The Forgotten War

There is a man with standing still, clutching his rifle with his left hand, adjusting his helmet strap with his right hand. The muddy ground beneath his boots is riddled with empty bullet casings. Mortar shells and machine gun fire can be heard in the distance but he’s not phased. As long as he’s in this trench he’s relatively safe unless he tries to peek out to have a look at the enemy positions. That would be a perfect opportunity for the snipers to show what they can do. All of this sounds like an excerpt from a book written by a World War 1 veteran but it’s, unfortunately, the current situation in the 21st Century Europe.
I’m talking about Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk areas which have been war-torn since 2014 with no end in sight. When I was deciding where to go for my next photo project I realised that there are still many people out there who have no idea there is a war in Ukraine. They have no knowledge of the unfortunate 10.000 killed in clashes, shellings, bombings, and anything else connected with the war. Or of the approximately 800.000 to 1.000.000 internally displaced persons which are pretty much refugees in their own country. Or all the unfortunate people still living on the frontline as they have nowhere else to go. Now I know that the power of photojournalism is at its all-time low in today’s political climate but I still had to go and try and do something myself. Even though the coverage of the conflict is fairly extensive and constant, there are still many uninformed and oblivious. Think of this as my two drops in the ocean of information.
    I have arrived in Avdiivka on the 9th of July 2018. This small town has been on the frontline for many years enduring countless shellings and fights. Many civilians have been killed, the rest has lived without water, electricity or gas for extended periods of time. There are still areas with the danger of undiscovered mines or unexploded ordnance. Buildings are riddled with bullet holes or shrapnel. Some of them are at least partially collapsed or with holes in the walls from mortar fire, tank rounds and rockets. The worst two were probably the multistory buildings called Rozukrazka and Deviatka. The former is still inhabited even though multiple flats inside were completely destroyed, windows were blown out and walls hit by explosives. There is this impressive graffiti of a teacher from Avdiivka on the side of Rozukrazka that has been hit by shrapnel and small arms fire multiple times which makes the beautiful portrait seem rather eerie.
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    My fixer Marichka has put me in touch with the Pravyy Sektor (Right Sector) group of volunteer fighters. They are called Dobrovolci by the locals which roughly translates to Goodwillers. They operate thanks to the fund that is collected by volunteers and supporters all over the country. This allows them to finance their operation including gear, weapons, ammunition and anything they need to run smoothly. They work with the official Ukrainian military helping them with gathering intel using rather advanced homemade drones and also by running a quick reaction force used when the positions are under attack and in a need of fast reinforcements.
    They invited us to a covert base on the outskirts of Avdiivka. When we arrived all the fighters were in full gear, body armour, helmets, holding their weapons waiting in the backyard as if they were told that photographers are coming to do some portraits. I told them I prefer real moments, candid and unposed images. Also, I felt really bad for them being all geared up in the terrible heat just for some photos. So they took us into their underground barracks/base, got comfortable and then we all spent some time together talking, joking and drinking their kvass (fermented non-alcoholic drink).
    One thing that was rather universal across every unit we met and almost every fighter or soldier was their universal dislike of Russia and passion for strong and independent Ukraine. There was a portrait of Stepan Bandera on the wall including the iconic red and black flag. When they asked me what does Britain think of Russia they didn't seem to know about the current Novichok issue going on but they weren't surprised. They seemed very upset when I told them about the separatist 'consulate' in the Czech Republic though. As if that gave the other side legitimacy.
    I’ve had some time to explore and photograph their personal spaces around their bunks, a glimpse into their daily life. Their rifles and machine guns were always within reach but surrounded with everyday objects used to pass time. Shampoo bottles next to grenades, a fidget spinner on an ammo box, a teddy bear hanging next to a grenade launcher. The painting of Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko with a PKM machine gun on the side of the van was one of many portraits of people that fought for Ukrainian independence from Russia throughout history.
     This wasn't the last time I'd see this group this week so I was happy we established contact.
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    Later in the evening, we've met Alina K. A young girl who is fighting since she was seventeen years old. A gymnast turned sniper who is now utilising any kind of ammunition she can find on the field to paint and repurpose it as unique candles, vases and other souvenirs. All the proceeds from the sales are going directly back to the fund.
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    Alina took us to a memorial built by the 72nd Brigade that protected Avdiivka during the shelling for their fallen brothers using bullet casings, burnt out grenade propellers, and shrapnel.
