Dispatch from Hollie: A Journalist's Eye View of Kyiv and the Train Ride of Out of Ukraine
McKay talks about the firsthand experience of being an independent journalist in war torn Ukraine.
*We recommend the raw interview audio as the best way to experience this dispatch. (approx. 40 min)
Hello and welcome back to another dispatches from Hollie McKay. Hollie recently went to Ukraine and is now back in the United States. Today we're going to talk about what that experience was like, while she was there, and what it was like when she left Kiev and came back to the US. So, good morning, Hollie. And how are you today?
I'm doing fine. So yes, I originally went to Kyiv as tensions were building at the end of January and I took a week off in the middle of it as this sort of chaos ended up happening that week and made my way back at the end of February. So it's been a draining couple of months to say the least and leaving a very different Kyiv to the one that I went into.
For those that are interested, there are previous substack interviews with Hollie about her time on the first trip, and also about her return to Kyiv. You can look those up in the substack.
So, this time you get to Kiev and it's a vastly different place from the one that you left. The war is on and you've made your way in. Tell us a little bit about what you found when you got there, in terms of how the place had changed in the space of only a couple of weeks.
So, I got back in right after the invasion. That was an effort in itself; obviously when you can't fly into a place anymore and you know there's a lot of concern about what we know where the Russians were located. There were a lot of all these news reports that were insisting that Kyiv was completely surrounded, and it was impossible. It was completely besieged. It was possible to get in.
Then I talked to people on the ground who said no, no, no! I'm sending someone to pick you up from the Hungarian border. And you know I got in fights with, you know friends of mine in the United States that are like no, I'm in contact with you know, every intelligence person and they're saying it's impossible to go in and out of Kyiv.
So, it just sort of shows you I guess the fog of war, the misinformation you know. People are believing one thing when that in fact is not the reality and so you know, I luckily didn't listen to that. And you know, went with the people that were there, and were actually on the ground, that were insisting to me that that there was a way in and out. That it was OK, you know,
If I'd just been listening to what the news reports are telling me, I would have probably said that, oh, OK, well, I can't go then. So it just sort of goes to show you that that, unfortunately, there is so much misinformation that gets twisted and lost in in the narrative; and as it as it was shown, Kyiv wasn't completely surrounded, as reports at the time were suggesting.
So, when I got back, I mean it was just an absolute ghost city there. There were very few journalists there really. Just the ones that had been there for a significant period of time. And you know, I got to the hotel that I always stay in. And there was nobody there. I met one other Western journalist who was staying there and that was sort of about it. Other than that, it was just families that were on their way to flee. It was very unsettling. You definitely have to question, what am I doing here?
As the week kind of went on a lot of foreign journalists started to come from France and from other parts of Europe. Then I saw other Americans start to arrive and different medical groups and things. The atmosphere kind of built up a lot in the ensuing week. Definitely. Initially. It was a very kind of strange and lonely time sort of covering this war and not really knowing what was going to happen. And then suddenly the intentional attention came back on and there seemed to be a lot more people.
They opened a Media Center downstairs. They were bringing Russian POW’s to the hotel, which concerned me a little bit from a safety point of view because they were doing these press conferences every day with these POW’s downstairs and where the hotel was located was right across from a military hospital. And I thought, this isn't a particularly safe place to be; because, if they do try to hit that military hospital, there's a good chance that they will, because Russia, you know, that's one of the key places it hits. And they’re not exactly on point with that. So, the hotel could become collateral damage. There were a lot of factors that kind of went into my concerns in continuing to be there, but also sensing the importance of being there.
That takes us to the job of reporting while you were there. You quickly got very deeply into the things that were going on. I recall from the stories that you were filing at the time that you were talking, not just out in the field, but also talking to the government. What was the reporting like once you were in country and started doing your job?
At first it was just was so quiet. There were so few journalists there and it was just a very different environment. It was very hard to get hold of drivers, and fixers, and all the people that we really rely on to work with us in country, and I was alone. I didn't have a photographer or anybody else with me, and so that was always a little bit daunting when you are in charge of all of your logistics, and having to do everything yourself, trying to find the right people.
