Documenting Ukraine’s front line takes time. By bribing a train conductor, I was allowed take a cramped seven-hour overnight train from Kiev. Upon arriving in Dnipropetrovsk at 6AM I was met by a team of Ukrainian army officers. With them, the drive to the so-called “ATO” (Anti Terrorism Operation), as the war is called in Ukraine, takes another three hours. The crumbling roads leading to the ATO look war-damaged, but have been nearly un-driveable since well before the Euro-Maidan Revolution ignited this war in Europe.
On this frosty February morning, waiting patiently for a photojournalist on the platform of Dnipropetrovsk station, Lieutenant-Colonel Igor and Sergeant Artem immediately betray the condition of the Ukrainian army facing modern Russian weapons. Their uniforms are mismatched hand-me-downs from western allies, one wearing British camouflage, another German field-gear. Their shoulders are even still emblazoned with the Union Jack and German flag respectively, though both have matching Ukrainian flags sewn on the other shoulder.
“Just yesterday we got this new car to replace our old one. It was a van, but now we have this, much faster”, says Igor as he drives out from the city towards the war three hours east. “A gift from Holland, from the government. But they won’t send us weapons.” The gift is a mid-90s Passat, now taped with military markings, filled with humanitarian supplies for displaced families, and also military kit. I have to admit, a rocket launcher sitting casually on the passenger seat of a VW is a disconcerting sight. It’s made worse by terrible roads that send the car bouncing, as if tempting the weapon to go off with each pothole.
Igor and Artem are shuttling food and medical supplies to members of the Ukrainian Army’s “CIMIC Unit” – a unit formed to supply civilians and soldiers with crucial items. It means they drive up the front lines daily, encountering displaced residents and exhausted frontline troops. Whether citizen or soldier in the ATO, both now rely on the donated goods that sit in the Passat. The army supplements its supplies with offerings from Ukrainian aid groups to keep its soldiers fed on the line. It is a military with a government so broke that it can’t properly feed it own men without private contributions.
Driving across the Ukrainian Steppe reveals a barren countryside, a wide, flat expanse without the slightest hill to break the frosted horizon. Arriving at the front line, the normally dismal Steppe becomes harsher still: earth pockmarked from artillery strikes and reduced to mud by manœuvring tanks, crossed with freshly dug trenches and dotted with bunkers. It’s a scene out of World War One, complete with soldiers cooking in the mud and peering over sandbag trenches with periscopes.
This site stretches the length of both the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, as the government seals off not just the active ATO area, but both entire Oblasts at their western borders with the rest of Ukraine. This is witnessed at the many checkpoints encountered when driving east into Donetsk, passable only with an ATO-Press Pass and military personnel. The army lets residents out, but few can go in – entire regions are being secured to minimize civilian casualties in the event of further conflict. Even residents who have fled the fighting and who try to return home to gather belongings are turned back at the checkpoints. Meanwhile, busses of refugees sit at the checkpoints, waiting for passport checks to let them head west towards the refugee havens of Kahrkiv, Kiev and Lviv.
On the line-of-contact with the pro-Russian separatists, the Ukrainians live in constant fear of snipers. Soldiers Igor and Artem repeatedly pointed at tall church steeples or factory roofs, saying, “We have one rule, if we say move, then you move fast, because there’s a sniper and we aren’t getting shot for a photographer.” Moving fast is hard with a 12 kilo flack vest, helmet, three cameras and a bag full of lenses – body armour isn’t graceful. Despite no apparent snipers, running out of the Dutch Passat to the closest bunker was a still a must at every stop we made to visit with frontline soldiers.
The soldiers of the 28th motorized infantry brigade in the ruined town of Marinka saw a running photographer as a welcome amusement from the relative monotony of preparing their positions and keeping constant watch for a renewed enemy advance. Recent combat has given way to a kind of high-stress boredom at the front amid the shaky ceasefire. Waiting for a potential separatist attack between shattered houses only adds to the tension and the soldiers’ anxiety. “It won’t last. This is not likely a long break, so we must use the time to prepare for more war”, said a young soldier from 9 Company, as they stocked a basement-turned-bunker with boxes of ammunition. Sitting underground only 400 meters from the separatists, they look uneasy in their Polish army kit while trying to relax on chairs. The young infantrymen are lead by Commander Andry, nicknamed “the German”, who rather appropriately does not like a photographer breaking the efficient routine of his men. He’s been a professional soldier since the Soviet Union and is now fighting his first war against men who at one time would have been comrades. “I don’t hate the men on the other side, they are just doing their jobs like I am. It’s politics.”
Further up the line at “Station 9”, the Passat of the CIMIC unit is met first with raised guns on approach, then eventually happy waves. The prize item the car holds isn’t food or even the new long underwear in the trunk, but newspapers. Anything to pass the time while the ceasefire holds.
The bunkers and trenches of Station 9 have been home to the men of 6 Company for over three months. This mechanized unit has two Armoured Personnel Carriers and an aging anti-tank gun at its disposal. The APC’s are buried into trenches so that only the guns protrude above the mud, pointing towards an enemy visible across a kilometre of Steppe. The anti-tank gun is already locked onto a separatist position, ready to be fired. Commander “Storm”, as his men call him, recalls, “We were last shelled on February, Friday the 13th, which seems fitting. But they didn’t hit us directly, the Russians can’t aim.”
Nonetheless, smoke is rising in the distance from a supposed artillery volley, an indiscriminate firing meant to intimidate more than hit a specific target. It is ignored as the men take their papers behind sandbags to read with pan-fried breakfast. The scene cements a new status quo of holding the line from entrenched positions while the immediate region remains uninhabitable and disputed.
At night, over coffees heated with a wood fire furnace in a metal bunker, Artme and Igor reveal the other duties of their unique CIMIC unit: driving the remains of dead soldiers to morgues. Between taking sips and making calls home, they show mobile phone pictures of their fallen comrades in body bags. An odd thing about fighting a war within one’s own country is that the soldiers can simply call home every evening to wish their families goodnight from their mobiles. It makes the trench settings all the more surreal, seeing soldiers call home as if simply working late.
Also surreal is the return to Kiev. Before boarding the night train, Artem and Igor insist on using this time in the city to eat something proper: McDonalds. Together, at midnight, two wartime officers of the Ukrainian army revel in drive-through luxury, opting for several double cheeseburgers each.
On the train, the city lights flash through the window as the train leaves Dnipropetrovsk for the darkness of the Steppe. The camera bag is tied to my leg for fear of thieves while I sleep, the man on the lower cot is snoring as the smell of McDonald’s fries fills the cabin. Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Colonel Igor and Sergeant Artem drive their Passat back on Ukraine’s crumbling roads that lead either to war or ceasefire and frozen conflict.
Christopher Bobyn is a Canadian photo journalist living in Europe. He is a frequent contributor to FrontLine.
© 2015 FrontLine Defence