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    The next day we were invited to a medical base Pravyy Sektor has built. The medical unit was started by another girl also named Alina due to the group not really having any way of saving their injured fighters in the field. The base was hidden and didn’t seem like much at the beginning but the hi-tech equipment inside showed that these guys know their stuff. Modern VW ambulances with the latest technologies were impressive. One of the fighters was being examined by Doc (the medic), Alina M. (a different girl with the same first name as our first contact), and DaVinci (the commander of the Pravyy Sektor in the area). The ambulance’s ultrasound was able to show that there is an unusual growth in his stomach that might require an operation. DaVinci later took us inside the building to show us a wall of their fallen fighters. He remembers every single one of them including their age and where they fell. He is a young and quiet commander, but he has great respect for his men as they have for him.
    Later on their medic, Doc, was giving a lesson on CAT tourniquets and field first aid to the troops which would come useful the next day as we were invited to join them on a battle drill.
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    We followed the trucks of the group through the area as they made their way to the remote training location close to the frontline. Everybody was briefed by Alina and received their trauma kit including tourniquets, celox, bandages, and other necessary items. We then joined the two separate units as they marched towards the field. Doc and Alina were preparing the ‘casualties’ dressing them in pig blood and bones for the realistic feel and I took a few photos as the fighters waited for their cue.
    Sounds of explosions fill the air and the fighters have to make their way towards the casualties, secure the perimeter around them and start treatment or at least stabilise them before moving them to the trucks. All whilst being closely watched by Alina who’s taking notes. They're watching out for mortar explosions and covering from fire simulated by DaVinci firing his pistol into the air. He keeps his men on edge trying to make the scenario as close to reality as possible. Pushes them to be better and faster. They do their best to save the life of their injured. Apply tourniquets, bandages, address punctured lungs. They seem to know very well what they’re doing. Alina keeps close tabs on everything they do with the body. Once the casualty is stable the fighters carry him away on a stretcher whilst being shelled and shot at. It all reminded me rather closely of the training I did myself last year in Spain.
    The men were exhausted at the end but their rest was cut short by a heavy rain with a thunderstorm and they had to retreat to their forward base.
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    On Thursday the 12th we finally got a permission to go to the official Ukrainian army frontline positions. First one on the program is the famous Promka. An industrial area used as a base of operations which is attacked almost every night. Every single building, wall or a vehicle is resembling a sieve with all the bullet holes. We could hear shelling and machine gun fire but we were told it's at least 200 metres away and that there's not much to be worried about.
    Once the soldier who was supposed to provide us protection on the frontline got ready we headed out. His name was Denys and he was in charge of the communications. He'd walk over 20 miles daily to make sure all the cables between positions were intact and would often have to repair them under fire or in minefields. He took us through the forests behind Promka towards the positions where soldiers live in the trenches. We had to avoid unexploded mortar shells stuck in the ground which were sometimes hard to spot. The path was narrow just about to fit single file and anything outside of that path could be a mine. Once we made our way we met a couple of Ukrainian army soldiers working out in their forward base. The place has turned into a temporary home for the troops. There was clean laundry hanging on cables, weightlifting station, small field kitchen a manual washing machine and even a bundle of puppies with a bowl of food in one of the bunkers. There was not a single military position here without something adorable living in it. 
     Denys took us to the forward trenches from which we could see the DFS (Donetsk Filter Station) and enemy positions which were apparently as close as fifty metres. We had to keep our helmets on and our heads down as there was a danger of sniper fire at any second. 
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    After eating the soldiers' delicious borsch for lunch at their base in Promka we left for the Avdiivka Coke Plant. This impressive factory stands out in the landscape. It is pretty much holding the town of Avdiivka afloat with jobs even after being shelled multiple times. Every department of the plant is now equipped with a bomb shelter to avoid more unnecessary deaths of workers including the main office building which stands on a Soviet WW3 nuclear shelter. The entire area is a well-oiled machine constantly bringing in coal and churring out coke to be used for steel production. The temperature near the furnaces can be staggering but the workers seemed to have gotten used to it over the time.
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     The next morning we head out early to visit frontline positions at Butovka mine. It's a very similar sight to the previous one. Soldiers relaxing after a night of intense fighting, makeshift dumbells on the ground, clothes hanging to dry, weapons within reach, and a puppy with a kitten. We meet a soldier nicknamed Ugovich who takes us around between the shot up and destroyed buildings, burned forests and helps us avoid the mined areas. He was a history teacher before the war started and was frustrated by the fact that the soldiers returning from war were saying one thing whilst the school books were apparently different from the reality. For that reason, he decided to join the army and once the war is over he'll return back to teaching but this time he's going to tell the truth. He gave us a rather detailed insight into the current state of the war.
