that right now.’ Like, ‘I think I need to go now.’”

The ‘likes’ punctuating her story aren’t a verbal tic. Khurshudyan has spent more than a year chronicling the war and she has been a reporter a lot longer — story is her strong suit, language doesn’t fail her — but the first days of the conflict are hard to put into words. “In that moment you're just in this tunnel,” she says. “It's sort of a fog.”

And the fog followed her. After that initial week or so in Kharkiv, trying to acclimate to the new abnormal, she headed south to Odessa, where she visited her great aunt between reports from the front. She spent much of April reporting in the Donbas and in Kharkiv. Finally, in May 2022, The Post opened a bureau in Kyiv and appointed her bureau chief.

It's a world away from Khurshudyan’s early career. Prior to Ukraine, prior to Moscow, the 2014 College of Information and Communications graduate spent four years as a hockey reporter covering the Washington Capitals. Before that, it was internships at ESPN, The Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia, and The State in Columbia. As an undergrad at USC, she cut her teeth at The Daily Gamecock.

“I definitely just wanted to do sports reporting, I was always a big sports fan,” says Khurshudyan. “I was sure that I was just going to be a sports writer forever.”

Except the Walhalla, South Carolina, native secretly — then not so secretly — harbored loftier ambitions. And she had one very valuable skill. Her parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine; she learned Russian as a child. When Russia shot down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine in 2014, she was still an intern, but the paper tapped her to translate information coming over the wire. Her language skills were also a godsend when she interviewed Russian players in the NHL.

The opportunity to be that close, even though I know it's dangerous, is so tempting that it's hard to turn down.

Isabelle Khurshudyan

And then the paper gave her a one-month tryout as their Moscow correspondent in 2018. She was only there long enough to write a few pieces, but the experience whet her appetite for a new kind of work. A few years later, she interviewed for a post in Kabul, Afghanistan, didn’t get the job, but was instead tapped to be the full-time Moscow correspondent. Her skills as reporter propelled her from there.

Now, she has an office in Kyiv, but being bureau chief in Ukraine’s capital city doesn’t mean Khurshudyan is tied to a desk. When the story calls, she dons her helmet, straps on the flak jacket and chases the war: into the cold, into the mud, into the fog of artillery fire and misinformation.

In December 2022, that meant following a Ukrainian commander within a mile of Russian-occupied territory near Kreminna.

The narrow dirt road into the forest was littered with demolished vehicles and lined with landmines. The soldiers shared harrowing stories of evacuating the wounded. The artillery shelling was constant.

“I was only there for like two hours, but it was just an incredibly raw and real report because it's so rare that we get that close,” she says. “The opportunity to be that close, even though I know it's dangerous, is so tempting that it's hard to turn down.”

Her gritty account of life and death among the Ukrainian troops drew high praise from her editors and fellow reporters when it appeared Dec. 7. It also drew criticism from colleagues who thought she had risked too much. One veteran Post reporter told her it had been a mistake.

She concedes the point, and she listens when her security team tells her that the risk is too great. She has also started seeing a therapist who specializes in the trauma experienced by reporters during war. But she would be back at the front given the chance and has been lobbying her editors since January to go to Bakhmut, site of some of the fiercest fighting in the war.

All of which begs the question: Is Isabelle Khurshudyan an adrenaline junkie?

“I didn’t think I was,” she says. “It’s like there’s two Isabelles. There's the voice that's like, ‘That was a bad idea.’ And then there's also the voice saying, ‘But it yielded a great story.’”

And those great stories are important stories. If the war in Ukraine ended tomorrow, she would want to stay on to chronicle the aftermath, but then she would want to find the next front. The experience has changed her.

“I would stay in Ukraine for the rebuilding,” she says. “But depending on how that's going, in a year or a year and a half after that I would start to look for another war zone. There’s just something about it. Some people are, I think, well suited for it. I didn't know that I would be, but I am.”