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 – Spartaco and Liza
Right after the outbreak of the conflict in Donbass, Spartaco left his job and the house where he was living with his mother to enlist as a volunteer in the ranks of the pro-Russian militias. Convinced he had nothing to lose, ideologically very motivated and relying on his previous military training (Folgore paratroopers and Italian Army) Spartaco decided to join the separatist cause finally abandoning his life in the province of Brescia that disheartened and depressed him.
Arriving in Donetsk in the autumn of 2014, his military skills allowed him to be immediately enlisted in the Vostok battalion, and then to rapidly move to the front, right after a hasty training and without knowing a single world of Russian.
Those were the days of the Donetsk airport battle: fighting few hundred meters from the enemy, under the constant artillery and tank fire and with temperatures close to -20 degrees Celsius.
During that battles Spartaco was wounded three times; nevertheless, once cured, he always asked to be reassigned to the forefront.
After the time at the airport, Spartaco was moved to Spartak, a small village in the outskirts of Donetsk, constantly bombed by the opposing artillery; after that in the “promzona”, near Avdiivka and then again at the airport.
In 2017 for the first time in three years, Spartaco went back to Italy for some days to visit his mother.
Through Facebook Spartaco met Liza.
Liza is a girl from Donetsk who learned Italian chatting on socials.
Abandoned along with her two children by her husband, who fled to Russia after the beginning of the conflict, Liza and her children live with her parents in the family home.
Liza works as a seamstress in the Donbass Opera Theatre where she sews the stage costumes of the ballerinas.
Sonja, her youngest daughter, studies classical ballet and dreams of dancing in the theatre where her mother works. Daniil, the eldest son, hopes one day to become a militiaman like Spartaco.
Spartaco’s routine is two weeks in the trench and two days at rest.
Being his new post a few miles from Donetsk, during his permits Spartaco returns to his house in the city: a hot bath to wash away all the dirt gathered during the 15 days spent in the mud, a haircut, a glass of cognac and then the usual greetings on socials; at the front there is no internet connection so the only way to stay in touch with his mother, his friends and fans is to wait for the permit to go home.
During these two rest days, Liza at the end of her shift in the theatre, gets together with Spartaco to spend a few intimate hours with him, lingering until he has to return to his post.
Along with the story of Spartaco, 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 miner working in a kopanko, one of the thousands illegal mines disseminated in the Donetsk territory; 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.
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.