    Because of the Minsk agreement, there can't be any advancement made by either side as well as the use of heavy weaponry like artillery or tanks is strictly forbidden. Which has pretty much turned this conflict into a frozen war where the troops man their positions, get shelled on a nightly basis, deal with small arms fire and just wait for an order to advance which is nowhere in sight. It seems very demoralising and it is. The soldiers' faces are worn, tired of seeing their brothers getting hurt or killed with no real progress. That doesn't mean their resolve is gone though. They are determined and ready to defend their country at all cost. I kept hearing that all they need is an order and they would push the separatists to the Russian border before the next day is over.
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      Afterwards, we move to a small village called Verkhn'otorets'ke which sits pretty much directly on the frontline. The military positions are in a small valley or rather a large gully surrounded by a forest. The entire forward base with the wooden pathways, wooden shacks, a fireplace, and the makeshift staircase leading to the trenches seemed very Vietnam Waresque. The entrance is marked by a sign made of bullets reading 8 ROTA (8th Company). The trenches are still unfinished as the soldiers get engaged with small arms fire everytime they try to dig a little further. The enemy positions as close as 300 metres are clearly visible from the little bunker openings.
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    I also wanted to meet some of the civilians living in the frontline village and Verkhn'otorets'ke was the right opportunity. Children were playing on the shop steps across the street from sandbag covered trenches, young girls walking among the military vehicles, boys riding their bicycles in front of army trucks. A local lady named Tetyana said she doesn't want to move. Her house belonged to her parents and grandparents. She was born in it and it was her home. Even though her roof got destroyed a few years back after being hit with a mortar shell and her garden was hit with three mortars right after she planted her crop she still refuses to leave. 
    The local shop seems to be doing well. It's the only shop in the area so business is good. The ladies inside told us about the village school that had over 200 children attend regularly before the war. Now that number is around 100. Life goes on as people learn to live with the daily danger.
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    The best proof of people standing together and going on was happening in the evening of the same day as Avdiivka was celebrating the day of the steelworker (Den Metalurga). There was a big fair consisting of food stands, funny photo stages with people in costumes, cotton candy, balloons, trampoline, inflatable castle, and a stage for concerts. Thousands of people were out celebrating and enjoying the day completely ignoring the fact that there is a frontline less than a kilometre away. Some older children were jumping on a trampoline for much younger kids and it made a lot of sense. These kids haven't had any childhood for the last four years so they're finally enjoying what they should have been enjoying when their town was a war zone. Women were dressed up to look their best, men were having drinks and everyone just lived for the day. It was refreshing to see that people keep going on even after everything they've been through.
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On the last day, we've decided to visit two villages directly on the frontline. The infamous Pisky and less known Obytne. The former has seen some of the heaviest fightings in the area. There is not a single building that's not damaged by the shelling. In fact, many of the buildings aren't even standing anymore. Everyone has evacuated and the village is now an active war zone housing both sides. There is a part called Zlate Pisky which is known for the large mansions and villas owned by the Donetsk rich. One of the properties is rumoured to belong to the son of former president Janukovich. The house on the property is pretty much non-existent. Even the walls are gone. There are only so many photos one can take of destroyed buildings in one week so after a few images, we decided to head to Obytne.
    The drive there was long and tough. I can't imagine anyone getting in without a 4x4. The village is remote but it isn't deserted. There are army units stationed here as well as few civilians still living in their houses. But 'houses' is probably not the most accurate word. Some of their homes are damaged so badly and the shellings can get so intense, that the residents are forced to live in their basements. They have no running water, no gas, no electricity, no easy way of reaching the outside world. That doesn't stop them from being incredibly generous. We were greeted by three lovely ladies named Nadia (80), Masha (66), and Zina (68) who showed us around. They took us to a very nice woman named Tetyana who was just frying some delicious pea turnovers on an open fire. She insisted on us having a few and I have to say I should've asked for a recipe.
     The nearest town is Avdiivka. They have to walk roughly six kilometres each way on a regular basis through the dangerous area for their pensions and basic supplies. Another woman also named Tetyana showed us the living area in the basement. I don't think I was prepared to see that. The room was tiny, crammed with a bit of furniture, supplies, a small stove, bed and floors covered with cardboard to avoid stepping on the snails. There was no light except Tetyana's headlamp, the air was damp and cold. She told us how she often sits in the corner terrified, listening to the explosions outside, and waiting for the ceiling to collapse. These people have nowhere else to go, this is their home. All they wanted was to live out their retirement in a small village on the outskirts of Donetsk and instead they were caught in the middle of a conflict they have no control over.
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This war has no end in sight. The politics behind the conflict are nowhere near a satisfying resolution and it's the people caught in the middle of it all who suffer the most.