And my first day back in I got badly burned. So, that sort of made my job a little bit more challenging because I was trying to get to hospitals every day to ensure that the burns were not going to get infected. And you know, struggling to walk a little bit. So, it was certainly you know, there's just challenges from many different fronts for me that I hadn't quite anticipated. But once we got into the swing of things, it was really just a matter (of doing the work).
I'm really grateful the fact that I had really invested time in being in Ukraine prior to the invasion happening because I had a lot of on the ground contacts. I had people at the mobile hospital. I had people in the government. I had people that were Zelenskyy advisors. I had people that were in the territorial defenses. And so, I was just able to work with a lot of the contacts that I already had to point me in the right direction and get me the right people that I needed to be around, and really get the ground running.
And it was one of those situations where you really don't know day by day where you're going to end up or where you're going to be or what the story is. My approach may be a little bit different than a lot of journalists in that I I really try to avoid the pack journalism. I'm not necessarily the person that runs around chasing the breaking story of the day. I think to do that you really have to have a team of people. To do that, you need somebody that's on standby to drive. You have to have your translators all lined up. You have to have people in different places if you are kind of embarking on a little bit more of that, breaking news beat.
But being a lone journalist, I really sort of see it as my job to go in and put a human face on the wall, so to speak, to really talk to the people on the ground, to talk to people from so many different walks of life, and try to tell their stories and paint a really different picture rather than chasing the news. We can all get the news from the the AP wire. But to really bring people into that fold, that's how I see my role in what I can bring to the table.
It may not work for a lot of news outlets. It may not be the sort of sexy, salacious headline all the time. But to me, it's taking on a a slightly sort of different approach. As I say, it's always about taking these micro stories and painting a macro picture. I think that's something that we can all relate to no matter where we are, we can relate to sort of the idea of human suffering of you, know, of children, of orphans, of men going out to fight all night. We can take those individual stories and sometimes, when we try to look at the big picture, things can get a little bit lost.
Speaking of things getting a little bit lost, as you as you covered things at the micro level, you are also keeping track of the larger stories that are going on in the theater. As you know, this is a war where there's been a lot of spin put on by both sides in in the conflict to bring favorable press and favorable stories to them. And in many cases, to sell their side of the war. How close were the micro stories that you found to the stories that were being spawned by the propaganda arms of both sides? How would you say that what you were doing added more color to what was really happening to the ordinary people?
You know, again, it's the ordinary people that are being thrust into extraordinary situations. I mean, nobody you know is running around wearing a cape pretending to be some sort of hero.
But I I think that I mean we can all we can all sort of look at a picture of a of what it must be like to have to flee your home with nothing more than a plastic bag or just to lose everything that you have or just there. There are just so many nuggets of things that can really show what can happen to everyone.
And again, it's very unfortunate that there is so much propaganda out there. And it does come from both sides, but clearly it comes from the Russian side a lot more fervently than it comes from the Ukrainian side.
Also on that note, I'm also kind of a little bit perplexed of people that keep saying I don't trust the media. Again, this isn't new. These situations of disinformation happen constantly. It's Russia skill set to sow disinformation, to sow chaos, to make you not believe in anything and which we saw you know, even in Afghanistan, in other places and it isn't new.
I think the distrust that comes from the mainstream media, while I do understand it, there were a lot of incredible journalists out there that really were putting their lives on the line. Clarissa at CNN. You have Trey at FOX. You have people at BBC. They're risking their lives to come and deliver this information and so for people to kind of turn around and say I don't trust any of these people. I find that to be a little bit farfetched to be honest with you,
I really hate using this term too much; but there are situations in life when neutrality is complicity and I really feel that this is one of them. The people that that don't want to get involved, who don't want to condemn Russia or say this is a situation where a sovereign country was invaded with no provocation and are absolutely slaughtering innocent people. That requires people to stand up and say something. And when you know I'm hearing all this feedback from people of I don't believe this and that, and I just think that's such a crying shame, and that's a shame on you because you're not doing your research well enough.
