It was 4am in Beirut, and I woke to the sound of my boyfriend vomiting.
He explained it was not food poisoning that made him sick but a nightmare in which I was the protagonist, starring in scenes that mixed the darker moments of Roadrunner, a haunting documentary about Anthony Bourdain we had just watched, and a terrifying video doing the rounds on Twitter of Stuart Ramsay’s Sky News team under Russian fire in Ukraine.
The nightmare was brought on by a decision he knew I had already made, even if I hadn’t yet realised it: that despite my insistence that I was only going to report on the refugee situation from the Polish border, I would end up going to the war in Ukraine.
His visit to Lebanon, where I was living, had been ill-timed. It was only a few days after Putin had launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and I had been unable to think of anything else. As we travelled around, my thoughts were a thousand miles away, hosting an internal debate. On one side were the reasonable objections – that I had no experience of conflict reporting, no real knowledge of Eastern Europe, and the fact that I’d only just upped sticks from London to Lebanon two months earlier. On the other side was simply a burning drive to go.
I am not sure where that drive came from. I had left university in 2018 knowing I wanted to be a journalist. I had always been drawn to investigative reporting as well as foreign correspondence – the former for its longer-term, in-depth nature; the latter for the opportunities it could offer to live in and get to know environments, issues and cultures very different to those I knew; and both for their potential to cover humanitarian issues.
I managed to get an internship and a short-term investigative contract at the Financial Times but my plans to apply again for their graduate programme (after a failed attempt the year before) were brought to an end by the pandemic, which led them to postpone the scheme. I’d since made ends meet by working freelance but at 27 decided to head to Beirut to learn Arabic and scratch the itch to live and report abroad. Two months later, Russia’s army invaded Ukraine.
I held in high esteem all the classic conflict reportage idols – Lee Miller, Don McCullin, Marie Colvin, Martha Gellhorn – but was not sure they were my own. I had developed an aversion to the term “war correspondent”, in part from its tendency to glamorise violence, the risk of bearing witness to it, and the personalities of those who choose to do so.
I was sensitive too to criticism of foreign journalists flying in to tell stories about a suffering that is not their own, yet I still deeply believed in the importance of making an audience at home care.
But that was not all that was in play. What made me consider Ukraine (or Poland, at the outset) but had not led me to Yemen, Ethiopia, Myanmar or other active conflicts or crisis zones was not only the relative ease of access but an awareness that this war would grip the Western media’s attention. As a freelancer vying for editors’ interest, my job might be easier there: a constantly changing situation producing an endless supply of stories, and huge editorial demand for them.
The morning my boyfriend left – his stomach still unsettled – I met one of the UK newspapers’ Middle East correspondents, a kind, encouraging and hugely experienced journalist I had gone to for advice before. Our conversation made up my mind: I would go, but without any hostile environment or first-aid training (an insurance exercise known as a HEFAT course), editors would be unlikely to commission me in Ukraine itself. I also did not want to barrel, ignorant and reckless, into a dangerous situation, so I would start in Poland, reporting from the border for a month until I was better informed and could fly back to the UK for the four-day course.
But first, there were more immediate practicalities. I absolutely hate being cold. I’d been advised that I’d need to sink around £2,000 of my savings into the trip. After the flights, clothes for the sub-zero temperatures were the first of many costs to come that would eventually see me spend nearly half of what I earned in Poland and Ukraine on doing the work itself.
In London, my next stop, even outdoor clothing shops were gripped by the war. One store manager offered me 15 per cent off when I said where I was going. Another proudly led me over to the £700 coats multiple BBC journalists he claimed had recently bought for the same purpose. I went instead to Uniqlo for some thermals, and texted my mum to ask if I could borrow her coat.
Shortly afterwards, I was in Przemyśl, Poland, with a friend from Beirut I’d convinced to come too, a brilliant journalist who would become a perfect companion. We had already emailed a few editors to gauge their interest in stories and quickly fell into a rhythm: reporting, absorbing information, pitching, repitching, writing. Other than sleep, eat and exercise – practising yoga on the floor between our beds, or jogging along the river, gloves and beanie firmly on against the bitter cold – we did little else.
It was hard work, but exhilarating. At times it was frustrating to have to pay for things that staffers can expense (accommodation, food, travel) and feel limited by costs we couldn’t always afford (fixers, translators). But it was also a reminder that having limited resources and often being dependent on others’ generosity can lead to the most serendipitous and authentic encounters. You might find yourself sleeping in someone’s café instead of a hotel, or get a lift with a friendly priest instead of having to take a taxi; beholden to their schedule, these people might take you somewhere new, to another introduction, another story – beautiful moments of confluence that might be separated by mere minutes, or days, weeks, even months.
After three weeks in Poland, my friend returned to Beirut as planned. My doubts, self-criticism and imposter syndrome feelings felt all the sharper for her absence. But they jostled against a belief that what we had achieved in Poland had shown I could do good work in Ukraine. Confronted with aid convoys crossing the border every day, even refugees choosing to return to the relative safety of western Ukraine, I felt my risk tolerance readjust.
In the end, interviewing a family who had escaped from Mariupol brought a decision: I had to see, or at least get closer to, what they were fleeing.
I did not rush the decision. I joined aid convoys on day-trips to Lviv, returning to Poland at night. Then I reported on internally displaced people in Vorokhta and Ivano-Frankivsk, where it was then safe enough (if you don’t count the ever-present threat of missiles) to be without body armour.
After a week, I began the long journey back to the UK – the funding for the hostile environment course had come through (I paid £500 of the £2,500 cost, the Rory Peck Trust covered the rest). The course – which in the end not a single publication I wrote for in Ukraine seemed to care whether I had attended or not – was mostly useful in that it shocked me into realising how poorly prepared I was. I furiously scribbled down things I would never remember: the range of missiles, artillery, guns; the instruction to hit the ground, not run, if near a thrown grenade. In a kidnapping scenario I was naively and fatally honest, yet there didn’t seem to be a correct answer; my teammates also “died” when their alibis inevitably fell apart.
I came away with an extended kit list and a decision to make: borrow sub-par body armour for free, hire used kit for a few hundred, or buy my own for the recently inflated price of more than £1,000?
I went halfway. I saved £500 by borrowing a helmet from Reporters Without Borders, who were handing them out to journalists in Kyiv. My dad – put in an unfair position when I asked his thoughts – wanted to help fund the flak jacket.
Three weeks later I was in Kharkiv. I was scared this time. No longer lying to myself about staying in Poland, my kit bag was slightly more extreme: bandages and a tourniquet, iodine and cling film, a bath plug in case the water got cut off.
I was in a military vehicle with another brilliant, supportive companion I travelled with for a while: a warm, talented editor from Moscow that I’d met on the hostile environment course (her life upturned overnight by Putin’s wartime crackdown on independent media). We were driving down a road when we encountered two vans parked horizontally across it, marking a point beyond which civilians were not allowed. A stark caution was painted on their side: “Warning! Artillery!”
We asked each other if we should go ahead. I sent a check-in text to my boyfriend and family. Hoping I would not end up prompting more nightmares, we drove on.
Antonia Cundy is a special investigations reporter at the Financial Times. At the 2022 British Journalism Awards she won the Marie Colvin Award and was highly commended for New Journalist of the Year.
This piece appeared in the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.