I have been documenting Russia’s war against Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion. Since then I am listening, photographing and interview Ukrainians I met in the est, west, south and north of Ukraine. For me, every photo has its own story. A story that stays in my heart, in my mind. If I forget or another story pushes it out of my mind, it will not be lost. The stories stay inside the photos and when I look at them, the stories again pop out. I want to share some of these stories with you.
The village of Staryi Saltiv was captured immediately after the start of the Russian full-scale invasion and was liberated on 4 May.
“My family stayed during the occupation, but we were evacuated by the Red Cross a couple days after our village was liberated. When Russian soldiers retreated, when they left the village, they started to shell us. Therefore we evacuated to Dnipro.” Seryozha used to go to this elementary school which has only four grades. He then continued to study in the lyceum located next to the elementary school. “My family came back to our village two months ago.” Seryozha likes to play soccer. He thinks school will continue only on-line. He does not have a laptop, and there is no internet, only through his phone.
Klaudia never left her home in Hoptivka, Kharkiv Oblast, located just three km from the Russian border. “They have bombed us every day since May 9 last year. Dozens of planes flew by every day. I sit and count. First, second… Instead of hiding downstairs, I ran upstairs and watched where they were flying and how they were dropping bombs on our soldiers. And some planes were falling. Ours shot them down!” saying Klaudia. “When they (Russians) invaded us, many residents fled the village. Out of five thousand, only fifty of us remained here” Klaudia sighs.
“We have been without electricity, gas and water for a year and a half. When it rains, I’ll take a bath. It rained a bit yesterday, so at least I washed my feet” said Klaudia. “When our soldiers approached the village, the Russians left. No fights, they just left. They took what they have stolen here with them. Carpets from all the abandoned houses. They also took with them refrigerators and televisions, mattresses and blankets… My neighbors gave me, when they left the village, their animals to take care of them. To look after them. I had a hundred hens. I had also many rabbits. All animals survived Russian occupation. Only my dog died.”
“There were a lot of dead dogs here. Russian shot them and left them lying around. The corpses swelled up. I took a cart and a shovel and I’m going bury these dogs. I buried the last one in September.” … “When the Russians occupied the village, some Russian soldiers used to come to me. They say they will help me. There were six of them. They cleaned all the rabbits’ cages. And they were saying: «Don’t worry, grandma, the Russian soldier won’t hurt you.» They didn’t understand anything, those guys. They didn’t understand anything.”
Halina (68) lives in her barn. Her home has been destroyed along with half of the other residential buildings in her village. Halina’s house can’t be repaired, but she hopes the roof in her barn can be fixed before the onset of autumn. “One plus to living in the barn is that I don’t have to take off my shoes anymore to go inside”, says Halina. “The drawback is that the roof needs repairing, because when it rains, it leaks. We were occupied by the Russians for two months. I asked these ‘liberators’: What is it you want to liberate us from?”
“We don’t sit in trenches all day. Our tasks are different, specific. We have to be alert every minute. We receive an instruction and go out into the field. But once we did not avoid a clash with Russian soldiers and many hours of fire. It was a difficult life experience.” Andrey called Shturman is the commander of the Ukrainian special unit of the 28th reconnaissance company of the Knights of the Winter March. “I think the Russians must be receiving some drugs, some stimulants. Do you know why I think that? Because they had absolutely no fear. They lacked the basic instinct of self-preservation. They walked against a hail of bullets. They neither swerved nor crouched, they walked upright! They even trampled on the ones we shot. Ten whole hours. They kept going and going and going, our guys could barely manage to change the magazines they were emptying into them. They were as if hypnotized.” […] “I don’t know how much the Wagners aimed. But one of our guys was hit by a bullet. Then the second one… He was a good friend of mine. The best. And he was a great person too. I lost my best men in that fight.” Of his thirteen boys, three are missing, five are injured. Sasha and Dima were killed. Andrey hope and prays to the God that, at least one of the three lost men, is in captivity. But he doesn’t know. “If they were captured, we believe that we will exchange them for Russian prisoners in time. Now we are trying to find out if they have them”, hopes Andrey.
“I used to work in the Tsyrkune Lyceum library. Russian troops occupied the school during their invasion”. Olena stayed during the occupation. “They drove in with tanks and asked where the big square was. They thought they were in Kharkiv. I told them what square, this is a village, it‘s not Kharkiv. They said it’s not possible, it must be Kharkiv, they answered. Such beautiful streets, asphalt roads, big houses, it must be Kharkiv. They didn’t understand anything at all, in Russia they probably live in the middle ages.”
Matrona Timofijivna witnessed the fighting first hand. Matrona was born in 1935 in Kurds (USSR) to Russian parents. When she was one year old, family moved to Kharkiv.
“My house is just 32 meters from the school #134 which the Fascists (meaning Russians) captured it for several hours on February 27, 2022. I went to walk my dog that day, and see a soldier running across my garden. I did not know what kind of soldier he was, but then I noticed white ribbon on his arm. It was our soldier (meaning Ukrainian soldier). Then I noticed more more soldiers were coming. Also police came and a tank drove to schoolyard through my garden.”
“Police were screaming at Russians: surrender, give up for at least 30 minutes. No one did, at least I did not see anyone. And then fighting started, all Russian fascist were killed, only one survived.”
Matrona recieved many medals and diplomas for good work during the Soviet Union. Although Matrona is of Russian nationality, she considers herself Ukrainian, she told me in Russian that she hates Russian language since the invasion.
“All my clothes, as well as the uniform, were damaged by the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam. I am a former Soviet soldier I served in Afghanistan for two years.” During the Russian occupation, Yuriy stayed in Kherson. “We experienced first the occupation in Crimea and then here in Kherson, but we stayed in Kherson. We had water even under the roof, unfortunately part of the house is made of adobe, we will probably have to tear it down.”
Yuriy looks at me seriously and says: “I understand what occupation means.”
“I went to bed. Suddenly an explosion. The bed jumped. And I hear more explosions and gunfire. The rockets flew over us, all day and night, I stayed in my room. I walk badly, I’m only able to walk a short distance. I would never make it to cellar which was used as a bomb shelter. War is not necessary for us, I have experienced one, but not like this one.”
Irina is from Kherson where she lhe lived through the entire occupation. She is Russian, and owns a Russian passport. She says if she could vote, she would vote for Zelensky. When the Russians retreated to the left bank of the Dnieper, she welcomed the Ukrainian Army. But when the Russians started shelling Kherson, she packed a few things and at night she evacuated with her son. They found a shelter in Hostomel. Irina wants to change her citizenship to Ukrainian but she was told that she must wait until the war was over.
”When I received a phone call and was informed that my son was fatally injured. I cried and screamed and ‘flew’ to the hospital where my son, ‘Vas’ was alive but unrecognisable. He was injured during fighting in the Donetsk region on 21 August 2022 when a Russian missile hit his crew. Everything caught fire and burned at an estimated 3000 degrees Celsius. Slavik has since had six operations but one of his hands is no longer functioning. My son is alive, I thank God.”