I think people listening to this would appreciate this very much. Let's talk about. Some poignant moments that you encountered because you know it's your reporting style and I also know you as a friend. I know that you're a very observant person and it's in your quietest moments that you pick up the most interesting things. So, what are the poignant moments that you found while you were just sitting there watching this all go on?
I mean, there's so many, I think I think a lot of people. You know, I guess this is a sort of part of our society is I think people struggle to see animals when they're hurt or you know, caught in the crossfire of war.
So, one of the saddest parts for me was when I was on the Irpin bridge and it was very chaotic, sort of during the evacuation times and people just that had literally just been in their bunkers for days and had no food and no water, and no electricity, and they're being sort of dragged out. And they're confused and there's an incredible amount of bombing and artillery hitting very close. I remember just sort of being at the bridge and there was this little dog that was bleeding and wounded. It was shaking under a tree. At that point the artillery was hitting very, very close. And you know, people screaming at me to keep running.
And I was just seeing this dog and I just being devastated because I needed to take this dog and I was with a medical team and you know Igor is looking at me and he's yelling Hollie, Hollie and I'm crying and he's trying to pull me away. And telling me, you know, I can't take the dog and I'm begging to take the dog and it's just, you know, it was just so sad. I took a photo of the dog and I later found out that dog belonged to the family that had been killed on the bridge the day before. Just, you know, the mum and and her children, and a neighborhood being killed, and that was their dog.
I found out later that someone had taken the dog. So that was that was released. But I think it's just stories like that when you feel very helpless in these situations, and not really able to do anything. That was the just one of those moments I had to obey, I guess the sort of the wishes of, the medical team that I was with and that was that I had to keep running and not take the dog. But I think it's always a lot hard for us who love animals and love people, to have to follow that at times, and that's the sad part of war and ust watching a lot of the really most vulnerable people in society that are just desperately trying to escape.
And then they had nowhere to go. They didn't have anything with them. They didn't know what you know. What the next day was going to bring. Even when they're being rescued from these places, it's not rescue to safety. It's rescued to displacement and more artillery, and more bombing, and more confusion. And it's just so hard I think, for us in our safe worlds, to wrap our heads around. Ukraine was a safe place to come; and suddenly, all of that that blanket, literally overnight, was just was ripped from them and just how agonizing I think that is. It's hard to imagine how that can happen and how quickly that can happen. Just sitting with people is. just one of those really jarring things, I think.
And then it's another time when I met a woman, who had just come out of being rescued and she was with a newborn baby. The baby was about I think it was nine days old. She'd had to have her baby in the middle of bombing and artillery. She'd had to leave her two other children behind with family members.
When she'd gone to the hospital to have her baby. The Russians had overtaken the village that she was living in with her other children there. As soon as she could get out of this hospital she had gone into one of these humanitarian corridors with her baby and with no idea of how or when she would ever see her other two children again because they were now stuck under Russian occupation.
So, it's just moments like that that it's hard to really fathom how this is all happening.
Truly very sad. Before we move on. Just a little moment to honor that. All those people are in fact suffering.
But as you noted. when all is said and done, this gigantic Russian army continues to draw closer and closer, and at a certain point they you know they're at the gates of all these cities and as of today they're inside the gates of one of Ukraine's cities, Mariupol, that has been holding out. So at a certain point, it starts to become very dangerous, and maybe too dangerous to be around. What was your calculus on that? What are the factors in you know you're making the decision it was time to take a break from all of this? Or was it other stuff that that that caused you to say it's time to take a break?
I think you know multiple things. I don't, I mean the danger level. You know that's the other interesting aspect of war is how quickly you and everyone else around you just adapts to explosions and artillery. Even now hearing a thud, just nobody even reacts anymore. So it's just a side note of just how interesting that is, how quickly you just adapt to it.
But I mean the danger level is obviously high. I don't know that was my main point. I think a lot of US journalists who had sort of been covering it really since January we're kind of all in the same sort of rotation of needing a break. I think it's important to always have a clear mind to make the best decisions that you can come in these in these situations. And when you're getting probably two hours of sleep at night, it's not always, you know, it's unclear if you if you can make the best decisions or not.
