They Know What They Are Fighting For
    Anatolii Stepanov 8 June 2021

    They Know What They Are Fighting For

    Born in independent Ukraine, they are defending its borders—photo project by Anatolii Stepanov

    Ukraine celebrates the Day of the Defender. Praying for the living, mourning the deceased. In the seventh year of the war, we have got used to it, but there—in the war zone—they are still holding the borders, they still believe in a just victory. Among those in the military, many were born in independent, post-Soviet Ukraine, so they have no idea what it was like to live in a non-independent country. These young people are defending the only country they know and live in.

    Their portraits were presented in a project by Anatoly Stepanov, a documentary photographer from Kyiv who has been photographing the war in the east from the very beginning. Anatoly has collaborated with Reuters, Der Spiegel, The Daily Telegraph, France-Presse, and Radio Liberty. He has a medal For Assistance to the Armed Forces of Ukraine from the Ministry of Defense.

    “This war went through me. On April 12, 2014, I was in Donetsk. In the morning, I noticed the news on the internet about the seizure of the regional police department in Sloviansk. It was clearly the beginning of something completely new and different. In four hours we could already see people with machine guns walking around the building of the Sloviansk police department. ‘Wow,’ I thought to myself. ‘This is no rally. This is serious.’ I could feel the danger in my bones.

    The next day I went back to take pictures of the blocked off city. Tires were burning at checkpoints. On the way out, I was ordered to move my vehicle away from the line of fire. I turned around, and there was a man in camouflage pointing his machine gun at me. I moved the car, but remained where I was. I talked to the men, asked if I could take photos. It turned out that they were Russians. They came ‘to help the Slavs,’ ‘to protect the Orthodox from the Greek Catholics.’ They said: ‘The National Guard will soon be crossing this bridge, and we will hack them to pieces.’

    War changes people, that is obvious. It is impossible to come back from it for good. The war sucks in, one gets used to it. In 2014-15, Avdiivka turned red with anger, but now it seems that many have accepted the current state of affairs. War is dirty. You only think about doing your job. War is brutal. At first, civilians only died because they had no idea how to hide or whether they should.

    Back in 2016 a middle-aged soldier said to me: ‘We have to defend the country and let young people stay at home. They must be protected, they are the future of the country.’ Yet, I constantly met young people at the front. They have yet to turn 30, but they are defending Ukraine’s right to go its own way without asking permission from the ‘big brother.’

    In the struggle for freedom and honor of their motherland, yesterday’s carefree youth have become adult men and women who clearly understand what they are fighting for and why. For these people it is a truly patriotic war of liberation from Russian aggression.

    Back in 2014, I visited the Donbass battalion. They had just liberated Popasna, and were staying in a local school. It was hot that night and we were sleeping on the roof. Until dawn, the whole roof was buzzing. There was such elation. . . They were taking their land back from the enemy! And it was working out! Now that feeling is gone. But our young people are still fighting there for the peaceful dreams of their peers here. And when I feel like it’s all too much, I remember that these boys and girls have seen a lot more than I have. They have lost a lot more than I have. They have done a lot more than I have done. And then I summon my strength and go back there once again.”

    Vitaly “Hans”, 22, native of Zaporizhzhia. Positioned near Zholobok, January 18, 2020. The war broke out when Vitaly was 16, but he kept going to a local recruiting office and asking to be allowed to join the army. He was denied. He was also not allowed to join volunteer battalions. Once he turned 18, he signed a 5-year contract and is still fighting to this day. He says he joined the army to defend his homeland.
    Vitaly “Ampere”, 25, native of Dnipro. On the front line in the Avdiivka industrial zone, January 21, 2018. He is an orphan, raised by his grandmother. He has been fighting since 2014. In January 2015, he took part in an assault on the Butivka mine. He will never forget loading the bodies of his dead comrades torn to pieces during the storming of the mine, which succeeded only at the eighth attempt.
    Andrii, 22, native of Toretsk in the Donetsk region. Positioned near Zholobok. Even back when he was a school boy, the boy wanted to defend his homeland. In 2013, he wanted to enter the Donetsk military lyceum, but was not able to as, according to him, they demanded a bribe. With the arrival of the “Russian world” in the Donbas, he joined his friends in the resistance. They attacked separatist checkpoints several times.
    Ivan “Vakha”, 25, native of Khmelnytsky. On the front line in the Avdiivka industrial zone, January 21, 2018. Having served his military conscription in the Air Defense forces, he signed a contract.


