Born in independent Ukraine, they are defending its borders—photo project by Anatolii Stepanov
Ukraine celebrates the Day of the Defender. Praying for the living, mourning the deceased. In the seventh year of the war, we have got used to it, but there—in the war zone—they are still holding the borders, they still believe in a just victory. Among those in the military, many were born in independent, post-Soviet Ukraine, so they have no idea what it was like to live in a non-independent country. These young people are defending the only country they know and live in.
Their portraits were presented in a project by Anatoly Stepanov, a documentary photographer from Kyiv who has been photographing the war in the east from the very beginning. Anatoly has collaborated with Reuters, Der Spiegel, The Daily Telegraph, France-Presse, and Radio Liberty. He has a medal For Assistance to the Armed Forces of Ukraine from the Ministry of Defense.
“This war went through me. On April 12, 2014, I was in Donetsk. In the morning, I noticed the news on the internet about the seizure of the regional police department in Sloviansk. It was clearly the beginning of something completely new and different. In four hours we could already see people with machine guns walking around the building of the Sloviansk police department. ‘Wow,’ I thought to myself. ‘This is no rally. This is serious.’ I could feel the danger in my bones.
The next day I went back to take pictures of the blocked off city. Tires were burning at checkpoints. On the way out, I was ordered to move my vehicle away from the line of fire. I turned around, and there was a man in camouflage pointing his machine gun at me. I moved the car, but remained where I was. I talked to the men, asked if I could take photos. It turned out that they were Russians. They came ‘to help the Slavs,’ ‘to protect the Orthodox from the Greek Catholics.’ They said: ‘The National Guard will soon be crossing this bridge, and we will hack them to pieces.’
War changes people, that is obvious. It is impossible to come back from it for good. The war sucks in, one gets used to it. In 2014-15, Avdiivka turned red with anger, but now it seems that many have accepted the current state of affairs. War is dirty. You only think about doing your job. War is brutal. At first, civilians only died because they had no idea how to hide or whether they should.
Back in 2016 a middle-aged soldier said to me: ‘We have to defend the country and let young people stay at home. They must be protected, they are the future of the country.’ Yet, I constantly met young people at the front. They have yet to turn 30, but they are defending Ukraine’s right to go its own way without asking permission from the ‘big brother.’
In the struggle for freedom and honor of their motherland, yesterday’s carefree youth have become adult men and women who clearly understand what they are fighting for and why. For these people it is a truly patriotic war of liberation from Russian aggression.
Back in 2014, I visited the Donbass battalion. They had just liberated Popasna, and were staying in a local school. It was hot that night and we were sleeping on the roof. Until dawn, the whole roof was buzzing. There was such elation. . . They were taking their land back from the enemy! And it was working out! Now that feeling is gone. But our young people are still fighting there for the peaceful dreams of their peers here. And when I feel like it’s all too much, I remember that these boys and girls have seen a lot more than I have. They have lost a lot more than I have. They have done a lot more than I have done. And then I summon my strength and go back there once again.”
[This publication was created with support of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Ukraine. The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Norwegian government].
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