I think for me it, my biggest concern was, in talking to people that had been under Russian occupation, of losing comms and electricity. The first thing (the Russians) do is take your phone. They certainly wouldn't take kindly to an American. I thought, you know, if the comms go down then I can't get the story out so that concerned me a lot; and not really having, again being alone as a writer, not really having a sort of a structured team or support system on the ground meant that if things did, you know if Kyiv was suddenly flattened or the Russians had managed to come into Kyiv, my concern was that I knew that when s**t hits the fan, you know everybody is going to be preoccupied with their own thing and I didn't feel confident I would have a support system or a safe escape.
So essentially it would completely come down to me and I didn't feel comfortable that I had.a lot of the exit plans that I'd had with other people. And unfortunately sort of changed and.that was a concern to me as I the people I thought that I could rely on, I quickly realized that I couldn't, so it kind of made sense to be able to get out while the train was still running.
To go out by car, foreigners are being charged a lot of money. The struggle of being an independent journalist is, you don't have a network back here. You don't have copious amounts of money to.be able to afford drivers and other things. So, I needed to make that decision to take the train while it was still running, because once the train. If the train stops running to the West to Lviv, then then that would certainly be another kind of impediment that I would have to somehow try to overcome.
And so while there are certainly advantages to being independent journalist, there are certainly disadvantages too, You just don't have the same support structure that you may have when you're with a team or you’ve got back up. So that was the more logistical decision that I had to make; more so than being concerned about the danger level.
I think I think the danger level has been high from the beginning, and that's certainly something that I accept, and that's part of my job. But I also just sort of had concerns about the logistical exits if need be, if the situation escalated.
Over the years, for people listening, I've talked to you in many different parts of the world and you've gone into pretty dangerous places. I did notice that this was one of those times where you weren't quite sure what the way out was. I think the closest thing to it was your recent experience in Afghanistan, where there were a number of days where you weren't quite sure how you were going to get out.
But I wanted to focus a little bit that you had fellow journalists there that were people that you knew because they were part of the company that you worked for previously. At the human level, losing them happened right before you left. Did that affect you in any way?
It certainly did. We talked in the last substack about it. Yeah, the cameraman who was sadly killed and you know he was someone that I checked in with frequently and you know he was willing to sort of help me evacuate if need be and we had sort of plans and somebody who was extremely supportive of me.
You know when Pierre was killed, that was obviously just a massive devastation in many ways. First and foremost, because he was such a wonderful kind human. So yeah, so that I don't know. I think certainly, everyone's always concerned about journalists and safety and all of that. But I think we know no story is worth a life, But at the same time we do this job because we believe in the story. So, I don't from the danger point of view, that affected me in not wanting to be there, or to cover it, because I still very firmly believe in telling these stories. And I think that Russia tries to drive out journalists so that it's easier for them to come in and do horrible things without public accountability.
So I do see journalism as being a really important factor in that and, and that's certainly something that that I think those of us who choose to do this work have to make peace with.
Alright, so we've made the decision to leave and the journey begins. As you said, it starts on a train. What was that journey like? What path did it go? How difficult was it?
Oh, that it was. Yeah. I mean that was just sort of a heinous journey. You just basically show up at the railway station. There's just a bunch of people. Nobody knows what time the train is going to come. It might be scheduled to come at 2:00, but it's probably going to arrive two or three hours later, so you basically just stand around a train station with a whole flock of people not knowing how many people are actually going to get on the train, or what what's going to happen, where it's going. Nobody had any idea how long it would take. it was just you know, we were sort of very ill prepared because we made that last minute decision to get on the train while the train was still running as the city was sort of going into curfew lockdown. We weren't, at that point, sure, how long that the lockdown would be, so they just sort of had a mass of people at the station.
It’s obviously mostly women and children because the men have to stay. You're kind of just waiting. And then the train comes and everybody sort of just runs.I was able to get on the train and fortunately found a little area that I could sit for a little while; but we had to give that up. It was a really sad environment. You're looking at just a bunch of people that are exhausted. They don't know really what they're doing or where they're going.