    Alina, 22, native of Bila Tserkva. On the front line in Mariinka, January 18, 2019. She has been fighting for five years. At 17 she volunteered and joined the Aidar battalion, and at 18 she signed a contract with the Armed Forces. She studies by correspondence at the Kyiv University of Culture and Arts to become a theatre director.
    Dmytro, 21, native of Snizhnе in the Donetsk region. He has been at war for two and a half years. The boy was angry that strangers had come to his land and were destroying his country. Born in Ukraine, Dmytro does not want to live under someone else’s flag. He hopes that soon his country’s flag will fly over the liberated Donbas.
    Oleksandr “Kipish”, 21, native of Bila Tserkva. On the front line in the village of Zaitseve near Horlivka, June 21, 2018. He studied at the Agricultural Academy, majoring in Ecology and Water Resources. He joined the army as a result of a conflict in the dean’s office. Now he has been reinstated at the university and is continuing to study by correspondence.
    Vitaly “Kisa”, 22, native of the Zhytomyr region. On the front line at the Butivka mine, May 10, 2017. He took part in heavy fighting on the outskirts of Avdiivka in the winter and spring of 2017. Now he has left military service and is working at a garage.


    Volodymyr “Sheva”, 21, native of the Dnipropetrovsk region. On the front line in the village of Vodiane near Mariupol, June 11, 2018. He has been fighting for three years. Volodymyr joined the army at 18. He celebrated his 19th birthday at a military training center.
    Oleksii, 23, native of Zhytomyr. At the Orel front line position on the outskirts of Avdiivka, April 4, 2017. He took part in heavy fighting near the Avdiivka industrial zone in the winter and spring of 2017.
    Vasyl “Hairpin”, 19, native of the Zhytomyr region. At the Orel front line position on the outskirts of Avdiivka, April 4, 2017. He took part in heavy fighting near the Avdiivka industrial zone in the winter and spring of 2017.
    Vlad “Scorpio”, 21, native of Kyiv. On the front line at the Butivka mine, May 10, 2017. He took part in heavy fighting on the outskirts of Avdiivka in the winter and spring of 2017.
    Andrii, 21, native of Yasynuvata, held positions near Zholobok. He has been serving in the army for a year and a half. He signed a contract to bring freedom to his land. He dreams of carrying the Ukrainian flag through downtown Donetsk.


    Maksym, 24, native of Cherkasy. At the Orel front line position on the outskirts of Avdiivka, April 5, 2017. He took part in heavy fighting near the Avdiivka industrial zone in the winter and spring of 2017.
    Vasyl, 20, native of the Ivano-Frankivsk region, holds the Bethlehem Fire of Peace, which was brought by volunteers. On the front line near Popasna, December 28, 2017. The young man returned from hospital after being wounded in the neck by an 8-millimetre fragment from an AGL.
    Hero of Ukraine, lieutenant Vasyl Tarasiuk, 24. Orel front line position on the outskirts of Avdiivka, April 4, 2017.


    Oleksandr “Almaz”, 24, native of Sloviansk. Before the Anti-Terrorist Operation he worked as a bartender. He volunteered to join the army in June 2014, seeing what was happening in occupied Sloviansk. He divorced his wife because she could not accept his choice. Oleksandr has a young daughter. He remarried and is expecting a second child.
    “Lazar”, 21, native of Shchastia in the Luhansk region, Aidar battalion, at the position in Pivdenne. He went to the front at 18. His whole family has been helping the army since the war broke out. Then everyone decided to serve. On August 23, 2018, he was wounded by a bullet near Zholobok. Together with his friend “Nathan” he helped retake the occupied positions of Aidar. 21-year-old “Nathan” died—went first and was mowed down by a machine gun.
    Dmytro, 22, native of Khmelnytsky, Orel front line positions on the outskirts of Avdiivka, July 1, 2017. In the fall of that year his son was born. Dmytro has now left military service.
    Oleksandra, 20, native of Kharkiv. On the front line in Bakhmutka near Novotoshkivske, September 20, 2018. Since childhood she had wanted to join the army, and studied at cadet school. She has been in the military for three years since she turned 18.
    Volodymyr “Good Son”, 18, native of Zhovti Vody. On the front line near the village of Luhanske on the Svitlodarsk Salient. He suffered a shrapnel wound in the knee during mortar shelling. Once he got a knee joint prosthesis, he returned to service and started working at a military registration and enlistment office.


    Serhii, 19, native of Nikopol. On the front line in the Avdiivka industrial zone, June 14, 2018. He was raised without a father. His mother needed money for a surgery, so at the age of 18 he signed a contract and joined the army. It was difficult from the beginning, and after the first rotation in Mariinka, he started “hearing voices.” He rejoined the brigade once he left hospital. Now he has adapted, and is used to war.
    Oleksii “Kid”, 20, native of the Chernihiv region. On the front line on the outskirts of the village of Myronivske at Svitlodarsk Salient, June 19, 2018. He volunteered and joined the army at 18. Outside of the army he is a welder. He met a girl in Donbas with whom he lives in a civil partnership. His daughter is 1.5 months old.
    Serhii “Caesar”, 21, native of Sambir. On the front line in Zhovanka near Horlivka, June 14, 2018. Outside of the army he is a confectioner. He joined the army and has been fighting for two years. He says he has found his true self in the army.


    [This publication was created with support of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Ukraine. The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Norwegian government].

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