Volunteer Warriors: Saviors of Ukraine
I would like people around the world to know that there is a country called Ukraine. A nation -- Ukrainians that have not been giving up for many centuries and they believe that they have their own path in this world.
Front Line, Peace Life: Ukraine's Revolutionaries of the Forgotten War
Ukraine’s volunteer soldiers redefine the very meaning of patriotism. They are a caliber of soldier so far from my reality of military service and combat deployments, who, of their own free will, without obligation to the government and many without military training, deployed into a war-zone to save their country against Russia when a destabilized Ukrainian government was not quick to respond. 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 homeland or vision for a life free of government corruption. Now as this undeclared war is nearing five years without an end in sight, these volunteers, many who are undocumented as war participants, risk slipping through the cracks of a marginalized existence as their country continues to struggle for an identity beyond Russia and corruption.
In 2018 and 2019, I photographed and conducted oral history recordings with 30 different 2014 volunteer soldiers in Kyiv and embedded with those who are still serving in the eastern part of Ukraine, the Donbas (Joint Field Operation conflict zone), where since 2014 over 1.5 million citizens have been displaced, over 10,000 civilians and soldiers (documented) have died, and over 336,000 soldiers (documented) have fought and returned home to the “peace-life,” a mere train ride or kilometers away from the front line. In U.S. fought wars, soldiers fight in another land and can escape the proximity of combat after deploying and begin to address the physical and mental trauma of their experiences. Ukraine’s soldiers and veterans face an inescapable reality as they fight a war on their own land, making a transition to what they call the “peace life” nearly impossible with the uncertainty of another invasion and no end to the war in sight. For the undocumented 2014 volunteers who fought on the front line, including women who until 2015 by law weren’t allowed to hold positions that were considered “hazardous to their bodies," they must fight through red tape in courtrooms to attempt achieving “combat participant status,” a label that would grant them access to state funded support for the psychological and physical distresses of war, including brain injury.
Cease-fire agreements 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 a sense of urgency from global leaders to find a resolution to end this war.
Through publication and exhibition of this project, I aim to ensure that the contributions of the volunteers are not erased from collective memory, and that we can simultaneously educate the public 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.
Front-line, Peace-life: Ukraine’s Revolutionaries of the Forgotten War will be exhibited at the National Ukrainian Museum of Chicago, opening on May 31st 2019.