There were two young girls, probably about fifteen, across from me and they were just bawling their eyes out. It's just this terror filled, crowded sort of environment. Everybody sitting in between the carriages. People sitting on the floor. There's no food, there's no drink, there's no toilet. The journey ended up taking fifteen or sixteen hours because the trains went all the way down south and then turned up to go west. I'm basically standing on a train for 15 hours and yeah, there's no food, no water, no toilet and no idea what time I'm going to get there Lviv.It was just the uncertain.
I was in a bit of a mess on the train myself, just not knowing where I was going, was I making the right decisions, did I need to go back? That was sort of happening. It was not a pleasant journey.
And then unfortunately, when I got to Lviv, it was three o'clock in.the morning. Luckily, I I found a medic, an American guy who was able of help me a little bit because I really had no other help. I had nowhere to go. I had no driver I had nowhere to stay. Every lead that I'd sort of tried to pursue went dead. So, it was really not pleasant. B ut you know, obviously we get through it, and my experience is compared to what most people are going through was nothing. But it was certainly not the easiest kind of way to try to get out, that's for sure.
So from Lviv you went across the border.
Well, yeah and then that's still another couple of hours to sort of get to the border, so thank goodness for this this person that I just met who was able to help me. It shows you the kindness of strangers because I would have been in a lot of trouble there. It would have been very screwed and it would have been horrible had I not met this person who sort of took me under their wing and were able to help me.
I was able to go with them. Then when you get to the border it's just a complete mess. The border was freezing. It's 4:00 o'clock in the morning. And the border is on lockdown because of air raids. The air raid sirens are going off, but yet there's no bunker to go to, so the whole thing is just very confusing.
Then you try to cross and then there's these masses of lines and people are yelling. I had all these people yelling at me in Ukrainian. I didn't know what was going on. The whole thing was a nightmare from start to finish. Luckily, with the help of a stranger, I was able to get some support. But without that, I can just imagine.
It was exhausting. I'm unclear, you know, uncertain. I was riddled with guilt and leaving. I hadn't slept for many, many days and I didn't have the appropriate clothing, I wasn't dressed appropriately for the weather, and there's just there was many factors that kind of went into it.
It was certainly a challenging way to cross and it reinforced to me the importance of having some sort of structured teamwork. The challenges that come when you are alone and not having a support system that you can rely on even when you know you are a writer and you don't necessarily need to be in a team. But from a logistical point of view, it's just something that's really hard to do. I think it's important to have that support network somehow of people that can kind of get you from A to B because that was certainly probably the biggest struggle of all of it. It was like sort of getting out process that I found much harder than the getting in; much more difficult than you know, even covering the day-to-day sort of combat aspect of things. This was, you know, the biggest hurdle that I had to kind of overcome.
You essentially wound up observing the human wave of refugees from the inside of the pipe. It sounds horrific to tell you the truth Those poor people, all of them.
Where you cross, there are just these people that are just sleeping in this.sort of a big hole. Women and children everywhere just on the ground on these tiny little mattresses that the Polish border guards have set up. There's just people sleeping in this big hole all over the place. It's a terribly sad, terrifying, and daunting experience for people. They don't know when they're going to go home again or when they're going to see their husbands. Or whether that may be, and I can just imagine, it's it. How exhausting this is for everybody that's involved in it. Just how how draining it is.
It's shades of blitzkrieg. The driving of populations away from the towns to clog things up, it's a very cruel.
Obviously, you made it back after probably even more tribulations of having to go through airline flights and stuff like that. What was it like reentering the US?
I mean look. I am always very riddled with guilt leaving any country that I go to. It's always incredibly difficult for me. It was, you know, struggle with Afghanistan. So now I struggle with Ukraine. Should I be there? Why am I not there? I need to go back. I need to go back now. Uhm, you know? It's something that I feel incredibly guilty about.
