Volunteer Warriors: Saviors of Ukraine
"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
Front Line, Peace Life: Ukraine's Revolutionaries of the Forgotten War
Valkyrie. Her war name; in Norse mythology, chooser of the slain in battle. A Russian citizen fighting for Ukraine since she was 18, she stands on a chair around a breakfast table inside of a flat in Kyiv, quiets the youthful brouhaha of the room as she speaks, then pours half of her glass of whiskey to the floor by my feet. The others follow her lead, including myself, because I know what they are doing: honoring the fallen. We’ve done it other times, where these soldiers and veterans of the war in the Donbas, now nearing its fifth year in eastern Ukraine, have come together to congregate, to celebrate, to remember and to forget, and to tell war stories among comrades and even myself, a veteran of two other wars, from an Army in a country so far removed from their reality.
Valkyrie is the face of a generation, of Ukraine’s volunteer soldiers of the war in the Donbas, mostly young men and women who, of their own free will, without obligation to the government and many without military training, deployed into a war-zone to fight against Russian-backed insurgents, risking everything to protect their homeland or vision for a life free of government corruption.
Over the last year, I photographed and conducted oral history recordings with volunteer soldiers in Kyiv and embedded with those who are still serving in the eastern part of Ukraine, the Donbas, where since 2014, over 336,000 soldiers (documented) have fought and returned home to what they have labeled the “peace-life,” a mere train ride or sometimes only kilometers away from the front line. Within my war experience, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, we fought in another land and could escape the proximity of combat after our rotations, to a place where we could address the physical and mental trauma of our experience. But Ukraine’s soldiers and veterans face an inescapable reality, fighting a war on their own land, making a transition to 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.
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, such as the volunteers did in 2014. 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 universal story of the soldier, but also to archive the essence of these fighters who chose a path of sacrifice, driven from solely within. Through publication and exhibition of this project, I want 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.
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.