Frontline, Peace Life Statement
"Let’s say that it’s our war, because it’s our territory, we live here. No one feels this war as we do. We’ll be the last ones to finish." - Ed Hatmullin
Frontline, Peace–Life: Ukraine's Revolutionaries of the Forgotten War
In 2014, following the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, thousands of men and women, mostly young students, self-deployed into eastern Ukraine (the Donbas) to fight as volunteers in a war against Russian aggression. Entirely of their own free will, these volunteers were not paid, had no obligation to the government, and most had no military training. They risked everything to protect their homeland, civil rights and a vision for a life free of government corruption.
As this undeclared war moves into its sixth year, stalemated under inaction of world leaders while casualties continue to rise on both sides, these volunteers face a new struggle. How do they abandon a war when it is still ongoing, without a resolution in sight, and in such close proximity––only a six-hour train-ride and sometimes just a few kilometers away? How can they begin the process of healing and reintegration into civilian society when everything they risked their lives for and lost so much for seems to be looming in vain?
For almost two years, I've been photographing and conducting oral history recordings with these volunteer soldiers, in Kyiv and within the conflict zone, where since 2014, over 4,500 Ukrainian soldiers have died and over 360,000 have fought and returned home to what they have labeled the “peace-life.” But these figures only account for soldiers who were formally registered in the Ukrainian Armed Forces or in volunteer battalions that were eventually integrated under Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense after a destabilized government (following the exile of then-president Victor Yanukovych in February 2014) rushed to send contracts and reestablish order. There are thousands of men and women, many still unaccounted for, who fought or fought and died in 2014 and 2015, during the most violent seasons of the conflict, before it turned to the trench style warfare of World War I that it remains today. Many who survived continue to serve on the frontline, not able to find their place within the “peace-life.” Many are discovering that they are not able to abandon a purpose that they and their fallen comrades risked everything for in the beginning. For those who survived who are still undocumented, they must fight through red tape in courtrooms to attempt achieving “combat participant status,” a label that would grant them access to an already underequipped and underfunded state veteran support system for the psychological and physical distresses of war, including brain injury.
I left my last warzone as a soldier 15 years ago, but over time found myself drawn to a conflict on another land, to the community of the soldier and a sense of purpose that comes from within myself instead of from higher. War-fighters around the world share a commonality that transcends the boundaries of nation and conflict, and I’m dedicated not only to unmask the faces and stories of these soldiers, but to tell a story about the ongoing war in the Donbas, about those who continue to fight it, and about Ukraine's status as a country fighting for its independence, in the middle of Europe, in the 21st century.
Frontline, Peace Life: Ukraine’s Revolutionaries of the Forgotten War will exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York City, opening on January 9, 2020.