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“I Surrendered My Life to Destiny:” Indian conflict correspondent chronicles Russia-Ukraine War

From Ukraine to the Middle East, as a war correspondent, I saw a tragic commonality: the loss of innocent lives beyond ethnic boundaries. War leaves scars on the mind and soul, and it changed me. I find myself feeling more intolerant to injustice, and even to challenges in personal relationships.

  • 1 month ago
  • January 27, 2024
8 min read
Rahul Dabas is a senior conflict and defense correspondent for the Indian Channel of News Nation and is pictured covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine. | Photo courtesy of Rahul Dabas Rahul Dabas is a senior conflict and defense correspondent for the Indian Channel of News Nation and is pictured covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine. | Photo courtesy of Rahul Dabas
Journalist’s Notes
Interview Subject
Rahul Dabas, a senior conflict and defense correspondent at the Indian channel of News Nation, has extensive experience covering geopolitical events globally. His reporting includes the Kashmir conflicts with Pakistan and China, and he spent four months in the war zone covering the Ukraine-Russia war. During this period, he also reported on the NATO summit in Poland, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit, the G7 Summit in Berlin, United States Representative Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and collaborated closely with Indian, US, and German military forces.
Background Information
The Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Palestine wars erupted on February 24, 2022, and October 7, 2023, respectively. Journalists worldwide flocked to cover these conflicts in both countries, returning with a multitude of experiences and observations. Rahul immersed himself in both conflicts.

KYIV, Ukraine ꟷ As a war correspondent, I navigated through freezing cold and deserted roads in the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. My team and I ventured into risky places while others fled. Empty train cars became our shelter as fear of potential attacks lingered. Amidst uncertainty, my cameraman and I delved into philosophical conversations about historic wars that shook humankind.

Read more stories out of conflict zones at Orato World Media.

Journalist gets the urgent call to cover the war in Ukraine

While vacationing with my wife in Rajasthan for our eleventh wedding anniversary, my work called. They needed me to return to the office urgently to discuss something. I thought back to my life as a student in journalism school. We learned that journalists work around the clock, and I embraced it.

Throughout my career, I sacrificed days off and willingly worked long hours. I cherished every aspect of being a journalist. In Rajasthan, I took my wife out to lunch before breaking the news to her. As we sat holding hands, she asked, “Do we have to go back?” With a heavy heart, I explained that Russia invaded its neighbor, and we needed to return to Delhi. They were sending me to Ukraine.

Back home, I made my way to the Ukrainian embassy, uncertain what the future held. Yet, I did not feel fear. Instead, I saw it as an opportunity. I intended to go above and beyond. With only three days to prepare, I left no stone unturned. I consulted with a senior doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) to fulfill the requirements necessary to enter the war zone.

I assembled a foolproof medical kit with hypothermia medication, aids to stop bleeding from bullet wounds, and various other items. Also, I enrolled in a basic medical crash course covering essential skills like CPR, administering injections, and dispensing liquid medications.

Thinking back to a class I took for war correspondents the year before, I reviewed the skills I might need in Ukraine: self-defense techniques against incoming gunshots, maneuvering through trenches, and fending off assaults.

Facing physical challenges and language barriers covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine

With all of this in mind, I set off for Ukraine. Worried about roads vanishing under the destruction of rockets and bombs, I strapped on an extra-heavy backpack in case I needed to live from my own supplies. As we made our way around Ukraine, I wished I had a simple trolley bag.

The immense physical toll of lugging this pack around left my shoulders aching so intensely holding the microphone for a story became a daunting task. At times, we traveled many kilometers and waited in long ques for necessary supplies like water. Desperation set in when we had to bribe people with U.S. dollars to get what we needed. When I look back, I understand that now. Having to walk miles for water was nothing compared to the conditions these people faced.

For four and half months, I reported on the Russian invasion of Ukraine from inside the country. Day and night, relentless attacks occurred around us. Not a single day passed without witnessing the harsh reality of war.  During assaults, the internet often stopped abruptly leaving us with no updates. We relied solely on instincts, hurrying to a bunker at our rented apartment in Kyiv.

When the internet vanished, Google Translate became inaccessible, leaving us entirely on our own to rely on my limited knowledge of the Ukrainian and Russian languages. I quickly learned a few sentences – enough to convey my identity as a reporter from India. This effort to communicate became a bridge amidst adversity.

