Donbass stories – Evgeny
After five trips in Ukraine over the course of four years I thought I already documented anything important in that country starting from Euro-Maidan demonstrations up to the war in the Donbass, the mines region located in the eastern part of the country. I documented the riots in the capital Kiev in the period from November 2013 and February 2014, including the tragic occurrence of 20th February 2014 during which 90 protestors died under police fire.
I then moved to the Donbass region to document the outbreak of war between the government army and the pro-Russian separatists: I witnessed and documented life in the city of Donetsk besieged by the government troops, the fights at the Sergey Prokofiev airport and the devastation of Debaltsevo in the days immediately after the fights.
I honestly thought I already witnessed everything and, as many other photojournalists did, after having captured on camera the violence of those days and sold the pictures, I started covering other stories.
I was very wrong. My contacts in the country kept writing me asking me to go back to keep telling the world the story of what was going on, that the Minsk peace agreements were constantly violated and that the war was anything but over.
And in the end I went back to Donbass. Since last time the front line moved slightly north freeing from war the city of Donetsk, but embracing instead lots of little villages on the outskirt of the city; small towns hardly visible on a map and in which life went through immovable for decades. This fratricide war transformed little agricultural villages in the theater that staged the first bloody conflict in Europe in the twentieth-first century.
For those 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 with headquarter in an abandoned little 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 keen 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 changed in Ukraine in terms of strategic assets and their impact on civilians life.
With this in mind I started asking myself how I could keep working on my project in the long term, keeping telling the story of this territory, but without repeating what already covered in previous years.
This is how the project I entitled “Donbass Stories” came to life, with the idea to have as main characters those invisible actors affected so much by these tragic events. The main objective of my work will be to tell the stories of the daily struggles these people are facing; I will try to document how these people are surviving the destruction of all certainties in a war that is disintegrating the communities and hence jeopardizing their future.
Evgeny is the main character of one of my stories; Evgeny is a miner working in a kopanko, one of the thousands illegal mines disseminated in the Donetsk territory.
It is almost a given that miners may die during their daily job, their destiny being to work in very harsh conditions, almost intolerable. Every day they go 200 meters underground, often using a bathtub held by a steel wire; once down there they work for 6 hours shifts, six days a week for a wage of around 160/200 euro a month. Lacking any of the basics safety measures such as gas masks or earplugs, they spend endless hours in total darkness, the only light being the one from the torch placed on their helmet, immersed in the harsh noise of the sledgehammers and covered in coal dust.
Along with the story of Evgeny, my project seeks to the tell the story of several individuals – invisible in the cataclysmic event of the Ukrainian civil war – and how they manage to overcome their everyday problems through countless difficulties, while remaining true to the plans of their future.
I will tell the story of a separatist foreign fighter with his partner; a professional dancing couple at the Opera House of Donetsk, husband and wife; a young fighter who abandoned his career as a professional hockey player to embrace the separatist cause; a little girl who goes to live with her grandmother in IDPs housing; an elderly couple, the last residents in a ghost town on the front line; and a group of young artists who find an escape from the quotidian horror of war in their art.
Stories very different between them but that have in common an insane and fratricide war and mainly the will of surviving and not giving up despite the collapse of everything that was consider certain just a couple of years ago.
Along with this, my work on the Ukraine crisis also includes the completion of a docufilm, Apocalypse Donbass, which brings together my own text, photography, and video, along with amateur images and video from civilians and soldiers. These are instruments in telling the story of this conflict, crucial in the geopolitical balance of Europe, and portrayed in an innovative and thoroughgoing way.
The other stories part of this first cycle will be completed in the coming months.
Donbass stories – Evgeny
The Donbass conflict between the pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army had its devastating effects also on one of the economical pillars of the region: coal extraction. The largest mines are now almost all closed, many have been bombed and several stopped any activity whilst waiting for the nationalization from the separatists authorities. In their place appeared dozens of illegal mines, the so called kopankas, where a day-to-day underground war is fought unknown to western countries.
In Ukraine controlling coal equals to controlling power, and this is well-known to the separatists, who are heavily involved into this business also used to finance the military revolution.
Kopankas are mostly holes in the ground, dug with basic techniques. Men will go down up to 200 meters extracting largely by manual methods. Despite this, a team of 4 workers can produce up to 5 tons per day, immediately placed on the market. Working condition are inhuman: workers extract coal laying down on their back for the majority of the time surrounded by the deafening noise of sledgehammers and with extremely limited visibility conditions due to the dust and scarcity of light. Accidents are extremely frequent despite the fact that no official statistics are available; in the same fashion no documentation is available assessing the impact of these working conditions on the incidence of diseases and death of miners, well above national average. Despite this, the kopankas remain the only source of income left for thousands of families.
Evgeny is a 29 years old miner working in one of the dozens of illegal mines situated in the village of Torez.
He lost his father and his mother emigrated in Ukraine after the start of the civil war. He lives in a small house without heating and without bathrooms, his only company being his dog Bela and a cat.
As often happens among miners, Evgeny is suffering from alcohol addiction dividing his days between long hours in the mine and long walks with his dog.
A miner since the age of 19, Evgeny suffers from kidney stones as well as many respiratory illnesses caused by the daily inhalation of coal dust. By telling his story I tried to document his daily routine, made day after day by the harsh working conditions, the loneliness but also the strong determination to keep going.