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 – Max
Leaving tens of thousands dead or injured, and more than one million as refugees, the civil war in Donbass has literally wiped towns and villages entirely off the map, and stained European soil with blood for the first time in the 21st century.
Despite the numerous ceasefires agreed in Minsk, the war continued to flare up from September 2014. Since then the conflict has turned into exhausting trench warfare. As in World War I, offensives are preceded by gruelling artillery duels and mostly result in gains of only a few hundred metres of territory.
From June 2016, the clashes suddenly became more intense, especially in the northeastern part of Donetsk, around the villages of Spartak, Adiivka and Yasenavataya. It has been estimated that each day during the summer the two sides fired up to two thousand heavy artillery rounds across the entire length of the frontline.
Max is a young man of 21-years, who, as soon as he came of age, enlisted in the separatists’ militia in the early days following the outbreak of the conflict. Before the war Max was a professional hockey player and usually travelled with his team each week from one city in Ukraine to another to play in the national competition.
Max is married to Irina, a 19-year-old girl whom he has known since adolescence, who gave birth to their first child the day after the terrible night bombardment of her husband’s garrison.
Today Max has left the army so as to spend more time with his family and to pick up his career in hockey from where he left it before the war.