Born in independent Ukraine, they now defend their country’s sovereignty & territorial integrity

 

War in the Donbas

Article by: Dariya Bezruchenko; all photos: Anatolii Stepanov
Source: Reporters
Translated by: Christine Chraibi

From the very beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war in eastern Ukraine, Kyiv-based photographer Anatolii Stepanov has focused his camera on front-line soldiers and daily life along the demarcation line. Stepanov has worked with Reuters, Der Spiegel, The Daily Telegraph, France-Presse and Radio Liberty. He was awarded the medal “For Assistance to the Armed Forces of Ukraine” by the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine.

Anatolii Stepanov presents a new photo project about young soldiers who were born in an independent, non-Soviet Ukraine. They have served or still serve in the well-known 93rd Brigade Kholodny Yar. The soldiers’ ages mentioned in the article correspond to the year that the photo was actually taken.

“These young people are defending the only country they know, the country they live in,” says the photographer.

Anatolii Stepanov:

“This war has penetrated my body and soul. On April 12, 2014, I was in Donetsk. In the morning, the Internet was overrun with messages about the seizure of the regional police department in Sloviansk. It was clear that something was happening, something completely different. Suddenly, we saw people with machine guns near the Sloviansk police department. Well, I thought, these aren’t just rallies. The smell of danger was everywhere.

The next day I returned to the occupied city. Tires were burning at checkpoints. At the entry checkpoint, someone shouted at me, ordering me to remove my vehicle from the line of fire. I turned around, and there stood a masked man in combat fatigues, pointing his machine gun at my car. I drove my car away quickly, but stayed in the city and was allowed to work. They were Russian. They came to “help their Slavic brothers”, “to protect the Orthodox from the Greek Catholics”. They told me that if the National Guard of Ukraine crossed the bridge, they would crush them to the last man!

War changes you. It’s impossible to forget, to leave behind. This war is ongoing. You get used to it. In 2014-15, Avdiyivka was seething with anger, and now, it seems that many people have accepted this state of affairs. War is dirty. You think about how to do your job, that’s all. War is brutal. At first, many civilians were killed because they didn’t know what to do, how and where to hide…

One day in 2016, a 40-year-old soldier told me this: “We must defend our country and let the young people stay home. They must be protected; they are the future of the country!” However, I’ve met many young people on the front line. They’re in their twenties, but they’re defending Ukraine’s right to choose its own path without asking permission from its so-called “older brother”.

In their fight for freedom and dignity, these once-carefree young people have become mature men and women who clearly understand why they’re fighting against Russian aggression. For them, it’s a truly patriotic war of liberation.

I remember 2014, and the Donbas Battalion. Popasna was liberated. It was hot that night and I spent the night with the soldiers on the roof of a school. By dawn, the whole roof was buzzing. There was such exaltation… They’d freed their lands from the enemy! They’d succeeded! This spirit is no more. But, our young people continue fighting for their dreams here, in a peaceful life. When I feel down and out, all empty inside, I remember that these young men and women have seen much more than I ever have, lost much more than I have, accomplished much more than I have. Then I turn inwards, search for the strength within myself and return there again and again.”

Vitaly “Hans”, 22 years old, from Zaporizhzhia. Deployed near Zholobok, Luhansk Oblast, January 18, 2020. Vitaliy was 16 when the war started. He called repeatedly at the military recruitment and enlistment bureau, but was always refused. They didn’t accept him in the volunteer battalions either. When he turned 18, he signed a five-year contract and is still fighting today. He says that he joined the army to defend the Motherland.

Vitaliy “Amper”, 25 years old, from Dnipro. Deployed near Avdiyivka PromZone, Donetsk Oblast, January 21, 2018. Vitaliy is an orphan, raised by his grandmother. He has been fighting since 2014. In January 2015, he took part in the assault on Butivka mine. He will never forget how he loaded the torn bodies of his dead comrades after the battle for the mine, which was taken only on the eighth attempt. [Butivka-Donetska mine is located between Avdiyivka and the city of Donetsk-Ed]

Andriy, 22 years old, from Toretsk, Donetsk Oblast. Deployed near Zholobok, Luhansk Oblast. In 2013, he wanted to enter the Donetsk Military Lyceum, but then decided not to because, he says, they demanded a bribe. When the so-called “Russkiy mir” appeared in the Donbas, Andriy and his friends took part in rallies and protests. They also launched several attacks against checkpoints held by the Russian-controlled militants.

Ivan “Vakha”, 25 years old. From Khmelnytsky. Deployed near Avdiyivka PromZone, January 21, 2018. After serving in the Ukrainian air defence forces, Ivan signed a contract with the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Alina, 22 years old, from Bila Tserkva, Kyiv Oblast. Deployed near Maryinka, January 18, 2019. Alina’s been fighting for five years. At 17, she volunteered for the Aidar Battalion; at 18, she signed a contract with the Armed Forces of Ukraine. She’s also studying theatre and drama by distance learning at Kyiv University of Culture and Arts.

Dmytro, 21 years old, from Snizhny, Donetsk Oblast. Dmytro’s been at the front for two and a half years. When he learned that his country had been invaded by a foreign power, he enlisted in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Born in an independent Ukraine, Dmytro refuses to live under someone else’s flag. He hopes that soon his country’s flag will flutter over liberated Donbas.

Oleksandr “Kipish”, 21 years old, from Bila Tserkva, Kyiv Oblast. Deployed in the village of Zaitseve near Horlivka, Donetsk Oblast, June 21, 2018. Oleksandr was a student at the Agricultural Academy, majoring in Ecology and Water Resources. He joined the army due to a conflict with the dean. Today, this issue has been resolved and he continues his studies by distance learning.

