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Salcininkai, Lithuania’s Polish and Russian-speaking city is only five kilometers from Belarus. In the backdrop of ‘Zapad 2017’ military exercises across the border, Lithuanian government government has finger-pointed at the the substantial Russian-speaking minority for being susceptible to separatism, and held multiple military exercises in the region.
In turn, however, they have demonised the vulnerable population, suffering from depopulation and social exclusion.
In April, 2017, unannounced snap drills in the area became the center of controversy. Armed men in military fatigues took over the local police station and institutions with little resistance from the unprepared security forces. Political fallout from these exercises continue to this day.
Additionally, the voting patterns in Salcininkai and Lithuanian peripheries along the 670 kilometer border with Belarus are firmly with the pro-Kremlin, Polish minority party.
I visited the area to speak to the local people, who are mostly ignored in the public discourse, and explore some of the underlying issues in the region.
Some layouts of Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad with my photostories from war-torn Eastern Ukrain, Donbass.
February, 2017. The front line town Avdiivka, Donetsk region, has been the epicenter of a recent escalation in fighting. At least eight civilians died here in January alone, as the humanitarian crisis worsened with heating and electricity cut off. Temperatures dropped to -8 degrees at night in unheated buildings. This hole was left by artillery fire in 2014, and a home of a local man — who didn’t want to be named — was completely destroyed in February.
Oksana Sidorenko leaves her frontline home in Marinka. Trenches are less than 100 meters away and her home gets routinely sprayed with shrapnel.
Apartment block destroyed by a Grad rocket-artillery in Marinka, Donetsk region. The building was destroyed in the early stages of the war, in 2014.
Pavel Chistokletov is the head of a local construction crew in Marinka. His own apartment was destroyed in the shelling.
Destroyed apartment block in Marinka, Donetsk region. Pavel's apartment can be seen on the first floor. Graffiti reads in Russian: "What for?"
Yura Nogin repairs war-damaged buildings in Marinka, where he now lives with Oksana Sidorenko, whom he met while serving with an artillery detachment in the town.
An apartment under complete refurbishment in Marinka, Donetsk region.
Oksana Sidorenko smokes in front of her home. Metal plate is bolted to the living room window; shrapnel holes have punctured some other windows in the house.
An apartment block destroyed by artillery fire in Marinka. A U.N.-funded program tears down badly-damaged apartment blocks to be rebuilt, while those with only moderate damage are refitted by local construction crews.
Oksana's neighbour receives fire extuingusher supplied by international volunteers. Because of it, a number of house fires were later extuingished, when set alight by shrapnel. "Bullets missed twice when repairing something on the roof," she added.
Oksana Sidorenko, Artiom’s mother, sprints across a sniper corridor in Marinka in the Donetsk region. Reminiscent of scenes from the siege of Sarajevo, residents must sprint across a street, as Russian-backed separatists continue to fire from positions directly in front. So far, two civilians have been hit, two soldiers killed and many more have experienced near-misses, according to locals.
February, 2017. Child runs past sandbagged windows in a frontline school in Marinka, Donetsk region. Signposts on the wall direct the children to an underground bunker, where they routinely have to hide from artillery shelling. Additional coloured stickers indicate if the wall is safe to hide behind, if artillery shelling takes place.
February, 2017. Yura Nogin repairs war-damaged buildings in Marinka, Donesk region, where he now lives with Oksana Sidorenko, whom he met while serving with an artillery detachment in the town.
Oksana's son Artiom, 14, watches a film inside his front line home in Marinka in the Donetsk region. Just 10 minutes earlier, a fragment of a shell fell in the backyard. The house is dotted with bullet holes from a sniper position directly opposite. The separatist positions are less than 300 meters away and the Ukrainian military are 50 meters away.
February, 2017. A Ukrainian marine sits inside a makeshift dining hall near Mariupol in Donetsk region. The Ukrainian military has experienced significant levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, which goes largely untreated.
February, 2017. A lone civilian walks on a road near Marinka in the Donetsk region, which has seen near-constant heavy fighting in the last three years. With key infrastructure and transport links destroyed, civilians are often trapped between the front lines
Destroyed industrial building in Luhansk region, September, 2016.
Donbass steppes in Luhansk region, September, 2016.
September, 2016. Konstantine Zarubin sits in his grandparents' home - two floors below the home of his best friend, Edek. In 2014, Edek was killed by a landmine as the boys climbed in a quarry. When trying to seek psychological support, his school headmaster called Konstantine 'weak'.
September, 2016. Pavel Albulov shows the deep scar in the center of his forehead, left behind after a booby-trap went off after opening the door to a house in Troitske, Luhansk region. He went inside to feed the animals left behind by the fleeing neighbours.
