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Civilian Hardship in Donetsk

By Sergei Ilnitsky
epa’s long-time staff photographer in Moscow, Sergei Ilnitsky, was awarded 1st Prize, General News World Press Photo Contest 2015 for a picture he took in Donetsk, Ukraine. The following is an abstract of his speech delivered to the contest jury at the award ceremony in Amsterdam in April, 2015:

I arrived in Donetsk in August 2014, a city besieged by the military. A city with modern infrastructure, factories, mines, universities, an airport, with a population of over one million, was deserted and quiet. It was a creepy and frightening sight – empty streets, no cars, no people. And the reason for this emptiness was obvious – several times a day the city and its outskirts were under rocket attack and mortar fire, hardly precision-guided munition.

Residents walk past a damaged house after Ukranian army shelling downtown of Khartsyzk (24km from Donetsk), Ukraine, 18 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

Residents walk past a damaged house after Ukranian army shelling downtown of Khartsyzk (24km from Donetsk), Ukraine, 18 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

The area residents who had not left the city were hiding in their cellars and bomb shelters. They lived there without light and with little food and water for weeks.

Locals live in shelters  in Ilovaysk (50km from Donetsk), Ukraine, 14 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

Locals live in shelters in Ilovaysk (50km from Donetsk), Ukraine, 14 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

The military fired arbitrarily – on residential areas, infrastructures and schools. There were hundreds of civilians killed on the streets, in their apartments and houses, in stores and markets, in public transport. There were weeks when more civilians were killed than military.

A wounded woman lies on the street  after a mortar attack by the Ukrainian army of the center of Donetsk, Ukraine, 14 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

A wounded woman lies on the street after a mortar attack by the Ukrainian army of the center of Donetsk, Ukraine, 14 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

I was horrified by the senselessness and brutality of this war. If I had not seen it I would not have believed that it was possible in the civilized world of 21st-century Europe.
I asked myself – What am I doing here? What is my ultimate goal? Why did I leave my comfort zone where everything is familiar, relatively safe, predictable? Here life and death are divided by only seconds, meters, chance and coincidence. My role in conflict zones is to be a witness, the intermediary who transmits visual information about events occurring in this part of the world at a particular time. But I also understand that I am a connection between the big world and those who are involved in this local conflict.
In showing the truth, becoming a witness of the suffering, death and hardship brought to their home by the civil war and showing it to the world, we do not let society forget what is unjust.

A wounded local man sits near damaged block of flats after Ukranian army shelling in downtown of Donetsk, Ukraine, 23 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

A wounded local man sits near damaged block of flats after Ukranian army shelling in downtown of Donetsk, Ukraine, 23 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

Our photos do not allow people to remain indifferent to the tragedies of others. It is visual evidence of cruelty and intolerance of one human being to another. Unfortunately, we and our terrible and wonderful visual evidence are powerless and cannot change anything. There always have been wars and will be.

The body of a dead local girl, 11 year old, near a damaged block of flats after Ukranian army shelling in downtown of Donetsk, Ukraine, 23 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

The body of a dead local girl, 11 year old, near a damaged block of flats after Ukranian army shelling in downtown of Donetsk, Ukraine, 23 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

When I studied photography at university, I was taught to find different images and symbols for conveying ideas and feelings that characterize a situation. And this is what I strive to communicate. These symbolic images instantly affect the mind subconsciously, stirring the senses, and making people think. It is a connection that people can make with their own misfortunes.

Personal belongings in a destroyed home in downtown Donetsk, Ukraine, 13 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

Personal belongings in a destroyed home in downtown Donetsk, Ukraine, 13 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

Often these were objects, apartments abandoned and destroyed by explosions -deserted, lifeless. I got inside, into the personal space of the people who had lived there before the explosion. And I was amazed to see the world of things was the same – beds, dishes, toys and interiors – it was as though I walked into my own house. And in those moments I felt as though I took on the mantle of this tragedy through the subject’s world destroyed by the war.

My picture [the last picture below], which was chosen by the World Press Photo jury as first prize, general news, is also some sort of war’s still life. For me it is a very personal, symbolic image. I took it on the last day of my work in Donetsk. The city was particularly cynically bombed on that day. Ten drops, a one hour break, repeated until the evening. The first ten shells were dropped in the central area of the city with private houses. When I arrived, I saw an ambulance and doctors giving first aid to a bleeding elderly man. He was crying and whispering – ‘Vera, Vera’ – it was the name of his wife, who had been taken to the hospital earlier with a serious wound in her belly.

Medics provide first aid to a wounded man in downtown Donetsk, Ukraine, 26 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

Medics provide first aid to a wounded man in downtown Donetsk, Ukraine, 26 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

Nearby was his son. He was not wounded, but he cried too. I took some pictures and then he took my arm and led me into the house, he wanted to show me the place where a mortar shell exploded. It blasted in the front of the window when his parents were preparing to have breakfast. Everything was riddled with mortar shrapnel. I went into the kitchen where on the floor there was a large puddle of blood, broken glass and squashed tomatoes. It smelled of dust and tomatoes.

WPP: Damaged goods lie in a damaged kitchen in downtown Donetsk, Ukraine, 26 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

WPP: Damaged goods lie in a damaged kitchen in downtown Donetsk, Ukraine, 26 August 2014. epa / Sergei Ilnitsky

I was born in Donbas in the town of Mariupol, which is 90 km from Donetsk. So this place is my homeland. And the appearance of the kitchen transported me to my childhood, to my grandparents’ house — the table covered with oilcloth, metal utensils, ground-down-to-zero knifes, an old tin of coffee and white lace curtains. Everything was exactly the same. But in my childhood everything was safe and peaceful. Over there was life. And here was tragedy, destruction and death.

This photograph is simple and complex at the same time – for me it has become the symbol of this civil war, the symbol of destruction of civilian life, senseless and merciless destruction. This is a very personal photo and to be honest I didn’t think it would be understood and felt by the others. And I am glad that I was wrong.

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