Vitaliy “Kisa”, 22 years old, from Zhytomyr Oblast. Deployed at Butivka mine, May 10, 2017. He took part in heavy fighting on the outskirts of Avdiyivka in the winter and spring of 2017. Today, he’s completed his military service and works in an automobile service company. [Butivka-Donetska mine is located between Avdiyivka and the city of Donetsk-Ed]

Volodymyr “Sheva”, 21 years old, from Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Deployed near the village of Vodiane near Mariupol, June 11, 2018. Volodymyr has been on the front line for three years. He joined the army at the age of 18, and celebrated his 19th birthday at a military training centre.

Oleksiy, 23 years old, from Zhytomyr. Deployed at the Orel position on the outskirts of Avdiyivka, Donetsk Oblast, April 4, 2017. He took part in heavy fighting near Avdiyivka PromZone in the winter and spring of 2017.

Vasyl “Shpylka”, 19 years old, from Zhytomyr Oblast. Deployed at the Orel position on the outskirts of Avdiyivka, Donetsk Oblast, April 4, 2017. Vasyl took part in heavy fighting near Avdiivka PromZone in the winter and spring of 2017.

Vlad “Scorpion”, 21 years old, from Kyiv. Deployed near Butivka mine, May 10, 2017. Vlad took part in heavy fighting on the outskirts of Avdiyivka, Donetsk Oblast in the winter and spring of 2017.

Andriy, 21 years old, from Yasynuvata, Donetsk Oblast. Deployed near Zholobok, Luhansk Oblast. Andriy has been in the army for a year and a half. He enlisted because he wants to liberate the occupied territories. His dream is to carry the Ukrainian flag through the centre of Donetsk.

Maksym, 24 years old, from Cherkasy. Deployed at the Orel position on the outskirts of Avdiyivka, Donetsk Oblast, April 5, 2017. He took part in heavy fighting near Avdiyivka PromZone in the winter and spring of 2017.

Vasyl, 20 years old, from Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. Vasyl holds the Bethlehem Fire of Peace, which was brought to the front line by volunteers. Deployed near Popasna, Luhansk Oblast, December 28, 2017. After being wounded in the neck by an 8-millimeter AGS fragment, Vasyl returned to the front.

Hero of Ukraine Lieutenant Vasyl Tarasiuk “Typhoon”, 24 years old, from Volyn Oblast. Deployed at the Orel position on the outskirts of Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, April 4, 2017.

Oleksandr “Almaz”, 24 years old, from Sloviansk. Before the anti-terrorist operation (ATO), Oleksandr worked as a bartender. Seeing what was happening in occupied Sloviansk, he joined a volunteer unit in June 2014. He divorced his wife because she couldn’t accept his choice. He has a young daughter. He remarried and his wife is expecting their second child.

“Lazar”, 21 years old, from Shchastia, Luhansk Oblast. Joined the Aidar Battalion. Deployed in Pivdenne, Donetsk Oblast. He went to war at the age of 18. From the very beginning of the war, his whole family helped the army and then enlisted. On August 23, 2018, he was wounded near Zholobok, Luhansk Oblast. Together with his friend “Neiton”, he defended strategic positions taken by the battalion. “Naiton” was killed in combat by enemy machine gun fire.

Dmytro, 22 years old, from Khmelnytsky. Deployed at the Orel position on the outskirts of Avdiyivka, Donetsk Oblast, July 1, 2017. His son was born in the autumn of that year. Dmytro left the army and is now with his family.

Oleksandra, 20 years old, from Kharkiv. Deployed at Bakhmutka checkpoint near Novotoshkivske, Luhansk Oblast, September 20, 2018. Oleksandra dreamt of joining the army since childhood. She studied at a cadet college, and enlisted at the age of 18.

Volodymyr “Zyat”, 18 years old, from Zhovti Vody, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Deployed near the village of Luhansk on Svitlodark Bulge. During heavy mortar shelling, he was wounded in the knees and discharged due to disability.

Serhiy, 19 years old, from Nikopol, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Deployed in Avdiyivka PromZone, June 14, 2018. Serhiy grew up without a father. His mother needed money for the operation, so at the age of 18 he enlisted in the Armed Forces. It was difficult, and after the first rotation in Maryinka, he started hearing “voices”. He was hospitalized, treated and returned to his brigade. Today, he is used to army life and combat.

Oleksiy “Malyy”, 20 years old, from Chernihiv Oblast. Deployed at the front line, on the outskirts of the village of Myronivske on Svitlodarsk Bulge, June 19, 2018. He joined the army as a volunteer at 18. Before the war, he worked as a welder. In Donbas, he met his girlfriend, with whom he lives in a civil partnership. The couple has a month-and-a-half-old daughter.

Serhiy “Tsezar”, 21 years old, from Sambir, Lviv Oblast. Deployed at the front line in Zhovanka near Horlivka, Donetsk Oblast, June 14, 2018. Before the war, he worked as a confectioner. He joined the army and has been fighting for the second year. He says that the army has taught him about life.

The photo project is published with the support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway in Ukraine.

Text: Dariya Bezruchenko

All photos: Anatolii Stepanov

Source: Reporters
Translated by: Christine Chraibi

Enjoy reading Euromaidan Press?  Donate and help us reach even more international readers!

If you care about quality independent journalism, believe in an independent and democratic Ukraine, and like to look deep --

become a patron and be part of the Euromaidan Press community: vote for future articles, suggest topics, keep in touch with the team. For as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month, you will ensure Ukraine's voice keeps sounding in the international arena. Join today! 

Tags: , , ,