A team from the Ukrainian Army recovers the remains of a soldier killed in action from a grave in a field near the city of Debaltsevo. The remains are moved to a facility where DNA testing is carried out to determine the soldier’s identity. Once an identity is confirmed the remains are turned over to family members.
Completed over the course of three trips to Ukraine in 2014/15, this multimedia piece explores the heavy silence of war - away from the war porn of frontline fighting and Western-Russain power plays. With Ukraine slipping back into the corrupt era of Yanukovich, the anxious wait for reforms, true independence and peace continues.
“Exit,” Semyonovka Psychiatric Hospital.
Shells land 20 kilometers away. Four months later, in January 2016, a separatist rocket attack a few blocks away kills 30 civilians.
Separatists’ diversionary raid on a railway bridge leaves passenger trains stranded in Mariupol, Donetsk region. After many months of idleness, the bridge was finally repaired.
[Radio chatter] Separatist positions report ‘111’ – ‘All clear’. Other call signs are ‘110’ – we’re being attacked; and ‘112’ – We’re attacking. It is believed, that the previously stationed Chechens and Don Cossacks have been replaced with regular Russian military combatants.
Ukrainian street musicians perform a song by a
Russian rock band, ‘Splin’
I want to fall asleep and never wake up
go away into the sea and not come back
or come back, but together
With you so much more interesting
with you so many interesting things around
and not even tight (suffocating)
Without the squares, railway stations, stops
without all these civilisations
One more sip - and we’re on fire
on one, two, three
Burn with fire, your third Rome
catch my rhythm
and dance, dance, dance, dance
The patrol passes along the village streets, dotted by drunk civilians and military personnel – a sign not so uncommon even before the war. Somewhere in the vicinity, a high ranking Ukrainian officer was assaulted and kidnapped with his armed escort a week before.
Musicians play in Kyiv metro, September, 2015.
Sergei sits during night watch on the Permovaisk frontline, prepping his gun at the slightest noise in the distance; remains of an exploded 80mm mortar shell is a few meters away. In the morning, his face bathes in the warmth of a late summer’s sunrise.
“What a beautiful day, we all woke up alive.”
Sergei died on September 23rd during a skirmish, one day before he was due to return home.
September, 2015. Sergei sits during night watch in Zolote, Luhansk region, prepping his gun at the slightest noise in the distance; remains of an exploded 80mm mortar shell is a few meters away. In the morning, his face bathes in the warmth of a late summer’s sunrise – “What a beautiful day, we all woke up alive.” Sergei died on September 23 during a skirmish, one day before he was due to return home.
“I came here to replace the guys who have been here for months without rotation, so someone can go home - not because I’m some big Ukrainian patriot,” says Vladislav, stationed in Zolote.
Even before the war, the old mining village was poor, with crumbling buildings dotting the streets. Now, with even less people remaining, pensioners gather for a daily market - made up of 5 stalls, overshadowed by a modest Lenin statue. Three blocks away, Ukrainian soldiers occupy the vacant houses, which are shelled on a nightly basis.
“One year ago, the commander put tanks in the first line, as if it was the Second World War; now you have accurate weapons – the whole crew died,” says one of the commanders.
The decrepit reminder of the war ruins the beautiful vista over the steppes of Donbas. Yet, the war is still on going, the steppes are the buffer zone, and the current trenches still scar the landscape, two meters behind the tank.
August, 2015. The bomb-damaged Lenin statue seen through the window of a Ukrainian aroured personell carrier in Popasne, Luhansk region.
September, 2016.“I came here to replace the guys who have been here for months without rotation, so someone can go home - not because I’m some big Ukrainian patriot,” says Vladislav, stationed in Zolote, Luhansk region.
September, 2015. The decrepit reminder of the war in Zolote, Luhansk region, ruins the beautiful vista over the Donbass steppes. Yet, the war is still on going, the steppes are the buffer zone, and the current trenches still scar the landscape, two meters behind the tank.
Away from the headlines of Western-Russian power plays and war porn of frontline fighting; away from boys with a cause, imperial ambitions and the spectacle of war. What’s left is the chilling wait and anxiety. The sluggish nightmare immerses anyone unlucky enough to be caught up close – families stuck in the buffer zones, blaming elusive fascists,
as their men fight for the elusive Russians. The nightly grind of staring into the darkness of a frozen conflict, confined to the trench and radio transmitting enemy reports of your own movements; the sweeping apathy back home.
While Ukraine is slipping back into the corrupt era of Yanukovich, Eastern Ukraine is trapped in a disaster, which shows no signs of letting go. The anxious wait for reforms, true independence and peace continues.
The night passes peacefully, with sporadic pot-shots fired from the opposing lines; the Ukrainians do not respond. Without appropriate night-vision gear, the watch is spent chewing through bags of seeds – siemki, and a constant flow of tea and, if available, coffee.