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 – Roma and Oxsana
Despite power cuts, a shutdown of all businesses, curfews, and nearly daily shelling, residents of the rebel-held city of Donetsk flock to the Opera and Ballet Theater on weekends in search of respite from the reality of life within a battle zone.
When war broke out around a third of the theater's performers fled, including key singers and all four of its conductors. A further setback occurred when a wayward missile destroyed the warehouse where most of the stage sets were stored.
The opera house was forced to close on July 2015 because of heavy clashes, then it recruited new staff and was again operative the following September.
Despite the ongoing hostilities and challenging circumstances, audience figures at the 960-seat theater have been impressive since its reopening. In the ground floor cloakroom, camouflage military jackets hung among civilian furs and overcoats.
Roma and Oxsana are two professional dancers working for the Donbass Opera Theatre.
Married since 2013, their life spins around rehearsals, performances and exhausting physical trainings. Their routine calls for six work days and one day off, usually on Monday, often spent at home.
Trained since very young in the theatre academy, they turn professional in 2007. With the outbreak of the civil war in 2014, they move provisionally to St Petersburg by some colleagues, to return to Donetsk in 2015 almost in coincidence with the re-opening of the theatre.
In the same year, a grad missile fired by the regular army hits a bus in front of their apartment building killing 13 people and injuring many others. Roma is among the first to rush to aid. From that day Oksana is subject to panic attacks that are triggered whenever she hears the roars of even faraway artillery explosions.
Even if the two young don’t intend to leave their hometown at the moment, they don’t rule out the possibility of moving to Russia in case of an escalation of the war.