Eastern Ukraine Lives

Military exercise. Eastern Ukraine, April 2017.

It’s hard to get the world interested in the realities of the war in eastern Ukraine. Frankly, it’s boring.

Ever since Russia invaded the region to prop up its proxies in Lugansk and Donetsk in August 2014, the war has evolved into an uneventful, yet bloody stalemate. The Ukrainian military and separatist forces face each other along a 500 km long “contact line” with little movement, but almost daily fighting.

By 2017, over 10,000 people are said to have died, while eastern Ukraine is becoming one of the most heavily mined areas in the world. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are said to be mobilised on both sides. And over two million people had to leave their homes. A permanent state of war has ensued.

As long as the Russian government is willing to invest, according to estimates, a few billion euros per year into subsidising its dysfunctional separate “republics” and lend them its political and military support, there is little hope for peace any time soon.

The time when the war in Ukraine was a central focus of Western media is long gone. Increasingly, it is becoming more difficult to drum up foreign interest in the conflict, and thus to justify the costs of sending reporters out to the field. This leaves the space wide open for parties with an agenda. In a conflict which from the very beginning was characterised by intense, reality-distorting propaganda, it’s not a good development.

After four years of war people whose houses happen to be next to the frontline became desensitized to the sound of shelling. Now olga is putting her baby to sleep with the sounds of combat in the background. Neither react to the explosions. Contrary to the popular belief, it doesn’t mean that they gave up and stopped caring about their safety. It means that they have become involuntary experts in ballistics, capable of determining the degree of danger. Usually they don’t pay attention as long as they hear that the shelling is outgoing. When they hear incoming, they start listening carefully. Signs of closer hits, such as particularly loud sound, tangible explosion wave or car alarms triggered by it, usually serve as signals to go inside. Everyone knows the safest place in the house or apartment where the family gathers at such moments. Usually it is basement, bathroom, entrance hall or any other room without windows, protected by the walls. Guests like us are also given simple emergency instructions. Today it sounded like this: “Don’t worry, these sounds are safe. If it gets bad, you won’t mistake it with anything. If you see us running inside, follow us. If it comes unexpected, just go down under the metal gate, it’s thick enough.” Such precautions work often but not always. A year ago a whole family in this neighborhood was killed while barbequing by a random shell that fell without any warning. Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind @anastasiatl and words by Alisa Sopova @sopova.alisa on assignment in Eastern Ukraine for @eyewitnesstoatrocities www.eyewitnessproject.org. We’ve been working together over the last 4 years and are experimenting with a new project idea #5Kfromthefrontline #fivekilometersfromthefrontline

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This is not to say that it is difficult to get reliable information about the state of the war, even as a foreigner. The work of human rights groups, or, for example, by the journalist Nikolaus von Twickel, who documents the state of the separatist “republics” are good examples. But neither of them are commercially funded nor directed at a mass audience. And none of them are able, as the expression goes, to “give a human face” to the civilians affected by the fighting.

While the war in eastern Ukraine did not see the kind of mass atrocities which characterised many recent wars, from the former Yugoslavia to Syria, millions of non-combatants are nonetheless affected. If they have not emigrated, they tend to live in a kind of limbo: Dislocated by war and growing economic disruption,  they nonetheless remain stuck in place, helplessly hoping for any kind of political arrangement that would allow them to return to a normal life.

The renowned conflict photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind and the journalist Alisa Sopova teamed up to produce portraits of these people and their quiet desperation. Like many similar projects, theirs wasn’t commercially funded, but apparently serves to promote EyeWitness, an app that allows people in conflict zones to produce verified, geo-tagged photos of crimes they are witness to simply using their cell phones.

The result of Taylor-Lind and Sopova’s efforts are published on their Instagram accounts – a platform which works surprisingly well for this kind of photojournalism, and is fitting for a time when even civilians caught in wars are able to produce real-time documentation of events via social media. More and more, the construction of visual narratives about war and conflict is becoming a chaotic, complex endeavour. 

A popular philosophy of war is that you shouldn’t mourn property as long as your family members are alive. But still it is always heartbreaking to follow people as they show you around the remains of their houses. For most of us it’s just another picture of destruction; for them it’s a desecrated space that used to be safe and private.

Where we only see broken walls, collapsed ceilings and a mess of the mutilated furniture and wallpaper, these people still see their home. “We brought this carpet on our trip to Egypt…” “They were extinguishing cigarette butts on my favorite chair…” “The artillery launcher was parked right on my wife’s flowerbed…” Because the war in Ukraine is so ambiguous and never-ending, many of those who cannot live in their mutilated houses by the frontlines keep coming back. They tidy up the remains of the houses and tend the gardens, even though usually it doesn’t make a lot of practical sense. “Personally I think that we should have abandoned this house long ago, but I don’t keep my husband from visiting it,” one woman explained to us, “I feel it would deprive him of the last hope he has of returning to our normal life.” Photograph taken in Peski on the outskirts of Donetsk by Anastasia Taylor-Lind @anastasiatl and words by Alisa Sopova @sopova.alisa on assignment in Eastern Ukraine for @eyewitnesstoatrocities www.eyewitnessproject.org. We’ve been working together over the last 4 years and are experimenting with a new project idea #5Kfromthefrontline #fivekilometersfromthefrontline

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All photos are accompanied by the writing of Sopova. We meet, for example, Rodion Lebev, a former business owner who holds out in a Donetsk suburb, his “yellow minivan” being “the only connection between Opytnoe and the outer world, driving free of charge people, groceries, cash and humanitarian aid along the mud road through the minefield to nearby Avdeevka.“

Or Olga, “putting her baby to sleep with the sounds of combat in the background”. Or Ruslan, whose story is as simple as it is indicative of the kind of misery the endless war has inflicted on millions of people: He would like to leave his village a few hundred meters away from the frontline, where wayward shells are always in danger of killing his young children. But the coal mine that used to employ him has closed, Ruslan is unemployed, and as much as they’d like to flee, “The family can’t afford it.”

Masha was born four days ago. She doesn’t know yet that her home is next to the frontline. Her parents, Diana and Dmitry, are Baptists. They believe that whatever happens, either war or a new baby, is God’s will. The family already has two daughters, 10-year old Sofia and 5-year old Veronica. All of them live in an unsafe neighborhood in Avdeevka, next to the battlefield. When the war started, Veronica was only one year old. Once Diana was outside with her when shelling started. She had to throw her daughter on the ground, lay over her and pray that they survive. When she had a chance to look up, she saw that a neighbor, an old lady who was just standing next to them, had her head torn off in the explosion. Sophia, the older daughter, is going through therapy to recover from her war trauma. On the therapist’s request she made a drawing of her life: children in the playground and a cave next to them. The cave, she explained, is to hide from shelling. Now the situation in Avdeevka is more quite than before: you can hear shelling nearly every day, but it seldom reaches residential areas. Even though there is no political solution to the conflict currently, Dmitry and Diana hope this standstill means that their youngest daughter will have less traumatic childhood. Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind @anastasiatl and words by Alisa Sopova @sopova.alisa on assignment in Eastern Ukraine for @eyewitnesstoatrocities www.eyewitnessproject.org. #5kfromthefrontline #fivekilometersfromthefrontline

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The collaborative project #fivekilometersfromthefrontline is published on the Instagram accounts of @anastasiatl and @sopova.alisa. Photograph courtesy of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine. Published under a Creative Commons license.