After five trips in Ukraine over the course of four years, I thought I had documented everything that was important, from Euro-Maidan demonstrations to the war in the Donbass, the mining area in the eastern part of the country.
I portrayed the riots in the capital city of Kiev from November 2013 to February 2014, including the tragic event of the 20th of February 2014 during which 90 protesters died under police fire.
I then moved to the Donbass region to document the outbreak of the war between the government army and the pro-Russian separatists. I witnessed and documented life in the city of Donetsk under siege by the government troops, the fights at the Sergey Prokofiev Airport and the devastation of Debaltsevo in the days immediately following the fights.
I honestly thought I already witnessed everything so, after having captured on camera the violence of those days and sold the pictures, I started covering other stories as many other photojournalists did.
I was totally wrong. My contacts in the country kept writing asking me to go back, to keep on telling the world what was going on, that the Minsk peace agreements were repeatedly violated and that the war was anything but over.
In the end I went back to Donbass. Since the last time I was there, the frontline had moved slightly north freeing from war the city of Donetsk, but embracing instead lots of little villages on the outskirts of the city, small towns hardly visible on a map where life went on unchanged since decades. This fratricidal war changed little agricultural villages into a theater staging the first bloody conflict in Europe of the twentyfirst century.
For these reasons in my last trip back in July I focused my attention on one of those villages, Spartak, and in particular on a group of fighters headquartered in an abandoned small building. Their mission was to spot enemies’ location and inform their fellow soldiers. I documented their daily routine and their life side by side with that of the civilians living next to their building, with a close interest on the human aspect of their actions. I tried to “undress ” the soldiers to highlight the men hiding beneath the uniform.
Since July 2016 very little has changed in Ukraine in terms of strategic assets and their impact on civilians life.
With this in mind I have started asking myself how I could keep working on my project in the long term, carrying on the story of this territory, without repeating what already covered in previous years.
This is how the project I entitled “Donbass Stories” has come to life, with the idea to portray as main characters these invisible actors affected so much by these tragic events. The first purpose of my work will be to tell the stories of the daily struggle these human beings face. I will try to document how these persons manage to overcome the destruction of all certainties in a war that is breaking down whole communities and so jeopardizing their future.
Donbass stories – Little Liza
Mostly ignored by the Western media, war in the Ukraine has continued without pause.
Despite the signing of the second Minsk protocol there are still artillery attacks on the villages on the outskirts of Donetsk and all along the front line. Spartak, Pesky and Avdiivka, to name just a few, are now ghost towns, reduced almost totally to rubble and largely abandoned.
Most of the population has moved abroad or found refuge with friends or acquaintances in Donetsk.
Unfortunately some were unable to flee, either because they had no one with whom to take refuge, or because their paperwork was not in order.
The lack of proper paperwork is a common problem for many living within the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). Ukraine’s law requires the periodic renewal of passport photos to maintain the validity of its passports. Those who were unable to update their photos before the conflict started now face the dilemma of having to go through the frontline, which serves as a de facto border, in order to renew their passports with the authorities in Kiev; but in doing so they face being turned back or even arrested.
For those caught up in this situation and deprived of their means of livelihood the only option is to be assigned a room in an evacuation centre. There are many of these in Donetsk and between them they house thousands of people.
Typically, these centres are tower blocks dating from the Khrushchev era and which have had many uses over the years: housing estates, hospitals, and university halls of residence.
Evacuees are assigned a room, the size of which depends on the size and composition of their family groups. They cover a wide social spectrum, from families with children, to the elderly (including WWII veterans), wounded soldiers and political refugees.
Each of them has a story to tell, for the most part about loved ones and places they abandoned in panicked haste because of the bombardments.
The kitchens, bathrooms and showers are all communal, interspersed among the rooms on the corridors of each floor. There are rooms for washing clothes and hanging them to dry as well as areas for children to play.
Every room is a small world filled with furniture, electric appliances, daily necessities, books and memories, because each room now holds their occupants’ entire lives.
Little Liza lives in one of these rooms with her grandmother. In January 2015 her family fled their home in Spartak, a small village on the outskirts of Donetsk, to find refuge in the city away from the intense bombardment of their hometown. The very next month their house was almost entirely destroyed by just such an artillery barrage.
Since then the family moved several times until it was decided to lodge the little girl with her grandmother in one of these rooms allocated by the government for refugees from the conflict, while her parents sought temporary refuge with relatives in Russia.
Liza, who recently turned 9, attends a nearby primary school along with all the other children in the evacuation centre, where she spends all of the morning and part of the afternoon. After lunch in the school canteen she returns to her room where she often has her friends over to play or do homework. Three times a week she goes to the nearby “House of Culture” where she is learning traditional dance.
Her greatest dream is that her family might be able to return and live together again in their home in Spartak.