SURVIVING THE WAR – LIFE ON UKRAINES FRONTLINES
In 2014 Eastern Ukraine's identity crisis and the resulting social divide reached critical mass, sparking a civil war between Ukranian Nationalist forces and Pro-Russian separatists. Sitting upon the world's largest stockpile of cold war era weapons and fueled by passionate nationalism this young conflict quickly outgrew its state-driven agenda – the price of which was, as always, paid by the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Since its outbreak, the war has been defined by the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, the annexation of Crimea and haunting images of Euromaidan – while the stories of those trapped on the frontlines remain in the shadows, obscured by the chaos and the murky waters of war. Today 19-year-old documentary photographer Samuel Eder takes us into the lives of those left scraping by in the midst of Europe’s only war, documenting what has been lost and the hopes for a brighter future.
At first glance the city of Mariinka is unremarkable; children play in parks, grandmothers sell vegetables on street corners and cats lay sprawled out in the afternoon sun, it is awfully peaceful – except it isn't. Located only 1.5km from separatist entrenchments it's a stone’s throw from the frontlines, the familiar scars of war hidden beneath the facade of everyday life. Buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes, playgrounds disfigured by shrapnel and the sound of machine gun fire echos through the streets – the balance between life and war is eerie, often separated by only a few meters.
On the outskirts of town, the sheer intensity of fighting becomes clear, the last row of buildings absorbing nearly all incoming fire, the local orphanage/community center was among the hardest hit. What was once the beating heart of Mariinka is now completely uninhabitable, the library, gym, and cinema remain riddled with unexploded ordnance and separatist booby traps.
Alina Kosse, the former director of the ‘Art Center for Children and Youth’ recalls night it was overthrown by separatist forces.
However despite having lost her mother, countless friends and career to the conflict Alina can't help but smile as she describes the unexpected side effects of the war. "When the shooting starts the factories close and everyone bands together. Now we have grandmothers and mother attending their children's classes, the dads have even joined the local choir. This whole ordeal has made us better people, a better community”.
While towns like Mariinka were caught in the crossfire, the village of Opytne was directly targeted – leaving no community left to band together. Once home to over 4000 people, the town of Opytne is now virtually lifeless, with only a handful of elderly residents continuing to live within its decimated remains. Located only a few hundred meters from Donetsk Airport its seen some of the most devastating and relentless artillery fire of the war, serving as a long-standing Ukranian military stronghold.
Raisa Denysenko, a longtime resident of Opytne sits in her kitchen, counting down from 6, the unmistakable crack of separatist mortar fire has ripped through the countryside a moment before. We tensely wait for the inevitable impact, not knowing if the incoming bomb will land a block away or right on top of our heads. The fear in her eyes it very real, having already been hit twice by stray artillery shells – almost costing her life.
For Raisa the relentless downpour of munitions isn't the most devastating consequence of the war, rather the impassable border created by the frontline itself. What was once a brief stroll across a field is now mine-ridden no-mans-land, separating her from her two children and their grandchildren who live in separatist occupied Donetsk. Despite living on the Ukrainian side, and coming under daily fire from separatist forces she supports the fight for a pro-Russian state. However to her, like many other civilian separatists, the method and resulting human cost of the fight for independence far outweighed its benefits, negating the freedom it once pursued.
In spite of her dire situation Raisa, like her neighbors are anything but somber, refusing to let the harsh reality of the frontlines deaden her enthusiasm for life. Rather than seeing a horizon of destroyed houses, she sees an endless supply of spare parts to repair and even upgrade her own. Today her pride and joy, and virtually only source of food is the family of goats which peruse the overgrown streets and gardens for food.
The disease of war extends far beyond the range of artillery shells and sniper fire, the whole Eastern front riddled by its symptoms. While it may not be peppered with bullet holes Druzhkovka nursing home is as much a product of the war as the minefields and decimated villages. The final refuge for those who have nowhere else to go this donation run institute is filled with people who lost their homes, life’s savings and family at the hands of the war. Among it, residents are Ukrainians and Russians alike, teachers, nurses, soldiers, and Chernobyl liquidators – all condemned to the same ill fate.
Many lie partially paralyzed in beds, undiagnosed illnesses eating away at their bodies and minds. And, with little-to-no medical attention, diseases such as Polio are left to run their course. Those who still can speak talk of their life before the war, about lost families and loved ones. The atmosphere is overrun with a deadening sense of hopelessness. Devoid of the adrenaline pumping fear inherent to the frontlines, the communal unity grown in the face of adversity or the distracting fight for survival the true meaninglessness of the war becomes clear.
Life along the frontlines has taken on many different forms, evoking a wide gamut of human behavior in the face of hardship. Today, after more than 5 years the war has lost much of the glory and appeal it once bore. Both sides growing tired of the ever-growing pile of bodies, economic impact and civilian casualties – leaving an already torn country even more split. Despite the ever-growing divides between and within pro-separatist and Ukrainian nationalist ideologies, one thing is clear – this war was lost long ago.
Now the future of both states, and those trapped between rest in the hands of politicians tasked with diffusing a very complicated civil uprising – and hopefully with the new direction, and overwhelming support of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky the days of fighting are numbered.
Until then, young men and women will continue to die fighting for an already blood drenched soviet history and the elderly will spend their last years paying for their children’s mistakes on the frontlines of Europe’s forgotten war.