Being able to leave and come back to the US, while so many people are living in such dire straits, and that things are so challenging. I really feel that my heart is in these places. There's so much anxiety that comes into it for me when I'm trying to leave a place, even though I know you know, I can go back. It's a temporary break, but it there's; so many emotions I think involved, and you definitely leave so much of you there. And so much of it occupies your mind.
So, I flew back into DC. My family is in Australia. Typically, when I'm traveling on assignments I usually don't have anybody to pick me up from the airport so that's always another kind of challenge. Just getting myself through customs and then trying to get myself into a cab.
And you know? Then I had the cab driver that just wanted to talk politics to me about some B*l*s#1* with the war; and I just I had to just be like you know what? Dude, I need you to shut the **** ** right now, because you know he's going on some sort of propaganda tirade to me and I just like I couldn't handle it.
It's a challenge to come back. It's always nice to to have a little bit of stability and routine and being able to go to the gym. And get good food and all of that But my attention in my heart is still very much in Ukraine.
It's kind of like being in two different universes, isn't it? In terms of the perspective from the what you were in a space of only 36 to 48 hours of time span ago. From essentially being in the middle of it to people commenting on it from afar, and seeing those two perspectives. Do you feel the distance between those two universes right now?
I think you always do. I mean, I've been doing this work for a long time that that the coming and going has been something I've somewhat adapted to come. But yeah, I think it's it's hard to leave a place. And it's especially hard to come back to a place that is, you know it is, fairly lonely for me. My US existence is a fairly lonely one, so that is probably a bit more of a struggle than anything. I think if I had family here or something, it may make the transition a little bit easier, but that's not my reality.
It is a bit of a struggle going from a place that even though I am in a war zone, I'm usually surrounded by people I usually, you know, have people that I can kind of call upon, or, you know, be with or you are constantly in the environment. And then when I come back, it's usually a much quieter, and much more empty existence. That has its own challenges I think.
That's also part of the sacrifice you make to do this work is it's somehow sometimes hard to build a life in the US. When your attention is constantly somewhere else. So some people are able to do that better than others. It's not something I've been great at doing.
I don't think you do that badly. When all is said and done, I've known you for a while now and there have been times I’ve actually have picked you up at the airport. I’ve seen what you look like. You're extremely exhausted. I think I picked you up once and you slept for almost 24 hours.
Oh yeah, that was after Iran.
It is exhausting and and I get that. But this is your life. Now that you're here, essentially recharging your batteries. What do you think happens next? I mean and you don't have to answer that question in detail.
I think I'm definitely planning to get back it's Just sort of a matter of when. Whether I get back in two weeks. Or three weeks or a month. I'm going to reassess where things are at in a couple of weeks and see where the story is at. I think it's kind of a little bit stagnant at the moment, which is probably why a lot of the journalists have left for a break.
You know, obviously what's happening in Mariupol and other places is just tragic and horrible, but Kyiv itself, I think they'll continue to be explosions and things there. But how quickly the Russians will be able to encroach on that is really up in the air right now, So, I think it's sort of just a matter of reassessing story over the next couple of weeks, seeing where it's at.
What can I do to start making the decision if this going to be over quickly? Or is this going to be like the war that I covered in Iraq and Syria with ISIS that that I went in and out of for four years? Is this going to be be similar to that? It's really just unclear right now.
Well, this has been an interesting conversation, to say the least. I’m sure that anybody that has listened to this point has been as fascinated. What a journey. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to just describe it in your own words, for people to hear. With that, I think we'll conclude this episode of Dispatches from Ukraine and hope to hear more in the coming days of other things that you have discovered and where your head is at. There are so many parts of the world now that you that that you cover. You've got Afghanistan which has changed probably very significantly since the last time you were there. And then Iraq, which is continuing to evolve. You've dropped in and out of there for years, and now you have Ukraine. As you know, these are the top hot spots. But that's not all a of Hollie McKay. I remember Myanmar, Africa, and other parts of the world that you've been as well. So let us know where your head's at as to where the next place is for you to observe ordinary people under dire circumstances.
Thank you, thank you for your support.
For those interested in learning more about the aftermath of war, please pick up a copy of my latest book “Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield.”
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