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 Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv, thousands of ordinary men and women self-deployed into eastern Ukraine to fight a war against a Russian-backed insurgency. Entirely of their own free will, these individuals were not paid, were not conscripted by the government, and most had no military training. They voluntarily abandoned everything they knew to fight for their homeland, their fellow citizens, their civil rights and their vision for a life free from government corruption.
As this undeclared war nears its sixth year, now under tenuous control of Ukraine’s government, casualties continue to rise on both sides and the global stage has been made aware of the plight. And the 2014 volunteers who shouldered the most violent period of the conflict, they face a new struggle. How can they abandon a war when it’s still ongoing, in such close proximity and without a resolution in sight? How can they begin the process of healing and reintegration when their comrades are still taking up arms and dying a six-hour train ride away? How do they rest when the impetus that caused them to risk everything, that they lost so much for, still looms so large and seemingly in vain?
There are thousands of volunteer men and women who fought or fought and died in 2014 and 2015, 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. To add to this, many remain undocumented for their participation in 2014, and they must fight through red tape in courtrooms for months, if not years, to attempt achieving “combat participant status,” a label that would grant them access to an already severely underequipped and underfunded state veteran support system for the psychological and physical distresses of war, including brain injury. Even within Ukraine’s regular Army, presently, there is no “screening” when a soldier leaves the conflict zone for medical injuries related to the war.
I first came to Ukraine two years ago, a U.S. combat veteran and a photojournalist, inspired to document and preserve a form a patriotism that was so far from my own reality of fighting wars. I live in a world that revered my patriotism for deploying into Afghanistan months after 9/11. But how was I a patriot for simply doing what Uncle Sam told me to do, under contracted obligation? When I met the volunteer veterans, I was simultaneously humbled and blown away. I wanted to preserve their faces and stories in time. But a year into the project, I realized that it was much more than a matter of historic preservation. Their stories need to be told now more than ever, because their stories are so very far from over.
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 16, 2020.