Grazed by a bullet, journalist flees from a gun fight in Ukraine

As the days passed during those four and a half months in Ukraine, I encountered a multitude of emotional moments that profoundly influenced my work as a journalist. The apartment we secured in Kyiv sat in proximity to the metro station.

This underground sanctuary evolved into a makeshift bunker and a lifeline through the relentless and monotonous attacks. Feeling constantly threatened and facing an onslaught of casualties desensitized us to the gravity of the situation.

As the days passed, the routine strikes by Russia in Ukraine became so routine, I relinquished the habit of seeking shelter. I felt a sense of surrender becoming my nature and I handed my survival off to the whims of destiny.

In March, Russian troops withdrew from Bucha, a town scarred by over 1,000 civilian deaths during the month-long occupation. The aftermath revealed a chilling reality. Russian bullets – not shrapnel or shelling – claimed the lives of more than 650 innocent people. Despite troop movements, remnants of the Russian presence lingered.

While reporting in Bucha, gunfire erupted and I found myself in the crossfire. A bullet grazed my shoulder as my cameraman urged me to run. In the silent moments that followed, after our escape, I sat down as reality set in. Ironically, we eventually learned that the Ukrainians returned gunfire to shield us from the threat. Looking back, I laugh at it with a curious mix of relief and bewilderment.

Navigating through trenches with his cameraman, claustrophobia sets in

On the ground in the east and northeast border regions near Russia, we saw the aggressor’s deliberate assault on a railway line, targeting cars carrying chemicals. We quickly found protective masks designed to shield us from chemical warfare. Over two days, we crafted a series of stories on the topic, explaining that both countries were gearing up for possible chemical attacks. The series resonated well, but victory came at a personal cost.

My eyes bore the brunt of the chemical exposure. They began to bleed, and I was on the verge of blindness. Despite the physical agony, I continued reporting for a week, concealing my struggle from my wife and son, wearing glasses when we spoke. To me, it simply felt like my duty as a journalist.

Fortune favored me that day. My driver happened to be a doctor. He lost his job during the war and stepped into a new role. His Indian identity felt comforting, like a familiar face with which to share my challenges. These were undeniably the hardest days I faced in my career as a war correspondent.

After a month there, the Ukrainian government gave us access to Nikholve, a primary battleground. For two harrowing days, my cameraman and I navigated through trenches. It felt like a scene out of a Marvel movie. Surrounded by military personnel and fellow journalists, relentless firing screeched out from both sides.

Fear and claustrophobia crept in, yet we forged ahead, training our minds to focus. Recording from the trenches became our solace, a collective effort to divert our thoughts from the gravity of the situation. My cameraman was my anchor, turning our professional relationship into a deep friendship, where vulnerability and shared emotions became our strength. Though we rarely revisit those memories, the shared trauma we endured still binds us.

From Ukraine to Israel, journalist covers war and bears the emotional scars

The unpredictable force of war left an indelible mark on me. Walking through Bucha, bodies of Russian soldiers lay untouched. More than a hundred bodies of men, women, and children scattered about in a haunting scene against the backdrop of the snow-covered ground.

The tragedy echoed in the cries of orphaned children, fleeing women, and weeping soldiers, painting a stark picture of pain and despair. I found myself in a state of numbness. For 10 days, we navigated the void of hunger, unable to cook dinner or articulate our feelings. When a fellow Indian journalist prepared a comforting meal for us, we broke our silence and ate.

Since my experience in Ukraine, I have found myself in other dangerous places. After October 7, 2023, I covered the Hamas’ attack on Israel. I quickly found myself covering windows with bedding and sleeping on floors as a shield from projectiles. Seven times, we faced close encounters with rockets as debris fell like snow from the sky. As cities emptied of residents, stray cats became our companions, and a dog lost its voice as it barked from loneliness.

From Ukraine to the Middle East, as a war correspondent, I saw a tragic commonality: the loss of innocent lives beyond ethnic boundaries. War leaves scars on the mind and soul, and it changed me. I find myself feeling more intolerant to injustice, and even to challenges in personal relationships.

After immersing myself in Ukraine for four and a half months, and covering the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, I react more strongly to things now. It dawned on me during those days that human life holds immeasurable value, irrespective of nationality. Seeing so many dead bodies, I often thought of verses from the Bhagavad Gita and the senselessness of human death in war.

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