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CNN’s Zahra Ullah says there are two moments from covering the war in Ukraine that she’ll never forget: when she and her team got caught in crossfire, and the night Russia began its invasion.
Ullah is a senior field producer for CNN, based in Moscow. She has worked closely with CNN Senior International Correspondent Matthew Chance for three years covering the region.
While you don’t see her on TV, she’s often just off-screen, coordinating with CNN’s newsrooms around the world to make sure everything goes smoothly.
She spoke with Inside CNN about the time she spent covering the war. She has since left Ukraine for a break but is still working on stories from afar. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
You were with Matthew Chance in Kyiv the night the invasion began. He was live on air when it happened. What was that like?
Ullah: It was a surreal moment. We were live on air with Don Lemon when we started hearing explosions on the morning of February 24 in Kyiv. It was the evening of February 23 in the US.
After months of hearing US intelligence that this was going to happen, for it then to finally start happening, and in Kyiv, was unreal. There seemed to be an argument that Russians may go for eastern Ukraine, but then suddenly it’s happening in the capital, Kyiv, a city that I have been visiting the past few years with Matthew. To hear explosions happening there, usually a peaceful, vibrant city, was a bizarre moment.
You don’t see me on camera, but I put on my flak jacket, and I got Matthew’s flak jacket and helmet and was kneeling down and putting it beside him. CNN issued that flak jacket to me years ago, and this was the first time I’ve had to use it.
What were the reactions from your family and friends when they learned you were going into this conflict?
Ullah: My fiancé was of course very concerned. I left home in Moscow in January, before this was even a war. I remember him watching me pack my flak jacket and helmet. He was like, “Are you really going to need that?” I said, “Well, if this turns into a war, I will.”
My parents and siblings are in the UK. I didn’t realize how much anxiety I put them through. I only realized when they called me in the days before the invasion, saying, “Zahra, is there anything you need us to know about your personal affairs that you would like for us to help with if something happens?” It seems like a very dramatic question, but they were worried.
What’s a moment that will stay with you after covering this war?
Ullah: We already talked about the night when the invasion started. That’s one moment I’ll never forget. Another one happened the following day, when we became the first journalists in the world to meet Russian soldiers invading Ukraine in Kyiv. And then we suddenly got caught up in gunfire.
There had been CNN reporting that the Russians had taken Antonov Airport in Hostomel. We were on our way to scope it out, and we got to a checkpoint. Some soldiers asked us to pull over, because we told them we wanted to do a live shot for CNN. Initially we thought they were Ukrainian soldiers. It turned out they were Russian soldiers.
We were like “Wow! We’re talking to Russian soldiers. Russian soldiers who were invading Kyiv, Ukraine, and we were the first journalists in the world to encounter them.”
Within seconds, everything changed. The soldiers got into defensive position, because they saw something ahead. We ran to take cover. Then there was this exchange of gunfire. It was a petrifying moment.
This is my first time covering a conflict like this. For me, what was so scary was just how quickly those situations happen. From having a conversation, checking paperwork at the checkpoint, to then running and taking cover. I remember just thinking, “When are the gunshots going to stop?”
What does it feel like to leave Ukraine after covering the war for weeks?
Ullah: To be honest, I’m really grateful that I’m healthy and that I’m OK. We’ve seen our colleagues, journalists at other news organizations, die while covering this conflict. Citizens and civilians are dying. I feel gratitude for my safety and my health, and I feel devastated for what the Ukrainian people are going through.
Also, because I live in Moscow, I think it’s sad and concerning for what life will be like for Russians moving forward. We’re perhaps seeing the beginnings of Russia being closed off from the world, isolation. I have a lot of affection for Moscow. It became home to me. I know that we just witnessed something that was a historical moment, and this will have long-lasting consequences for both countries.
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