I sit in the back of a camouflaged green van, listening to the suspension groan after every bump. Bob Marley plays over a set of crudely wired speakers, singing of peace and love. We pass the twisted hull of a Ukrainian tank destroyed in an ambush, an attack that claimed the lives of all onboard. The soldier besides me leans over and says, “Now we go to positions.”
My time on the front was not filled with tales of near misses with snipers, or artillery barrages that seemed to go on for eternity. In fact, I have been dealing with an internal dialogue: did I experience enough of the fear, destruction, and chaos that these soldiers have dealt with daily for months, to accurately report?
Instead, my time on Ukraine’s front was one where I saw the frustration and isolation that comes with being a soldier in a war forgotten by global media and the West. The War in Eastern Ukraine enters winter, and draws closer to its second year, but Western political and media attention has moved its gaze to Syria and Turkey.
Ukraine’s war-torn east is one wound that time hasn’t healed, and six months after being signed the Minsk-II cease-fire feels like a poorly applied band-aid. Russian-backed Separatist forces have regularly attacked Ukrainian positions, resulting in the wounding and deaths of many Ukrainian soldiers.
More recently, on the 6th of December, 2015, levels of cease-fire violation in the Donetsk area were comparable to when conflict was at its fiercest. Some days the atmosphere around Donetsk feels like a boiling kettle, but the final whistle isn’t steam, it’s the sound of incoming shells and bullets.
The sound of gunfire regularly echoes throughout the night as I relax with Ukrainian soldiers in a bunker. The walls are lined with bunk beds, each home to a soldier. Weapons are mounted on nails and grenades rest by pillows. A fluffy, spotted cat sleeps on my lap.
One soldier has returned from leave and his friends are celebrating. I ask if he is happy to be back and he replies, “Yes, very. This is my second home.” Another soldier echoes the same sentiment, adding that being here was where he “made real friends.” When I ask about friends outside of the war, they tell me it’s hard, because they “don’t understand.”
They talk about their pasts, look at photos of each other’s families, and share war stories from past battles. They show me grainy videos they have recorded and massed throughout the lengthy war. They all smile and laugh recalling catching fish in a nearby river with grenades.
They talk about the future and their dreams. In excited voices, they discuss returning to friends and family, old jobs, and new hobbies. There was a time recently when thoughts of surviving the war were impossible amidst unrelenting artillery barrages, and rocket strikes launched from kilometres away.
A soldier I spoke with left behind a comfortable office job and life in Italy. He tells me: “When I see the war on my television, Ukrainian people dying … I had to come here. To defend my country. I told my boss I was going on vacation to visit family in Ukraine, but he said, ‘I know what you’re doing you bastard!’ and said no … I went anyway.”
Thousands of lives are held in limbo by a war at stalemate, often called a ‘frozen’ war. And that makes the situation in Ukraine’s east even more compelling. In this frozen war, Ukrainian lives are at risk every single day, from an enemy they can’t see, and danger they can’t predict.
On my last day, as I prepare to leave Ukrainian positions in Donetsk, a soldier approaches and speaks to me. He is part of a team delivering water to positions on the front.
“It is my dream to visit Australia,” he says, “I want to see a Kangaroo! Can you ride them?” He laughs. As our conversation closes and we shake hands goodbye, he says to me, “I hope people will understand this war.”
In muddy, mice-infested trenches, with the sound of war in the distance, I met some of the most kind and caring people I have had the pleasure of knowing. It hurts to think that they may not return home.
Photos & Words By Bryce Wilson
All images were taken in both Pisky & Donetsk, Ukraine.