Volunteer Warriors: Saviors of Ukraine
Ukraine’s Revolutionaries: The Volunteer Warriors of the Donbas
In late November of this year, for the first time since its independence from the Soviet Union, wartime status and martial law was declared in Ukraine. But there are soldiers who have been fighting a war in eastern Ukraine for five years. As a photojournalist and war veteran, I’m committed to telling their stories and bringing awareness to their struggles.
Ukraine’s 2014 volunteer soldiers of the war in the Donbas redefine the very meaning of patriotism. They are a caliber of soldier so far from my reality of military service, a generation of citizens who, of their own free will, without obligation to the government, and many without military training, self-deployed into a warzone to save their country against Russian-backed insurgents when Ukraine’s government stood idle to take action.
Many of these volunteers, some who were only 18 years old at the time, and some who even fled from Russia to join the fight, risked everything to protect their democratic ideals, homeland, and a vision for a Ukraine or life free of government corruption, police brutality, and disregard for civil rights. Now with the war back in the hands of the government, more than ever these soldiers risk slipping through the cracks of a marginalized existence as their country continues to struggle for an identity beyond Russia and corruption.
This year I interviewed several volunteer soldiers in Kyiv and embedded with them in the conflict zone of Ukraine. Through my portraits and their stories, I will honor these soldiers and bring attention to their struggles and to the ongoing and forgotten war in a country teetering on the edge of democratic collapse.
Today, twenty-percent of Ukraine has been illegally annexed and the fighting continues in the Donbas, a five-year, undeclared war before November 2018, sparked by the 2014-2015 Euromaidan Revolution and the annexation of Crimea. Over 1.5 million citizens have been displaced, over 10,000 civilians and soldiers have died, and over 360,000 soldiers have fought and returned home to the “peace-life,” a mere train ride away from the front line, finding the physical and mental proximity to war an inescapable reality. For the undocumented 2014 volunteers, they also return to a broken veteran support system, unable to achieve “combat participant status,” which would grant them access to state-funded support for the psychological and physical distresses of war, including brain injury.
Cease-fire agreements that were established years before the martial law prevent soldiers from relocating to new, safer defensive positions. As a result, daily attacks continue as they did before, the number of casualties increasing every week without any sense of urgency from global leaders to find a resolution to end this war.