The Donbas war is all in the pale, waxy face of Yaroslava Nykonenko, thirty-six years old, red nail polish, long and sharp black eyelashes that appear between the raised collar of the camouflage and the ordinance beret.
She smiles is in the portrait next to her, a photo taken four years ago when she joined the army after the death of her father, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, killed at the Donbas front by pro-Russian. In mid-October separarist sniper turned off her smile forever, one more victim of a conflict that in six years caused over thirteen thousand casualties, more than two million displaced and thousands injured. An immense crowd followed Yaroslava’s last voyage through the dilapidated streets of Myrhorod, her hometown, kneeling in dismay as the funeral passed by, with no words or tears left to cry.
The Ukrainian war has Denys’ glassy, worn eyes; he’s about twenty years old, has a thick beard and fever cracked lips. A month now, he is trying to find some peace in Pushcha Vodytsia, a shelter erected in the middle of an immense forest of pines and birches. Wrapped in faded sheets, Denys searches the crumpled velvet chair for medicines to ward off the nightmares that are haunting him since long: the hiss of tracers, the roar of mortars, the cold, the fear. But above all the vivid faces of the companions he lost last winter in Mariupol, on the south front, at the redoubt of Shyrokyne. Denys made it, he is back, his body is weak but without trace of scars or mutilations; but he is wounded as well, his psyche and his soul hit with deep, excruciating injuries: “Post-traumatic stress disorder”, whispers the doctor, is the plague that is destroying the lives of thousands of veterans, the Donbas lost generation.
The Ukrainian conflict is in the pale faces of the young cadets who swear the oath under the severe gaze of Vladimir the Great, the holy patron of the country. They parade under the statue, line up in front of it geometrically, in perfect silence. But they look lost and their wide uniforms and large hats make them even smaller than they are.
They swear, then receive the red insignia and older comrades secure it on their abundant ordinance coats. Finally, they march to the monument that once was called the Arch of Friendship, a gigantic Soviet heritage conceived to celebrate the brotherhood with Russia. Water under the bridge, the same water that flow placidly in the Dnipro river, and then widen in a thousand rivulets to the east, towards the endless plains of the Donbas now occupied by the Russians.
The tragedy of the Donbas is all in the dull smiles of the widows and the orphans that every day crowd the Yarmiz recovery center. In a anonymous building just a short walk from the center of Kyiv, Nataly Prilutska and her volunteers organize activities to help their guests to recover. Among them there is the little Zakhar with his mother Alena. Alexey, his father, died in 2015 in the Battle of Debaltseve: for months his family waited for his return, hoping he had been imprisoned by the Russians. Then the tragic news arrived with a medal of valor, shining, sad tribute to his memory. Here Zakhar and Alena are searching some relief. And here they find above all the energies of Nataly and of the dozens of young people who, with few means at their disposal, face the tragedy of the survivors, uncertain, embarrassing legacy of any conflict.
The war is the thousands of Ukrainians that proudly paraded on October 14 for the Defender of the homeland Day. In the capital nearly fifteen thousand patriots – women, men, children – gathered in the Maidan, icon of the Revolution of Dignity that in 2013 made the pro-Russian president Yanukovych flee from the country, giving way to the Russian occupation of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk.
At the head of the parade there were them, the veterans and the volunteers of the battalions committed to curbing the conflict that Europe insists on ignoring, despite being fought on its borders. They marched peacefully chanting slogans against President Zelenskyy’s decision to withdraw the army to negotiate peace with Putin, a feared prelude to the Ukrainian capitulation in Donbas, a dramatic epilogue to the secession already suffered in the Crimea. While the diplomacy plays its last doubtful cards – on the front people still die, day after day, in an endless trickle: Yaroslava Nykonenko – killed by the pro-Russian on 15 October 2019 – left a daughter who is thirteen years old.
Roberto Travan is professional journalist and independent photographer who specializes in war and social reportage. He followed the conflict in Afghanistan embedded with the Isaf military mission. In Kosovo – aggregate to NATO Kfor contingent – he documented the ethnic tensions between the Serbian and Albanian communities. In the Central African Republic he talked about the clashes between anti-Balaka and Muslim Séléka Christians. Since 2015 Travan has been involved in the Donbas conflict in Ukraine. The same year he made the first of two photo shoots on the conflict in Nagorno- Karabakh, the Caucasian Republic which declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1992. He also followed the popular protests in Armenia and Tunisia, and documented the daily life of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. His reports have been published mainly by La Stampa – a newspaper where he has been working since 1989 – and translated into several languages. He participated in the Fujifilm X Vision Tour 2017 with the photo exhibition Nagorno-Karabakh: the peace can wait displayed in Milan, Bologna, Palermo, Bari and Rome. In 2018 Travan made Arma il prossimo tuo, a photographic research to investigate the relationship between religions and conflicts in the world: the exhibition – organized with Paolo Siccardi and the support of Fujifilm Italia – was exhibited at the National Museum of the Risorgimento in Turin and the Lodi Festival of Ethical Photography. In 2019 he made the photo exhibition Twelve shots from Donbas hosted in Rome at the Numen Concept Space. The same year he exhibited Donbas, Ukraine: the border of truth at the Palazzo delle Arti in Naples. Travan won the TIPA Gold Award – category: Publishing / Conflict – at the Tokyo International Foto Award 2018 with the photo of a Ukrainaian soldier taken in Donbas. In 2019 the same image won an Honorable Mention at the International Photography Awards, category: Press, World / Conflict.
The article was originally published at La Stampa.