EuropeStoryDmitri Beliakov ; Ukraine – Rigid Defense

The war has transformed a landscape of industrial cities and farmland into a rigid battlefield, a patchwork of cratered front lines and a cast of zealous fighters manning them.

In 2014-2015, with eastern Ukraine swept up in an armed conflict, close to a million people fled from the region…

The war has transformed a landscape of industrial cities and farmland into a rigid battlefield, a patchwork of cratered front lines and a cast of zealous fighters manning them. On both sides of the lines, the danger and drudgery of more than a year of fighting has pushed men to their physical and psychological limits. As weeks went by, the fighters on both sides became ever more zealous, certain that their war is righteous.

Among those left behind, trapped in the war zone, were the most vulnerable: the elderly, the ill, and the poor. Those living close to the front lines spent months on end hiding in basements or bomb shelters in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Many of those shelters had neither electricity, no heat, nor potable water. Volunteers tried to evacuate people but many were too sick or too frightened to leave.

Elderly woman and her grandson in a bomb shelter in Donetsk, February 09 2015, Eastern Ukraine.
Elderly woman and her grandson in a bomb shelter in Donetsk, February 09 2015, Eastern Ukraine.

"Grad" missiles seen fired by the separatists, during attack on Ukrainian town of Debaltsevo. The battle for strategically important railway junction Debaltsevo was one of the fiercest of the entire war in Eastern Ukraine and resulted in a defeat for the Ukrainian army, Ukraine, Wednesday, February 17 2015. Photographer: Dmitry Beliakov/ for Der Spiegel
“Grad” missiles seen fired by the separatists, during attack on Ukrainian town of Debaltsevo.
The battle for strategically important railway junction Debaltsevo was one of the fiercest of the entire war in Eastern Ukraine and resulted in a defeat for the Ukrainian army, Ukraine, Wednesday, February 17 2015. Photographer: Dmitry Beliakov/ for Der Spiegel

In violation of the laws of law, government and Russia-backed rebel forces extensively used cluster munitions and other indiscriminate weapons in densely populated areas, and civilians took the brunt of it.
Many elderly people were killed or wounded or lost their homes and livelihood as a result of indiscriminate shelling. So as explosions shook up the world outside, they stayed on, hiding from shelling in dark, damp, freezing basements, with very little food and practically no medical aid. The civilians’ tragedy is due to be studied and investigated properly by the fact finding missions. At this time complete civilian casualty figures are hard to determine…

A trolley-bus, destroyed by the artillery strike seen on the railway station' square, center of Donetsk, which was subjected to artillery bombardment by the Ukrainian army, which has blocked the city, hoping to take it under control. August 30, 2014, Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine
A trolley-bus, destroyed by the artillery strike seen on the railway station’ square, center of Donetsk, which was subjected to artillery bombardment by the Ukrainian army, which has blocked the city, hoping to take it under control. August 30, 2014, Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine

The war in the East of Ukraine has been accompanied by a remarkable propaganda push by Kremlin. The Russian population was effectively brainwashed by the Kremlin-controlled media, which acted in cynical, Soviet style. True “information war” was launched, where Ukraine was described as a “state of new-born fascists..”

Period from May 2014 to October 2015 I have spent 32 weeks altogether in the East of Ukraine. I did my best to stay as neutral as possible and tried hard to build relationships, make contacts, which enabled me to see and cover the conflict from all sides – the Ukrainian government troops and from the Kremlin-backed separatist forces. But mainly i focused on those who left behind.

A fighter of "Donbas" battalion dodging sniper' bullets beside a ruin of ex-sanatorium, destroyed by the Russian artillery, June 26 2015, Shirokino, East of Ukraine
A fighter of “Donbas” battalion dodging sniper’ bullets beside a ruin of ex-sanatorium, destroyed by the Russian artillery, June 26 2015, Shirokino, East of Ukraine

These photographs, which were taken over a series of 16 months, explore the fanaticism that has driven the largest war in Europe in a generation. They examine the transformative effects of war on both the pro-government and separatist fighters. As a window into life on the front lines, they evoke memories of another war a century ago, when soldiers for the first time endured terrible hardships in the trenches, unable to push forward but unwilling to retreat. [Official Website]

Separatist fighters checking their ammo on the frontline nearby Yasenovataya town, September 03 2015, Yasenovataya, East of Ukraine
Separatist fighters checking their ammo on the frontline nearby Yasenovataya town, September 03 2015, Yasenovataya, East of Ukraine

Ukrainian fighter engaged in battle with pro-Russian separatists on the frontline at Shirokino site, June 24th 2015, East of Ukraine, Photographer: Dmitri Beliakov
Ukrainian fighter engaged in battle with pro-Russian separatists on the frontline at Shirokino site, June 24th 2015, East of Ukraine,

Ukrainian battalion "Donbas" Ukraine/ Separatist's Areas Debaltsevo Surrender to the Pro-Russian Rebels Mariupol Under Attack DmitriBeliakov-Ukraine 011 Debaltsevo Surrender to the Pro-Russian Rebels

Remnants of cluster munition rocket lay in the yard of densely populated area after battle for Debaltsevo town, Eastern Ukraine, February 20 2015 Photographer: Dmitri Beliakov/ for The Sunday Times
Remnants of cluster munition rocket lay in the yard of densely populated area after battle for Debaltsevo town, Eastern Ukraine, February 20 2015. Photographer: Dmitri Beliakov/ for The Sunday Times

The battle for strategically important railway junction Debaltsevo was one of the fiercest of the entire war in Eastern Ukraine. Elderly pair on their way back to their house in Debaltsevo after picking up relief aid, Debaltsevo, Eastern Ukraine, February 20 2015 Photographer: Dmitri Beliakov/ for The Sunday Times
The battle for strategically important railway junction Debaltsevo was one of the fiercest of the entire war in Eastern Ukraine. Elderly pair on their way back to their house in Debaltsevo after picking up relief aid, Debaltsevo, Eastern Ukraine, February 20 2015
Photographer: Dmitri Beliakov/ for The Sunday Times

Patients of Donetsk hospice, which was subjected to artillery bombardment and war hardships at the time of active fighting, August 26th 2015, Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine Photographer: Dmitri Beliakov
Patients of Donetsk hospice, which was subjected to artillery bombardment and war hardships at the time of active fighting, August 26th 2015, Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine

Ukraine/ Separatist's Areas Ukraine/ Separatist's Areas Bomb-shelter Ukraine/ Separatist's Areas DmitriBeliakov-Ukraine 020 Debaltsevo Surrender to the Pro-Russian Rebels Debaltsevo Surrender to the Pro-Russian Rebels DmitriBeliakov-Ukraine 023 Ukraine/ Separatist's Areas

"Gunter", a fighter of Ukrainian volunteer National Guard battalion "Donbas" with bullets around his neck, June 24th 2015, East of Ukraine
“Gunter”, a fighter of Ukrainian volunteer National Guard battalion “Donbas” with bullets around his neck, June 24th 2015, East of Ukraine

Colonel "Gal", the Commander of Ukrainian volunteer Special Force National Guard battalion "Donbas" sending final instructions to his fighters before night raid to the frontline.
Colonel “Gal”, the Commander of Ukrainian volunteer Special Force National Guard battalion “Donbas” sending final instructions to his fighters before night raid to the frontline.

Ukrainian battalion "Donbas" Ukrainian battalion "Donbas" Ukraine/ Separatist's Areas Ukraine/ Separatist's Areas Ukraine/ Separatist's Areas Ukrainian battalion "Donbas"

"Koleso", ex-miner, now pro-Russian separatists' group commander is overwhelmed with emotions as Russian navy flag being risen on his fighter's positions, retaken from the Ukrainian army after heavy fighting last week, August 30 2014, Savur-mohila hill, Eastern Ukraine.
“Koleso”, ex-miner, now pro-Russian separatists’ group commander is overwhelmed with emotions as Russian navy flag being risen on his fighter’s positions, retaken from the Ukrainian army after heavy fighting last week, August 30 2014, Savur-mohila hill, Eastern Ukraine.

The bricks collectors working at the territory of ruined international terminal of Luhansk airport. Each brigade need a license from one of competing battalions, headed by the pro-Russian warlords, leaders of the separatist's fighters, August 28th 2015, Luhansk, Eastern Ukraine Photographer: Dmitri Beliakov
The bricks collectors working at the territory of ruined international terminal of Luhansk airport. Each brigade need a license from one of competing battalions, headed by the pro-Russian warlords, leaders of the separatist’s fighters, August 28th 2015, Luhansk, Eastern Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier seen after breaking out of a siege by pro-Moscow separatists in Debaltsevo. The battle for strategically important railway junction Debaltsevo was one of the fiercest of the entire war in Eastern Ukraine and resulted in a defeat for the Ukrainian army, Artyomovsk, Ukraine, February 18 2015. Photographer: Dmitry Beliakov/ for Der Spiegel
A Ukrainian soldier seen after breaking out of a siege by pro-Moscow separatists in Debaltsevo.
The battle for strategically important railway junction Debaltsevo was one of the fiercest of the entire war in Eastern Ukraine and resulted in a defeat for the Ukrainian army, Artyomovsk, Ukraine, February 18 2015. Photographer: Dmitry Beliakov/ for Der Spiegel

Cossack family - a father, a son and his girlfriend and a grandfather pose for a family photo on the rebels' check-point. The war-torn Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with their industrial factories, coal mines and steel mills, until recently comprised 16% of Ukraine's GDP. Now workers, such as this cossack Gennady, 58, have turned their ancient guns against Kiev' governement, December 08 2014, Pervomaisk, Eastern Ukraine. Photographer: Dmitry Beliakov/ for Der Spiegel
Cossack family – a father, a son and his girlfriend and a grandfather pose for a family photo on the rebels’ check-point. The war-torn Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with their industrial factories, coal mines and steel mills, until recently comprised 16% of Ukraine’s GDP. Now workers, such as this cossack Gennady, 58, have turned their ancient guns against Kiev’ governement, December 08 2014, Pervomaisk, Eastern Ukraine. Photographer: Dmitry Beliakov/ for Der Spiegel

Ukraine/ Separatist's Areas Eastern Ukraine UKRAINE FIGHTING

Pro-Russian militants pray before going frontline, Lutugino, Luhansk area, Ukraine, January 30 2015. Photographer: Dmitri Beliakov
Pro-Russian militants pray before going frontline, Lutugino, Luhansk area, Ukraine, January 30 2015.
Photographer: Dmitri Beliakov

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